Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Another Rudy Story

Although we hear the term "student athletes" used a lot, and the term may be relevant for non-revenue sports, for the major college sports of football and basketball most of the players are at least semi-paid semi-professionals. It is true that some players start out as nonscholarship walk-ons, but even there most of them are recruited walk-ons, given preferred admission to the university if not a scholarship. And once in a while an unrecruited walk on tries out for the team and makes the team, occasionally turning into a star, such as Mike Sherrard at UCLA back in the 1980s.

However, for a player without playing aspirations to join a major university's football team, literally plucked out of the student body, at the end of his college career, is almost unprecedented. But that is the case with UCLA placekicker Tyler Gonzalez, whose only previous brush with college sports was as a student manager of the soccer team. Obviously it takes a perfect storm of circumstances for this kind of event to occur. In this case the circumstances were a combination of injuries and unexpectedly poor performances by the scholarship kicker, Kip Smith and injuries to walk-on backup kicker Joe Roberts. UCLA still had a talented kicker in Jeff Locke, who is also a top notch punter and kickoff specialist. But a new reserve kicker was needed so the call went out to the student body. One of the football managers knew that his roommate had been place kicker in high school four years previously. And Tyler Gonzalez would have loved to play soccer or football at UCLA, but he was not Division 1 caliber in either sport. So Gonzalez, a senior, went to the tryout, and when he made a field goal with the entire team watching, he was awarded a berth on the team

Just making the team was amazing, being written up in all of the local newspapers. But with Jeff Locke doing a credible job of place kicking on top of his other duties, Gonzalez was unlikely to see game time. Still I saw him warming up before the game before the games at the Rose Bowl and when I went up to the Stanford game, so at least he was getting accustomed to the atmosphere of being at the stadium with the team. Then Locke's placekicing sputtered, missing PATs and field goals. The different technique needed for place kicking was affecting him. So the coaches announced last week that Gonzalez, based on his accuracy in practice, would do extra points and short field goals against Washington State.

By game day, the Gonzalez story was big news. On the national network telecast of the game on Fox, the studio pre-game lead-in story was Gonzalez. Host Kevin Frazier invited viewers to tweet their thoughts about the soccer manager-kicker using the tag #CanHeKick. Co-host Marcus Allen literally could not keep a straight face over the thought of someone "washing soccer uniforms the week before" doing the kicking in this game. Meanwhile UCLA fans like myself were anxious. What if the game came down to a PAT or short field goal. The players said they knew Gonzalez would be nervous kicking in actual game conditions and they were trying to keep hin calm.

At first it seemed like it wouldn't matter, as Washington State marched up and down the field against UCLA, holding the ball for over 12 minutes in the first quarter to UCLA's 2 minutes plus in two "three and out" possessions. Miraculously, though, UCLA was only down 6-0 as all two WSU drives inside the UCLA 10 yard line netted the Cougars were two short field goals. Then when Kevin Prince replaced the injured Richard Brehaut in the second quarter, the Bruins scored a TD to tie the game 6-6. Gonzalez comes in to kick the PAT and it's perfect.

Bruin fans were so delirious to take the lead in a game in which they had been seemingly so badly outplayed that they probably didn't notice the activity on the field. Gonzalez' UCLA teammates mobbed him. And a big defensive lineman ran onto the field and carried Gonzalez off the field. Just like Rudy.

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