Smurf Turf: one point, eight seconds of terror


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Posted Thursday, November 13, 2008 - 5:57pm

Gather around my young friends and let's play football's version of "hot potato."

It goes like this: You get three friends together, and all they have to do is touch the hot potato once each in 1.8 seconds. Oh. And there is that other little detail. The last person to touch the potato does so with his foot and needs to kick it through two upright poles that might be fifty yards away.

Piece of cake, right?

It happens many times in most football games, and believe it or not, more games are won or lost by the kicker and his holder, not to mention the snapper, than probably any other player on the field. Sorry, quarterbacks. It isn't you. Ditto to the wide receivers and linebackers and running backs. Don't even think of the coaches. The scrawny kicker, the fellow pacing the sidelines and trying not to throw up as the clock runs down and his team, trailing by two points, is driving toward the goal line, has a lot to ponder. It's safe to assume that he's praying that his team just scores a touchdown so that he doesn't have to trot on to the field and pull off the 1.8 second miracle.

Here are the mechanics: the ball must be snapped about six yards to the holder, who must catch it, spin it, and place it within a diameter of a quarter on the ground. In the meantime, the kicker starts running toward the ball as soon as its snapped, swinging his leg back and punching the ball between the posts, which may look like toothpicks three miles away. When it all works, it's as beautiful as a ballet. When it doesn't, there's no shade of ugly to describe it.

The kicker, his holder and the snapper all have jobs that takes guts, and the kind of unflappable mental attitude George W. Bush only wishes he had. You're either the hero of the goat in the space of that critical 1.8 seconds.

Let's bring all of this back to our part of the world. Take last week's showdown between Texas Christian University and the University of Utah. TCU's freshman kicker, Ross Evans, missed two fields that are easily makable by many high school junior varsity kickers. TCU lost the game by three. Anyone remember Alexis Serna? He's the ex-kicker for Oregon State University, which lost by one point against the number-one rated team in the country at the time, when he missed not one, not two, but three extra points in the game. The good news is that Serna learned from his boots, literally, and went on to become an All-American kicker and plays pro football in Canada.

Then we have the rise and fall of Bill Grammatica. Bill has two brothers who kicked professionally. All three of the Grammaticas hail from Argentina, where booting soccer balls primed them for the big time of college and professional football in the USA. Bill, who played for the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL, once hit a 42-yard field goal to put his team up 3-0, and decided to celebrate by doing something that can only be described as a very bad dance move. Result? A torn ACL and his career pretty much ended that day. Last seen, he was trying to split the uprights for an arena football team, which is roughly equivalent to frying burgers at McDonald's when you'd rather be the chef at a four-star restaurant.

There's other pressure, too, beyond carrying your team on your foot. Who do you think the pretty girls want to date? The quarterback or the kicker? More than one kicker has been laughed off when he told a campus beauty that he played on the football team. "Yeah. Sure. Right. And you're Brad Pitt's cousin, I bet."

But life can be good for kickers. No one on the University of Utah's campus may be more recognized and beloved than 5'9", 178-pound kicker Louie Sakoda. Forget his size. He's definitely a big man on campus, where he is called King Louis. Louie's foot is so accurate that it's safe to say that Utah certainly wouldn't be undefeated and a Top Ten team without his amazing right foot.

Kicking can be the Achilles' heel for many teams. The second-ranked team in the country, Texas Tech, has problems with its kicker, and so, during halftime of a game against the University of Massachusetts, the student government held a contest for anybody who could kick a thirty-yard field goal.

Enter Matt Williams. He trots onto the field and cooly boots the ball through the upright. Nice story, huh? But wait. There's more.

Williams catches the notice of Tech's head coach, Mike Leach, and tells him he wants to meet with Matt next Monday. Long story short, guess who is the kicker now for Texas Tech? You've got it. Young Mr. Williams, who is a dandy 15 for 16 on his kicking this season. Two months ago, he was a fan in the crowd. Now, he may be headed to the BCS championship game.

Oh, the life of a kicker. It may be the worst job in football, but it can have its rewards. For people like Matt Williams and Louie Sakoda, sometimes, the 1.8 seconds of terror can turn into a season of joy.

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