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The Lonesome Kickers

By Anna Grearson

One hundred sweaty mammoths spread out down the sideline in a maroon sea of tree trunk legs and python arms. Two players stand off to the side, as alone in the middle of a game with a crowd of 3,800 people as a raindrop in the desert. One wears a maroon and white Springfield College football hat backwards and keeps his hands warm in the pouch attached to the belt of his maroon padded football pants. Every now and then he winds up, takes a few preparatory strides, and the foot with the soccer cleat swings through the air with the force of Paul Bunyan swinging his axe. The other stretches as methodically as a surgeon makes his initial incision and remains silent, occasionally glancing at the warfare unfolding mere yards away from him. At any moment these two can be broken from their systematic preparations, pop on a helmet, jaunt out onto the field and perform what no one else on the team can do. They are kickers Greg Switaj and Ryan Boyd, the loneliest, most confident men on the football field.

The name of the sport itself suggests that kicking is a key to success. Football games are often won or lost at the feet of the kickers. It doesn’t appear to be overly difficult. Here, kick this oblong pigskin between those uprights 20 yards over there, no problem. Not so fast.

“A lot of people will tell you that kicking is an art. It’s a very difficult job. A lot of people would say that it’s luck, but it’s kind of controlled luck,” SC place-kicker Greg Switaj explains. “Sometimes you can do everything right, and it’s still not going in, and sometimes you can do everything wrong and it goes in. It’s just because of your technique.”

Junior quarterback and Switaj’s holder, Michael Judge, echoes this sense of difficulty, explaining, “It’s really difficult because we count on him to do one thing. We expect him to make those field goals, just like we expect our blockers to make their blocks.”

Switaj, the senior placekicker with the backwards baseball hat, a D3football.com First-Team All-American in 2002, does not lack for confidence. “It’s my personal opinion that if you’re a kicker and you aren’t confident or some would say ‘cocky,’ you’re awful,” he said. This coming from a guy who, over the summer, could be found in the corner of Benedum Field kicking upwards of 50 times every day while he was here for a summer class. This same guy has gone from being self-proclaimed worst kicker in country to one of the best, and refuses to look back. “I came in freshman year and started and was probably the worst player on the team. I was definitely the worst in the conference; I was, some would say, one of the worst in the country at what I do,” Switaj explains. “I knew I couldn’t be that bad again.”

Although that may sound harsh, his beginnings here at SC truly are a mere shadow of the man he is today. In his freshman season, Switaj connected on 1 of 2 field goal attempts, as opposed to 9 of 10 in his junior All-American season of 2002. In 2000, he converted 48 of 62 Point After Touchdown (PAT) attempts, and improved drastically to 40-44 by the end of the 2002 season. The turnaround stemmed from attending kicking camps with former collegiate and professional kickers and adopting the work ethic of his peers. “I went to camp with a kid that starts for the University of North Carolina right now, and the kid, if you stick him out on the practice field, he will hit everything inside of 60 yards, and then you stick him out there during games, and he’s only hit like 4 of 10 (attempts). The kid works harder than anybody you’ve ever seen, but some people can do it and some people can’t,” Switaj commented.

So far, he’s been far from bad. This season, as of October 25, Switaj has been 46-47 in PAT attempts, while the opposition collectively has been 10-11. He has also connected on 2-of -4 field goal attempts in 2003, which is on par with the opposition, who is a collective 2-5 on this still young season.

What goes into the making of such a successful, well-oiled machine?

“They get themselves ready,” said Springfield College head football coach Mike DeLong. “I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to get a kicker ready. I can get a linebacker going, but they do a lot on their own. Every kick, every time he [Switaj] swings his leg there are points involved.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Cerasuolo works with Switaj, offering advice during practice, but generally leaves Switaj to make his own adjustments. Practice is more of a time of reflection for him, thinking about everything from the previous game to the previous kick, and how he can improve upon those swings. This mental preparation is what Switaj credits as the dividing line between the great and the good. “The mental ability separates people,” he said. “You look at the best guys in the country; some of those guys are the most mentally prepared to what they do. They’re the most steady, the most relaxed people. They’re not scared to miss.”

With such pressure to succeed, superstitions are followed as routinely and methodically as technique and skill are mastered. “I watch the game, but I try not to get into it too much,” Switaj explains. “I don’t talk to a lot of people during the game. Pre-game – I have my set amount of people that I talk to, shake their hand and stuff like that. The main thing is superstition.” Like Nomar Garciaparra adjusting his batting gloves and Jason Kidd blowing kisses to his children, one wrong move and it could be a wide or missed kick.

