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Last week, ESPN began running a short video of a high school football player catching a kickoff and immediately running into the goalpost at the back of his own end zone. The blooper aspect of the clip got it heavy rotation.
What I found most striking about the viral video, however, was the distance of the kick: The ball traveled almost 70 yards in the air. When I saw that the incident happened locally—the kicker was Michael Dola from Arlington’s Yorktown High—my first thought was: “I bet Paul Woodside coached him!”
“Michael Dola! He’s one of my guys!” Woodside, the region’s pre-eminent kicking coach, tells me as soon as I mention the clip. “Big leg! Great kid! Awesome!”
Woodside’s guys are kicking awesomely all over the place. He drove to Morgantown, W.Va., on Saturday to watch West Virginia trounce Maryland. Both the WVU punter, Gregg Pugnetti of W.T. Woodson, and the Mountaineers’ field goal kicker, Tyler Bitancurt of West Springfield, have trained with Woodside since high school.
Pugnetti, a fifth-year senior, kept kicking even though he’d never gotten on the field through his first four years at the school. He made his college football debut two weeks ago. He hit three punts more than 50 yards, and had two downed at the 1-yard line. Bitancurt, now a sophomore, made 13 of 15 field goal attempts last year and was named first team all-Big East placekicker as a freshman. “I told the coaches he’ll be the best kicker West Virginia ever had,” Woodside says of Bitancurt.
For now, Woodside himself holds that honor. Now 47, he was an All-American kicker for WVU in the early 1980s. He broke the NCAA record for field goals in a season (28) as a sophomore, and still holds several school records (among the marks: career scoring, career field goals, field goal accuracy, and consecutive FGs made; he also has the two longest FGs in WVU history).
The Buffalo Bills drafted Woodside in 1985. He was beaten out by Scott Norwood, who would go on to infamy in the 1991 Super Bowl for missing the last-second field goal that made “Wide Right!” an NFL taunt.
Woodside says he studied the craft intensely after getting cut by several more pro squads. He ultimately found more satisfaction teaching kicking than he ever got out of actually kicking.
Several of his students went further than he did. Nick Novak, former Maryland and Redskins kicker, and Shayne Graham, a Virginia Tech product and NFL vet who was recently released by the Baltimore Ravens, are but two Woodside guys who went pro.
Not all of Woodside’s guys are guys: The DC Divas, the powerhouse semi-pro women’s football franchise, brought Woodside in to teach. “The wide receivers and linemen were heckling us, like, ‘Oh, look at the stupid kickers!’” he says. “That really made me laugh: Male or female, there is no respect for kickers.”
And not all of Woodside’s guys are even kickers, at least when he first gets them. Author and NPR sports contributor Stefan Fatsis trained with Woodside to prepare for what would become A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, his book about spending the summer of 2006 kicking for Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos.
“Paul will make you believe you can kick a 70-yard kickoff or get a Division 1 scholarship if you’re a high school kid,” Fatsis says, “or, in my case, somebody who had never kicked, that I could kick a 40-yard field goal. And, guess what? I could kick a 40-yard field goal! He is one of my favorite people on the planet.”
No aspect of high school football has improved in the last few decades more than the kicking game. Historically, schoolboy kickers were so inept that field goal attempts were rare and two-point conversions common. Kicking coaches were nonexistent around here when Woodside was growing up in Northern Virginia.
The football camp Woodside attended didn’t help much, either. “The kicking ‘expert’ told me, ‘You won’t ever be good!’ and basically said to go find something else to do,” he says. (Fatsis’ book details an episode in which that same camp counselor wrote a letter offering up his services to Woodside after he missed a last-second 52-yarder by inches in a loss to Dan Marino and second-ranked Pittsburgh on national TV.)
While at Falls Church High School, Woodside would drag a bag of footballs out to the practice field to kick during lunch. Sometimes the school’s wrestling coach would shag balls for him and offer support. (Full disclosure: I was a truly offensive lineman for FCHS while Woodside kicked there.)
Nowadays, kicking camps are everywhere. And the kicker at any decent football program in the region has a personal trainer—an example of how the modern American class dichotomy is transforming a position whose local stars were often immigrants (where have you gone, Joaquin Zendejas?) rather than native-born kids whose parents could afford private coaching. A result: kids booting kickoffs to the back of the end zone.
“Wherever there’s money, there are kicking camps now,” says Woodside. “And there’s a lot of money here.”
Woodside can’t kick anymore. He walks with a limp, because of the damage all those years of kicking with bad form did to his plant leg and left hip. But his coaching renown grows and grows. Dola says Woodside’s mind is more important to the workouts than his leg.
“I Googled Paul’s accomplishments before I went to him, and was just in awe,” says Dola. “But of all our drills, most of them don’t involve a goalpost. Kicking is so taxing mentally, and Paul tells you to remember the good things, remember your best kicks, forget the mistakes. He’s been great for me.”
His protégés speak of Woodside like Mahatma Gandhi, so it’s fitting that he’s never tried to make a living as a kicking teacher. He’s now in his 25th year with UPS.
“He wouldn’t take any money from me for all the one-on-one sessions,” says Fatsis. “He told me he loved that I believed that I could kick a football, and that I wanted to spread the gospel of the kicker. So I wanted to do this for Paul. When I was with the Broncos and made a kick, I didn’t point up to the sky like some kickers do; I thought about Paul.”
Woodside declines to answer a question about how many of his guys have made it the NFL.
“Making the NFL isn’t the standard,” he says. “Success could be getting to play high school football, or getting into some school you wouldn’t have gotten into without the kicking. I love hearing about my guys who got what they wanted.”
So Woodside must really be proud of his guy David Ruffer. Ruffer , who went to high school at Gonzaga but didn’t play football, transferred from William & Mary to Notre Dame after his freshman year to try to realize a lifelong dream of playing for the Irish. Former Coach Charlie Weis initially dissuaded Ruffer from trying out, so Ruffer kicked for his dorm’s intramural squad. Word about the dorm leaguer’s big leg made it back to Weis’ staff in the middle of the 2008 season. When all the kickers on the Irish roster struggled, Ruffer got his tryout.
Forget Rudy: Ruffer, now a red-shirt junior, is Notre Dame’s starting kicker this season and has hit 10 straight FGs.
Woodside is also enjoying watching Dola’s renown go viral along with that goofy YouTube video. The young kicker’s current post-high school goal is to play for an Ivy League school.
“Michael has all the tools—the size and strength you can’t coach—but it’s a matter of minding them,” says Woodside. “Michael can take this as far as he wants. It’s all up to him.”
“OK, him and the snapper,” Woodside says.
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