The myth of the phoenix has its roots in thousands of years of ancient history. It is said that when the phoenix reaches the end of its life, it lights its nest of twigs on fire and burns itself spectacularly. And from the resulting pile of ashes, a baby phoenix emerges, ready to take on the world once more.
Vincenzo D’Amato understands what it means to see his dreams lit on fire and to face the challenge of rising from the rubble.
A true freshman in 2009, D’Amato was one of only three in his class to see the field in his first year at Cal. Sharing place kicking duties with his good friend Giorgio Tavecchio, D’Amato made every extra point he attempted and converted more than half of his field goals.
He hit two big field goals in the Big Game, including a 28-yarder with just three minutes left to secure the win for the Bears.
He has not attempted a field goal since that day.
Vincenzo D’Amato began the first of his journeys in a town near Sicily, Italy, the child of two American parents who jumped across the pond.
He spent the early years of his childhood playing soccer on the deserted streets, where the playing conditions paled in comparison to the well-manicured soccer fields of suburban America.
“I came from a poor little town, and we would get together and play (on the streets),” he says. “No shoes, no nothing. We’d use trash cans as goals,” D’Amato says.
He found his first love on the Sicilian streets of his small village. But at the age of 7, D’Amato and the rest of his family permanently moved back to Orange County.
His soccer career continued into elementary and middle school, where he was praised for his powerful leg but chided for his lack of mobility.
He even possessed enough talent to make the varsity team as a high school freshman, a rare accomplishment for such a young athlete.
He started kicking in his sophomore year of high school, after the head coach of the football team spotted him taking free kicks for the soccer team. The strength of his leg impressed the coach, who named him the starter for the first game.
“The first game ever, my first kick ever. I’ll never forget it,” D’Amato says. “I shanked it. It didn’t even get close.”
Kickoffs were an unexpected aspect of the job, and D’Amato still lagged slightly behind in the tackling technique department.
“I kicked off once, and the returner caught it,” D’Amato says. “He started running upfield and I was the last guy. I didn’t know how to tackle. Afterwards, a lot of people said, ‘You did the cat dive.’ I kinda just jumped on him and spread my body out.”
Overall, however, D’Amato’s year was an overwhelming success. He displayed Division-1 potential with a 49-yard field goal during the homecoming game, catching the attention of major programs across the country.
At the end of the season, D’Amato’s coach sat him down in his office and put the names of prominent Pac-12 schools on the board. Stanford. Berkeley. Oregon.
He informed D’Amato that he had the potential to play at any of these schools. Only one caveat: He’d have to quit soccer.
“I was starting to get to my peak (with soccer). It was frustrating because I’d played for all of those years,” D’Amato says. “In my heart, I think I would have liked to stick with soccer. But football gave me a great opportunity.”
D’Amato had made his choice: leave behind his lifelong love for a sport that, just months before, he had never even considered playing.
He received his offer from Cal after his sophomore season, ensuring his decision would not be one of regret.
“I don’t regret the decision one bit,” D’Amato says. “I think it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve been blessed.”
After his moderately successful freshman campaign at Cal, D’Amato set out to win the starting job. He trained tirelessly in the offseason, often with Tavecchio by his side.
The two Italians worked out their legs and debated the respective merits of their favorite Serie A football clubs: D’Amato favored Juventus, Tavecchio, Inter.
When fall camp came around, the two competed for the starting position. D’Amato and Tavecchio were in fierce competition, with neither significantly outplaying the other.
Tavecchio’s extra year of experience and slight edge in accuracy won him the job, leaving D’Amato as the backup kicker. He saw the field just once his sophomore season, for one kickoff.
“I went through a little mental breakdown after that year,” D’Amato says. “I kept asking myself, ‘Am I good enough to play at this level?’
“As a kicker, it’s really easy to get in your own head. You miss one and all of the sudden you’re thinking ‘Oh no, I’m going to miss, I’m going to miss.’”
The most important thing in D’Amato’s life is succeeding at kicking a football through a pair of goalposts.
The kicker differs from the running back, a position in which the line between good and bad varies by degrees. He either makes kicks, or he doesn’t.
Win the job, or spend a year in a vicious cycle of self-doubt with no midterm or job offer in the near future as an opportunity for redemption; just simply coping, day after day, with the cold and tortorous reality of failure, until that one shot comes again.
D’Amato spent hours and hours refining the mental aspect of his game the following offseason. In addition to his daily lifting and kicking schedule, he would visualize game scenarios and attempt to gain back the confidence he lost in the previous year.
But when decision time came around, D’Amato was once again edged out.
With Tavecchio sure to keep the job through his senior season, D’Amato made the decision to sit out the season and preserve a year of eligibility.
Once again, he’d have a year to think over exactly what went wrong.
Tavecchio graduated in the spring and moved on to the world of professional kicking with the San Francisco 49ers.
But D’Amato remains, having beat out three other kickers to win the starting gig.
No backup was listed on the depth chart for the Nevada game.
“He’s kicked really well in camp,” Tedford says of D’Amato. “I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Two years of misery. Of waiting. Of sitting and stewing and going over should haves and could haves in his head. Day after day, thinking over the shattered dreams residing in the annals of his collected experiences.
But like the phoenix, D’Amato has the opportunity to rise triumphantly and start anew.
After all, the most beautiful of these birds often emerge from the most fiery of explosions.