SI Vault
William Nack
August 29, 1994
For Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, last fall was a season of testing on the field and of tragedy off it—a time that helped turn a talented boy into an exemplary young man
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August 29, 1994

A Time Of Trial

For Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, last fall was a season of testing on the field and of tragedy off it—a time that helped turn a talented boy into an exemplary young man

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All along the Navy bench midshipmen at parade rest stared solemnly. On the day that Grizzard died, the team had watched a film of the Army-Navy game of four years before—the one in which kicker Frank Schenk, with Grizzard holding, drilled a 32-yarder with 11 seconds left to win the game 19-17—and the events unfolding now seemed an eerie echo of all that. On the sideline, as the timeout dwindled, senior wide receiver Jimmy Screen turned to tailback Jason Van Matre, a classmate, and said, "He'll make it. It's just like Schenk and Griz in '89."

Behind them, off by himself, Kubiak knelt on the artificial turf and beseeched the originator of grass: "Dear God, we deserve this. Let this go through."

Bucchianeri rubbed his mourning band, making sure it was secure, and headed onto the field, right to the cusp of that most cherished of his fantasies. He repeated, like a litany, the first commandment of placekicking, of which his father, Richard, had reminded him only the night before: "Keep your head down and follow through the ball." Ryan's holder, Tony Solliday, approached him on the field. "I want you to know, whether you make this or not, that you're a great kicker," Solliday said. Given the acute angle to the goalposts and his tendency to hook the ball from the right hash, Bucchianeri made an adjustment. "I aimed slightly right of the nearest goalpost," he says, "thinking it would hook between the two." He took three steps back and 1½ over and bent forward.

Just before the catch of the snap, Bucchianeri stepped forward, locking his knee as he swung his leg like a golf club, driving the outside of his toe into the ball. "It felt like a good hit," he says now, "but something felt a little different. I looked up...."

Monongahela, Pa., lies 25 miles south of Pittsburgh on the west bank of the river for which it is named, and there Ryan Bucchianeri's roots spread through a subculture of sports, football in particular, that runs as hard and deep as the coal in the ground. Five miles downriver from Monongahela is Donora, where Stan Musial and Ken Griffey Sr. were reared, and just three miles below that lies the little burg of Monessen, whose high school has already sent eight players to the NFL, including four who competed in the league at the same time in the late '60s and early '70s: the Miami Dolphins' Doug Crusan, the Baltimore Colts' Sam Havrilak, the Cincinnati Bengals' Eric Crabtree and the Washington Redskins' Bill Malinchak.

Bucchianeri grew up in a secluded corner of south Monongahela, in a three-bedroom ranch on a gentle ridge that commands a wooded valley with a creek and a waterfall. But he spent much of his youth at the car dealership and home of his grandfather. Peno Bucchianeri, on eventful Park Avenue, surely one of the most extraordinary streets in small-town America. Myron Pottios, the old Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker (1961-65), grew up in a house on Park, and just down and across the street from him was the corner house and general store of Walter Cox, whose son, Fred, kicked for the Minnesota Vikings from 1963 to '77 and is still their alltime scoring leader, with 1,653 points.

Across the street and some 200 yards down from the Coxes was the home of Peno's brother, Mike Bucchianeri, who kicked and played guard for the Green Bay Packers in the '40s. And not a quarter mile farther on, in a row of houses set along a bluff, was 512 Park Avenue. All Joe Montana had to do was step out his front door at 512 and cross the street to practice throwing footballs through a tire on a grassy stretch of land. Just down and across Park from Joe, a hefty Hail Mary away, was the boyhood home of Carl Vuono, who attended West Point, rose to become the U.S. Army Chief of Staff and built the army that fought in Desert Storm. And one of the steady visitors to the Bucchianeri homestead was a cousin of Ryan's father, Armand Niccolai, who kicked and played tackle for the Steelers from 1934 to '42.

What else was a diminutive boy—raised in such a neighborhood, with all those colorful maps to point the way—to do but kick footballs and head for a service academy? "No relative said to me, You'll be a kicker, you'll keep up the family tradition," Bucchianeri says. "It was just there. Very, very subtle."

And, at times, not so subtle. "These things were ingrained in his mind," says Ryan's mother, Rosemary, a fourth-grade teacher. "Ryan didn't have much choice. It was predestined." When Ryan was a young boy, Niccolai was already giving him instructions in the family's backyard. "Armand would turn a foam cup upside down, like a tee, and hold the football on it," says Richard Bucchianeri, a middle-school principal. "Armand taught Ryan how to kick."

By the time Ryan got to high school, he had attended one of Ray Pelfrey's kicking camps—"I learned the science of kicking," he says—and picked up a point or two at the celebrated toe of Cox, who by then had left pro football and was a local chiropractor. They practiced kicking together at Ringgold High.

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