By Harry Minium

Ethan Duane said a tearful farewell to his family in Melbourne, Australia, in January 2020, boarded a plane and headed to America to play football for Old Dominion University.

It was a dream come true for the Australian Rules Football and rugby player, who trained for nearly a year in the ProKick Australia program to learn to punt, American style. His reward was a full scholarship to play in the United States.

But little did he know that the COVID-19 pandemic would soon shut down much of the world and deny him the chance to visit with his family. Given the strict shutdowns Australia recently imposed, he doesn't know when they will be together again.

ODU coach Ricky Rahne, a family-first guy, said he can't imagine what Duane has gone through.

"He hasn't seen his family in over 20 months," he said. "That's a horrifying proposition. I almost freaked out because I didn't get to see my kids for 12 days a couple of months ago.

"Talk about making sacrifices. I can't imagine how tough that's been for him."

In addition to his parents, he has three younger sisters back home: Piper, 18; Remy, 16; and 13-year-old Maya.

"Thanks to Facetime, I get to talk to them every day," he said. "But it's not the same."

It would have been a lot tougher were it not for the thoughtfulness and kindness of Lori Wellbaum Emery; her son, ODU quarterback Hayden Wolff; and their extended family.

When ODU's players were told to go home indefinitely in March 2020, Wolff called his mom.

"Hayden said to me, 'Mom, we've got this Australian punter, and he's stuck and has nowhere to go and I was wondering if he could stay with us,' " Emery said.

Duane stayed in Emery's home for much of the next five months and by the time he returned to ODU in August 2020, he was a member of Wolff's family. Hayden and brother Weston, a tight end at Maryland, introduce him as their brother.

This being the era of blended families, Duane spent time in three homes. Jim Wolff, Hayden's father, and stepmom Anaila Wolff also welcomed Duane into their home.

So did Jeff Fraser and Besty Steiner-Fraser, parents of Wolff's longtime girlfriend Sophie Fraser, a student at Florida State.

When the team goes on break, Duane goes home with Wolff.

"He's my adopted son," said Emery, an attorney in Florida. "He's the exchange student that I got to choose.

"I just enjoy him so much. He calls me 'mum.' When he was here at Christmas, he got the same gifts as everyone else. He got his own stocking. He's 100% a part of my family."

Duane said that he's "been very lucky that Hayden Wolff and his family opened up their home and lives to me. They completely changed my life through the COVID period and eased me being homesick. They are family to me now."

ODU placekicker Dominik Soos knows what Duane is going through. The Budapest, Hungary, native had not seen his family for 18 months until May, when he was finally able to return for a joyful, three-week visit.

"It was so awesome to be home," Soos said. "I feel for Ethan. He doesn't know when he will be able to go home."

Soos said his second family in America has been the ODU team and coaches. Rahne has built a culture of caring for each other - Care, Compete, Character is the team's motto. And Soos and Duane said that's been an important factor that's kept them grounded

"We've got a very nice little community here, a great little family," Duane said. "Every member of this team, from the staff to the athletic trainers to the coaches, has reached out to us. They've taken us into their homes to make sure we're looked after.

"That's the culture we're building here. It's a family."

Duane's parents, Kirsten and Scott, as well as his sisters have also become close with Wolff's family.

"We've gotten to know his family very well through Facetime," Emery said. "They're so grateful and thankful. During holidays and birthdays, we include them as much as we can.

"He's such a great kid. I tell his parents, when they tell us they don't know how to repay us, don't worry, we know how.

"We're all coming to Australia."

When Duane's mother recently turned 50, Emery and family and Duane called her on Facetime while they were eating dinner in a restaurant.

"Everyone in the restaurant all joined in when we sang happy birthday," Emery said. "When Ethan handed the phone to me, she was bawling."

On Duane's recent 21st birthday, Emery posted a happy birthday message on Facebook.

His response says it all.

"Thanks Mum."

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