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Kick-back job

Lost amid talk of end-of-year superlatives, Serna's story is truly special

Posted: Monday December 27, 2004 1:00PM; Updated: Monday December 27, 2004 2:02PM
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Alexis Serna
Oregon State's Alexis Serna was in agony after blowing an OT PAT against LSU on Sept. 4.

Much as it pains me, I cannot vote against Sports Illustrated's pick of the Boston Red Sox as Sportsmen of the Year. Similarly, I cannot say that in any other year since 1918 Michael Phelps, or perhaps Lance Armstrong, was not a worthy choice. Go ahead and cast a vote for Peyton Manning, or even the U.S. Olympic women's softball team, and I won't contest it.

The problem is that when you traffic in only superlatives of achievement, a few of the year's better athlete stories risk being forgotten. Last Thursday afternoon I sat in the lobby of the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Hilton recounting one such tale with Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna.

You remember Serna. On the first Saturday of the college football season, Sept. 4, Oregon State tromped into Death Valley to play defending co-national champion LSU. The Beavers were heavy underdogs. All night long they outplayed the Tigers, however. Their only liability that evening was Serna, a walk-on redshirt freshman who missed all three PATs he attempted. LSU won, in overtime, 22-21.

Three botched extra points. In his first college football game. Even Charles Schulz had more compassion than to assign Charlie Brown such a dreadful performance.

"I didn't feel safe," Serna, who is 5-foot-7, 157 pounds, said about being in the Oregon State locker room after the game. That's what he said. He didn't feel safe in his own locker room. "Guys were yelling at me. Other people were holding them back. I didn't know what they were going to do."

In the heat of the moment, it was hard to blame Serna's teammates. Oregon State, on national television, had basically beaten the defending co-national champs on their own turf, one of the toughest stadiums in the nation for visiting teams. It likely would have been the most important win in OSU history. And here some freshman walk-on had blown the game for the Beavers.

Serna was, understandably, crushed. "I was sprawled out on the locker room floor, on my belly, crying," he remembers. "Finally one of the coaches told me to pick myself up and take a shower." He didn't know that ESPN had an overhead camera in the visitors' locker room and that the entire country could watch his meltdown.

It was that kind of night for Serna. His first two PATs hit the right upright. "I practice hitting the uprights to work on my accuracy," says the Fontana, Calif., native. "You know how hard it is to hit two in a row?"

After Serna missed his first PAT, his older sister, Olivia, phoned and left a humorous message on his cell phone. "She reminded me that I'm supposed to kick it between the uprights," said the good-natured Serna. "Later, she felt really bad about having left that."

So imagine waking up as Alexis Serna in Corvallis, Ore., on the morning of Sept. 5. You don't have a scholarship. You've only dressed for one game in your college career and the entire country -- yourself included -- is blaming you for Oregon State's loss the night before. And someone at ESPN refers to any missed PAT as "pulling an Alexis Serna." You are 19 years old.

"No matter what," says Serna, "no matter what anyone tries to tell me to make me feel better, I'll still say I lost that game. But I still had confidence in myself."

So what did Serna do after the worst night of his life? He recovered. After sitting out the Beavers' loss at Boise State -- "The fans there cheered for me during warm-ups," he recalls. "It was funny ..." -- he got his chance again. And here is what he has done since:

• converted 24 of 24 PAT attempts
• converted 16 of 17 field goal attempts, including a 55-yarder at Washington on Oct. 16. In that game, as well as in the Civil War game versus Oregon on Nov. 20 , Serna kicked a school-record five field goals (his lone miss was a 41-yarder at Arizona).

In other words, since his Death Valley Daze, Serna has converted 40 of 41 kicks. He knows that he'll be remembered for the LSU debacle, though. At Stanford on Nov. 13, the Beavers led 21-19 with 1:23 to play when Serna trotted onto the field for a kick that would stretch OSU's lead to five points. "The Stanford players [not fans, players!] were chanting 'LSU! LSU!'" Serna recalls. "As soon as I kicked that one, I knew it was good. I turned to the Stanford bench and raised my arms to give them the 'It's good' signal."

Before the season, Serna wrote down three goals for his first year of college football: make some type of All-America team, make second-team All-Pac-10 and earn a scholarship at OSU. As unlikely as that may have seemed on Sept. 5, Serna was named Honorable Mention All-America by College FootballNews.com. He was named second-team All-Pac-10 (even though his numbers were superior to the UCLA kicker, Justin Medlock, who was named first team). And in late November, Serna walked into Beaver head coach Mike Riley's office to ask -- can you imagine him having done this two months earlier? -- if he would be earning a scholarship. If not, he would have to transfer.

Riley awarded him a scholarship.

Not a bad season for a place-kicker who began the season in infamy. "I got a lot of support from people I've never even met," Serna said, alluding to the letters, e-mails and phone calls (including one from NFL veteran John Carney) he received. "There's one motivational quote someone gave me that I really like. He wrote, 'Keep your head up, except when you're kicking'."

Eight in the Box

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1. Yeah, just in case you missed it, 11:22 remained in the fourth quarter of the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 21 when Syracuse, trailing 49-12, chose to go for two. And that was the right move. Because on the coach's flip chart it says that if the differential is 37 points, you definitely go for the deuce. That way you'll only need four more touchdowns (and as many two-point conversions) plus a field goal to tie the score. Though if I'm the kicker and you've just passed me by on five consecutive PATs, I might just go tell you to go kick the damn field goal yourself.

