LONDON — Sitting in section 126 of Wembley Stadium Sunday will be 18 of Corliss Waitman’s closest friends and family.
For the Broncos punter, who was born in Belgium and raised in the Netherlands, Sunday will be an extra special occasion. Sixteen of the 18 people attending the international game have never seen him play American football.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Waitman told The Denver Gazette. “I got a whole crew. It’s going to be fun. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
Sunday is a long time coming for Waitman, who has jumped between four teams in the NFL in the last two years. A dual citizen in the Netherlands and United States, the 27-year-old credits his journey to those who will be in attendance, especially his mom, who lives in Amsterdam and will see him play in the NFL for the first time.
“Here in Holland, a lot of people don’t know about American football,” said Waitman’s mom, Aldolphine. “People ask me, ‘What’s your son doing?’ And I tell them he plays American football and they think that’s rugby or soccer. Everybody knows now. We’re all excited to be there.”
One person, though, who deserves an immense amount of credit, according to Waitman and his mom, and who won’t be there, is his dad.
His father, José Waitman, died when Waitman was only 17 years old, suffering from a stroke. A former European professional basketball player, Waitman’s dad played a major role in his pursuit to be a professional athlete.
And he’s sure to be on Waitman’s mind Sunday, as he makes his return to Europe, achieving a dream his dad encouraged him to chase and instilling in him a mindset he still has today.
“He was very hard on me when it came to sports,” Waitman said. “Off the court, he was a great a dad. But on the court, on the field and on the track, he was very hard on me. No second place. And he helped me get here. The NFL is a very no-tolerance league. You’ve got to be very consistent and mentally strong.
“He calloused me mentally. He got me ready for this moment.”
After growing up with his mom in the Netherlands, who was an impressive track athlete herself, Waitman moved to the United States with his dad at 15 years old. He was a standout soccer and basketball player, following in his dad’s footsteps, who played basketball at South Alabama and professionally in Europe for 15 years.
Waitman didn’t play football until Chafan Marsh, the Milton High School football coach, discovered Waitman’s kicking abilities at a birthday party one summer. Marsh also coached Waitman’s father in high school.
“My uncle asked me to kick the ball as far as I could,” Waitman said. “I hit the neighborhood power lines and that’s when coach Marsh asked if I would play.”
With the support of his parents, Waitman decided to join the football team.
“It was something we knew nothing about. He didn’t know anything about the game, but he knew it was popular in America,” his mom said. “I didn’t understand it, but as long as my kids love something, I’m OK with it.”
But before Waitman ever played a snap at Milton High, his dad suffered a stroke at age 48 and died in April 2013. The only son of the family, Waitman was forced to grow up quickly at only 17 years old.
“Even when he was dying, he told him, ‘don’t forget what I taught you. You can be everything you want to be.’ I think it’s always on Corliss’ mind that he promised his dad to take care of us and to chase his dreams,” his mom said. “It was hard. And I didn’t want him to feel like he needed to take care of us. I wanted him to live his life and be young and to chase his dreams.
“But he promised his dad he would take care of the family. He grew up very fast. He became a man.”
Waitman said the loss of his dad was the hardest moment of his life, and something that still motivates him to this day.
“It was tough,” Waitman said. “But it made me a man, for sure. It made me want to take care of my sisters. I wanted to grind harder and make something out of myself.”
Following his dad’s death, Waitman was named an All-State punter his senior year of high school in 2013-14. He earned a full ride to South Alabama, his dad’s alma mater.
In 40 games at South Alabama from 2014-2018, he totaled 158 punts for 6,740 yards (42.7 avg.), with 50 punts inside the 20-yard line and 37 punts of 50 or more yards. In 2019, he transferred to Mississippi State, but was denied an extra year of eligibility, forcing him to not play football for two years.
Still, Waitman chased his dream of becoming a professional athlete.
“His dad always told him, ‘you can do anything in this world as long as you give everything. If you want something, you can do it as long as you work hard and believe in yourself,’” his mom said. “Corliss has always been that way. He was always good at everything he did because he worked hard at it. We knew he was going to achieve something great. We knew he was going to reach the top.”
In 2020, Waitman was signed by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent and spent the season on their practice squad before being waived in May 2021. The following season, he was signed and waived by both the Raiders and Patriots before returning to the Steelers and punted in two games before again being waived after the season.
On January 17, 2022, Waitman was claimed off waivers by the Denver Broncos and was set to compete with Sam Martin for the starting job in training camp. And to some people’s surprise, Waitman beat out the 10-year veteran. He has since won AFC special teams player of the week and is tied for a league-high 39 punts this season with a 40.6 net average.
Today, he credits his parents’ belief in him for his success.
“Both my parents played a big role in shaping me and molding me into the man I am today,” Waitman said. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs with my family, but I made it through it. I came from humble beginnings and without them, I don’t know where I would be.”
That’s why Sunday will be an emotional one for Waitman. He knew when he signed with the Broncos the chance of playing close to home, and the opportunity for many of his family and friends to see him play for the first time.
“I will always proud of him because I know how we raised him,” his mom said. “He’s come a far way. He’s done everything we taught him. When other people tell you that you raised your kids right, you say, ‘OK.’ But when you’re own kids tell you – Corliss told me, ‘mom, after dad passed away, you did everything to help me achieve my goals.’ That, to me, means everything.”
And Waitman’s dad is sure to be on his mind. Because while he may not be in section 108 at Wembley Stadium, he is sure to be watching.
“I know he would be so proud,” Waitman’s mom said. “He would say, ‘That’s my son! He’s a Waitman!’ He’s looking down on him, for sure. He would be so proud and excited. We all are.”