Superstition is also part of the package for junior punter Ryan Boyd, the methodical stretcher with the soft southern drawl, for he has his own routine. “I like to watch Varsity Blues the night before a game, and there’s one song that I have to listen to. Other than that I just try to stay focused; I do the same routine, same stretches before every game or practice. Other than that I just go out there and have fun, doing what I’m doing,” he said.

Boyd came to SC’s Benedum Field to play for Coach DeLong and defensive coordinator Jack Holik on a different train. He played soccer most of his childhood and started kicking in the ninth grade. His first collegiate games were played at Rhodes Stadium at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. “They [Elon] are really competitive, and it was tough at first,” Boyd said. “I walked on my first year, never got any playing time, and I got red-shirted. They wanted me back again, and I was flipping between the second and third strings, and it just never worked out. I decided to transfer, and it’s worked out pretty good. Now I’m starting after two years of playing in college. It’s been a long road, but I’m pleased.” So far in his SC debut, Boyd has attempted 17 punts, averaging 34.6 yards-per-punt. “Ryan has been doing a heck of a job this year. He had a tough camp, coming in as a transfer, but he’s been doing really well,” said Judge.

The key to not being afraid to miss is not being afraid to feel the wrath of your teammates. There is no such hellfire amongst the Pride football players. It’s the difference between this team and the previous squads both Switaj and Boyd have been involved with. “We’ll have bad kick-offs, everyone has a bad day now and then, but you’ll see guys who aren’t even involved with the team come up to you and be like, ‘don’t worry about it,’ ‘it happens.’ I missed an extra point this year, and had a field goal blocked, but the first thing everyone said to me on the sideline was, ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll get it back, no problem, nothing to worry about,’” Switaj said.

Most kickers don’t start out strictly as kickers, but Switaj isn’t like most kickers. “I had four brothers, and three of them played football, and I was never allowed to play because of medical issues. I was the manager for the team my freshman and sophomore years, and I didn’t start playing until my junior year,” Switaj explains. “I would just take footballs while they were doing something and just kick them because I didn’t have anything else better to do.”

The road to success hasn’t been any yellow-brick-road of any sort. When Switaj was just two months old, he was diagnosed with a coarctation of the aorta, a narrowing condition of the aorta, the main artery of the body. His father was told that Greg would never be able to play any sport whatsoever. Switaj underwent open-heart surgery at two months old, and was scheduled to go through the same procedure at the age of five. He was doing so well that the surgery was deemed unnecessary, and as he continued to see healthy progress and success, he was cleared to play baseball, and eventually hockey and football. The coarctation of the aorta was just the beginning for Switaj, as later in his elementary and middle school years he developed aortic sentosis, a condition where the aortic valve does not function properly due to sentosis (a ‘sticky’-ness). During his junior year of high school, his hockey and football seasons were cut short, as he developed an aneurism in his aorta. Today, Switaj sees a cardiologist twice a year, undergoing stress tests and EKGs (electrocardiograms), as well as continuing his ‘deal’ with his cardiologist. “As long as I keep in shape and stay healthy, he’ll let me do what I want, within limits,” Switaj explained. He knows his limits, hasn’t stopped kicking footballs since those days of high school, and he couldn’t love his job any more.

The love doesn’t stop on this team. The bond between Judge and Switaj stems from Judge’s freshman year. “He struggled his freshman year, and when I came in I looked to him, and our friendship just grew from there,” Judge said, breaking the barrier between the kickers and the other field players. Switaj credits Judge, one of his best friends and holder, for saving him all the time. He also recognizes snappers Shawn McGowan and Don Marini for getting him the ball when he needs it, and the line for protecting him while he does his job.

Switaj and Boyd have their own bond as well. “We’re always there backing each other up,” Switaj said. “We coach each other when things aren’t going well.”

The distinctions are superficial; the soccer cleat and the turf shoe, the thin legs and the red woods, the full facemask and the few bars, the backwards hat and the helmet decorated with tackle stickers. The similarities run deep; the desire to succeed, the desire to play.

Anna Grearson is a junior sports journalism major and a staff writer for the Springfield Student. This story ran on Friday, Oct. 31.
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