2. Took four of my nieces to see The Incredibles this week and lurved it. Writer-director Brad Bird now enters my "Hall of People Who Get It" along with Aaron Sorkin, David Letterman, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David. And how on the money was that riff about "monologuing"?

Here's a priceless line that's incredibly applicable to the bowl season:

Helen "Elastigirl" Parr (to her son): "Everybody is special, Dash."

Dashiell "Dash" Parr: "That's just another way of saying nobody is."

I thought of that exchange as I was watching Hawaii, a team that lost games by 31, 56 and 66 points this season, play UAB in a bowl game on Christmas Eve ... and win, by 29 points.

3. Was watching the 1990 film Singles the other night, and realized that Paul Giamatti, who will likely be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Sideways, makes his film debut here. It's a cameo in a restaurant. Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick are on a first/lunch date. Giamatti is in the adjacent booth practically devouring his own girlfriend's face (think the escape scene in The Silence of the Lambs, only less bloody). Finally, Giamatti comes up for air and notices Scott staring at him. "What?!?" he asks with annoyed exasperation.

I checked Giamatti's credits on IMDB. In Singles he is credited as "kissing man", a pseudonym to which I too aspire.

4. For no good reason, here is a not-hip 38-year-old's 10 favorite songs (in no order) of the past year. Some of them were released in 2003, but this was the first year that I heard them:

1. C'mon C'mon (Von Bondies): Achieves highest possible marks on the "Am-I-doing-the-rooster-strut-while-I'm-driving-as-I-listen-to-this-tune?" scale.

2. Light & Day/Reach for the Sun (The Polyphonic Spree): Heard this Up With People-friendly tune on an episode of Scrubs and ran right out and bought the album. Played it the next day for Emeka Okafor as we drove around Storrs, Conn., and he was gracious enough not to laugh me out of the car.

3. Amsterdam (Guster): Just a perfect pop song.

4. Kissing the Lipless (The Shins): By the time The Shins achieve the widespread popularity that they deserve, they won't be writing songs this good. That's known as the REM Effect.

5. Maps (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs): If I were a cool Rolling Stone reviewer, I'd write something like "it has an addictive bass line," but then I'd also be obligated to write an anti-Bush screed in the same paragraph. That's just editorial procedure at RS.

6. Mr. Brightside (The Killers): Is there any awards association more out of touch than the Grammys? How does this song not even get nominated?

7. All Because of You (U2): Vertigo is more popular, but I think if you do the long division on this one (Ass-kicking capacity divided by Bono's annoying nod to Spanglish), the quotient on this tune is higher.

8. Switchblade (Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers) Textbook example of how to write a verse-chorus, verse-chorus tune, amping up the verse each time until the final stanza, when you bare-bones it to achieve maximum effect.

9 & 10 (tie). Take Me Out (Franz Ferdinand)/ Float On (Modest Mouse): Because this list, in true Nigel Tufnel fashion, must go to 11.

11. Vindicated (Dashboard Confessional): I know, I know, I KNOW! I should be embarrassed. In the words of grunge immortal Kurt Cobain, "What else can I be? All apologies."

How could I include a sell-out blockbuster movie soundtrack tune on this list? I am selfish. I am wrong. Or am I right? (I swear I'm right/swear I knew it all along). Listen, I'm not proud, but at least it's not 100 Years.

5. Wyoming's final fourth-down play in the Las Vegas Bowl against UCLA was the most "Are you kidding me?" conversion I've seen since Madonna began donning Kabbalah strings. No way that quarterback sneak gained positive yardage.

Still, I'm happy for Cowboys coach Joe Glenn, a charismatic guy. A lot of schools (who shall remain nameless) that were shopping for a new coach recently are going to wish that they'd hired Glenn a year or two from now. A few years ago I covered the Div. II national championship game, when Glenn was coaching the University of Northern Colorado. On the eve of the contest he "game-planned" by playing the piano in the hotel lobby for friends and family. The next afternoon UNC beat New Haven, 51-0.

Glenn won a pair of national championships at UNC as well as a national title at I-AA Montana. The next school that hires him will be glad that it did.

6. I was watching Slamball the other night and -- no, wait, it was the Phoenix Suns. The 23-3 Suns are, as former Sun Charles Barkley said recently, "built for the regular season," but they are still more fun to watch than any team in the NBA. When's the last time, a third of the way through the season, the youngest team in the league also had the league's best record? And Steve Nash, a pseudo-prodigal Sun (he began his career in Phoenix) is the league MVP thus far.

7. Don't know about "days of Auld Lang Syne," but I do know that the answer to "Should old acquaintances be forgot?" is no. Two of the best acquaintances I've met in this job are Minnesota Vikings punter Darren Bennett and Guinness Book world record-holder (who holds the most Guinness world records) Ashrita Furman. Happy New Year to them both!

8. On that subject, here's a vote for the three most memorable New Year's Eve movie scenes:

3. Sunset Boulevard: Gloria Swanson invites William Holden to a New Year's Eve party. Only after he arrives does Holden realize it's a party for two. Swanson's character, by the way, may be what is now referred to as an "urban cougar."

2. When Harry Met Sally: Billy Crystal runs through the streets of Manhattan to profess his love to Meg Ryan at the stroke of midnight. Years later she will leave him for some 18th-century fop named Leopold.

1. The Godfather, Part II: I dare you to try this come Friday night if you're at a party. When midnight hits, grab the closest person to you by placing one hand behind each ear. Kiss that person uncomfortably hard on the lips and say, "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!"

And let me know how that goes for you.