Husky kickers Van Soderberg and Tristan Vizcaino have company with slow starts: Several kickers have gone on to thrive in their careers after early struggles, some have even earned All-America status.
The first three kicks of his Husky career were misses, and all were from distances a backup linebacker could have connected from. A 27-yard field goal? Nope. A 21-yard field goal? Uh uh. An extra point? Sorry, that didn’t go through, either.
So what do you call someone who whiffs on three straight chip shots to open his college career? Simple — the greatest kicker in Washington history.
Chuck Nelson’s first half against Air Force in 1980 couldn’t be called a nightmare, because not even dreams are that cruel. His leg betrayed thousands of hours of practice and forced his coach to insert his backup.
Nelson got one more chance that day, though, and drilled a 47-yarder on his next attempt. Three years later, he was an All-American headed for the NFL.
Still, the MVP of the ’82 Huskies often wonders what would have happened had he missed that next attempt. Patience for placekickers might be lower than any position in sports, let alone football.
“I’ve been forever curious how things would have turned out had I missed it,” said Nelson, whose 30 straight field goals still stand as an NCAA record. “I might never have been given a chance again.”
Nelson’s story is pertinent for two reasons. First, it gives you a glimpse into the mental anguish placekickers consistently endure. Former Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud — a seven-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler — once told Nelson that he always felt as though he were three misses away from being cut.
But secondly, it demonstrates how quickly demons can be exorcised — how a kicker’s confidence can blossom with just one blast through the uprights.
Stay true to yourself
They’re just kids, so there’s no need to harp on it for long, but few will dispute it’s been a rocky season for Washington kickers Tristan Vizcaino and Van Soderberg. The former, a senior, has missed five of his nine field-goal attempts. The latter, a freshman, has missed two of three — both coming in a 13-7 loss to Arizona State, where he hooked one from 27 yards and pushed another from 21.
But if you’ll remember, those were the exact same distances Nelson missed from in his debut. So he’s qualified to offer some advice.
“The key is to find the right combination between determination and relaxation,” Nelson said. “The main purpose of concentration and focus is to find a way to get your brain out of the way and let your body do what it’s supposed to.”
Seahawks kicker Blair Walsh can speak to that. As a Viking, his 27-yard hook (what is it about 27 yards?) in the 2015 wild-card round allowed the Seahawks to advance in the playoffs. This was the guy who twice led the NFL in field goals made, and hit on 87.2 percent of his attempts in 2015. The next year? Just 12 of 16 on field goals, and 15 of 19 on extra points.
Clearly, his self-belief had taken a couple jabs and an uppercut. So he went and watched old games where he shined, then reminded himself — you’re still that guy.
“We’ve all been there. The biggest part is to stay true to yourself,” said Walsh, who joined Seattle this offseason and is 10 for 11 on field-goal attempts this year. “I just had to commit to having that attitude that I’m the best, and I had a lot to draw on.”
It’s possible that no kicker has felt as low as Oregon State’s Alexis Serna did in September 2004. In his first college game, Serna missed all three of his point-after attempts against No. 3 LSU, including one to tie the score with no time left.
The pain Serna felt was evident, as he threw his helmet to the ground in despair. Two years later, he won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker, and holds the Oregon State record for most consecutive extra points made with 144.
Two things happened that weekend.
First, the competitor within Serna was awakened. In that moment, he told himself that he was never going to miss a kick again, thereby flipping his fear into fuel. But perhaps more significant than his inner fire was his inner circle.
When Serna got back to Corvallis the next day, he went out with his sister, her husband and a few of their friends. That morning, his picture was posted on just about every newspaper in the country, but the friends and family he was having a bite with? None of them knew what had happened.
“That put things in perspective,” said Serna, who went on to kick in the CFL. “That’s when I realized it’s just a game. It helped me relax and get my mind right for the following week.”
In terms of opportunities per game and lack of forgiveness from fans, there is no position in sports quite like placekicker. The kids from Washington probably have a bit more clutter in their headspace than they’re used to right now.
The good news is that it can get better. In fact, it usually does.