t’s like a sonic boom that sets off instantaneously, right after a touchdown is scored. The feeling that infiltrates Memorial Stadium after those 6 points are added to the scoreboard is unlike any other, with fans erupting in wild cheers knowing that their team has just gotten itself that much closer to victory.
Fans rise in celebration while players hug and high-five in congratulation. The team did it. Touchdown. The play is over.
To one player, the cheer and chatter of the post-touchdown high don’t represent the end of the play, but the beginning of one. To one player, a whole point still hangs in the balance.
There is a specific line on the roster to which a touchdown elicits anticipation rather than celebration. For a placekicker, flying under the radar while the quarterback, wide receivers and running backs shine is a daily occurrence. The “special” teams aspect of the placekicker position doesn’t make it so special in the eyes of the average viewer.
Yet, for a mere minute of an entire game, the placekicker transforms into the most important player: Their point-after-touchdown kick can be the difference between a winning team and a losing one. For a frivolous fraction of a prolonged play, the field is theirs to take, and the game is theirs to make.
With all eyes on them, they better not mess it up.
For Cal kicker Dario Longhetto, there is only a single chance each touchdown to be great and make the kick good.
It’s easy to assume that all Division I kickers came out of the womb kicking or that their first words were “it’s good,” but many special teams players don’t start out by tossing around the old pigskin.
Because they specialize in a specific asset, it’s not unusual to see kickers or punters begin their athletic journeys as rugby aficionados, or in Longhetto’s case, a bonafide striker on a soccer team.
“I didn’t pick up football until my sophomore year because I was playing other sports like soccer,” the Cal kicker said.
Starting his athletic journey in shin guards and knee socks, Longhetto didn’t realize the potential he had in shoulder pads and a helmet until later. The goal-scoring striker didn’t even consider football until halfway into his high school career. While other college athletes start in their sports as soon as they manage both feet on the ground without toppling over, perhaps with a flag or Pop Warner game, Longhetto began pretty late on the timeline.
“The earliest memory I have of football is watching it with my family when I was young, but I started kicking because I love football and I have always loved football,” Longhetto said.
The kicker was drawn to football because he saw similarities to his original sport, luckily for him, the jump between them was small.
“I was able to hone in on kicking when I was young, so I wasn’t learning something completely new,” Longhetto said.
The then-soccer star began his football journey without any professional aspirations, but seeing the similarities between a striker’s strike and a kicker’s kick, Longhetto decided to give football a shot.
Longhetto’s transition from sport to sport, though no easy feat, was quite smooth because of the extensive coaching support he received from his high school and gap year coaches.
“When I first started playing football, I wasn’t too focused on it,” Longhetto said. “Once I started playing more and actually started training with coaches and going to camps, I saw a possibility.”
Kicking became key for Longhetto, and when he made football his true priority, he began to “hone his craft.”
Right after graduation, an 18-year-old Longhetto traveled to Bridgton Academy in Maine, a college preparatory, to continue to delve into his new role on the football field. Crediting his abilities to that one-year gap, the Cal kicker worked with trainers and coaches to create strides in his relatively young kicking career.
Although Longhetto was doing all he could to perfect the internal aspects of his own athleticism, external factors such as recruiting became a distraction.
“Recruiting for specialists is pretty difficult. There’s not too many scholarships given out to high school kickers,” Longhetto said. “A lot of kickers will go through camps with third-party coaches that teach you and help in getting you ranked.”
After relentless preparation and perseverance, the eventual Cal kicker got the call every up-and-comer longs for: the offer to play for a DI institution.
An athlete is usually their worst critic. When it comes to collegiate athletics, playing for a DI school breeds self-criticism. There’s nothing like finding fault in every performance, wishing that something could have gone better and analyzing every last detail down to muscle movement.
Especially when an entire point rests on your shoulders.
Kicking can be highly stressful. Is it 6 or is it 7? To a team, a single point can make all the difference in the world. There is no other player on which such a heavy burden rests. The nerves are ever-present. The pressure is boundless. The feeling can be torturous …
Tortuous to everyone but Longhetto.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I like the pressure. I like going out there and being expected to be perfect.”
In striving to be great, Longhetto has found a love for his position’s exactness. A characteristic unique to the placekicker position, the need for perfection calls for constant improvement. Kicking is an ability that can be mastered, if one is up to the challenge.
While the task might seem daunting to most, Longhetto was always attracted to his position. Stepping out onto the field and taking a kick is all him — it’s his moment to help his team find success.
“One of the great things about kicking is it gives you an opportunity to work to be the best person you can be despite external factors,” he said.
The position is listed under special teams for a reason. There is no other role quite like that of the kicker. For one moment, the entire crowd is watching you. There is no receiver to try to make the kick complete or kick-returner to help notch another point on the scoreboard.
“Kicking is you,” Longhetto said. “Every time you step onto the field, you want to be perfect. It’s the mental and physical aspects of kicking itself and working at it every single day. Having a consistent leg swing, head placement, thought process going into every single kick is what I try to work on and get better at.”
Step back, head down, run up, swing, repeat.
This incessant need to be great by making sure every kick is good is forever written in this Cal kicker’s playbook. Consistency is his goal, and getting better is his aim.
“Nobody’s ever perfect, but you can always strive to be,” he said.
However idealistic perfection might be, Longhetto’s need to strive for the impossible could prove that if good is achievable, then great might not be too far away.
Maria Khan covers football. Contact her at [email protected].