So, have you heard the one about the kicker?
No matter how many sports joke books there are, there's a good chance every one of them has a wisecrack about football placekickers. You know, the skinny little guys with clean uniforms? The guys who aren't really part of the team? Who kick the ball because they can't play real football?
But these jokes and stereotypes are becoming old-think in the world of college and professional football. More and more, kickers are being accepted as well-rounded athletes with skills that are critical to a team's success. As part of that shift in attitudes, younger athletes are becoming interested in kicking — and showing promise.
Take 15-year-old Dominic Granieri, an eighth grader in the northern California town of Meadow Vista. He's already 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds. That's nearly the average size of today's NFL kickers. And Granieri sounds ready to take on the stereotype of the scrawny kicker.
"If somebody's returning the ball," he says, "and they say, 'Oh, it's just the kicker,' they might let up a little bit. And then, you know, that's my chance to kind of pop him or whatever — you know, just to give him a little surprise."
Don't let the menacing fool you. Granieri is a mild-mannered kid who didn't think his booming, soccer-style kicks were all that special until earlier this year, when he was invited to a series of all-star games in San Antonio, Texas, for seventh- and eighth-graders. He kicked well during the games — just missing a 55-yard field goal — and he got noticed.
"I don't know if people were joking or not," he says, "but they said, 'Oh, here, sign my helmet because you probably will go pro someday.' Or, you know, 'Good luck in college' or 'Good luck in the pros."'
Granieri and his father, Tom, like to practice on a muddy football field near their home. With his long-in-the-back hair whipping in the breeze, Dominic lines up a 35-yard field goal by looking beyond the space between the goal posts to a spot kickers call the aiming point.
With an easy, powerful swing of his leg, Granieri drills the ball through the uprights. "Mission accomplished," he says.
Granieri is not alone in his quest to become a top kicker. Other young athletes around the country are showing similar promise and focus.
Jeff Hays, a kicking instructor who has worked from youth levels to the NFL, says, "There's a greater body of knowledge that's out there about kicking, and so for a young kid, it's much easier to get good instruction. And I give the soccer culture some credit. You know, you have more people that're being exposed to kicking and associating kicking with being a very athletic ... skill."
This weekend in Sacramento, Hays got to see Granieri kick for the first time. They were at an invitation-only instructional camp called Football University. Hays says he was impressed with Granieri, and that, with work, Granieri can be as good as he wants to be.
Granieri and a growing number of others want to be very good indeed. After all, today's NFL kickers make, on average, more than a million dollars a year.
And no one's joking about that.