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U2 released a song in 2001 called "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," and the accompanying video focuses on a fictional kicker named Paul Hewson, who clanks a game-winning field goal off the right post with three seconds left. While Bono wails from the stands, Hewson replays the kick in his head, driving himself so batty he starts to imagine the holder as a giant bunny rabbit. The video ends with a shot of Hewson in a mail carrier uniform, some 40 years down the road, set to the verse: "It's just a moment. This time will pass." Paul Hewson, U2 devotees may recall, is Bono's given name.
The idol of every distraught college kicker stands 5'7" and is the assistant manager at a Sherwin Williams in Portland. A former Oregon State walk-on, Alexis Serna worked the graveyard shift as a janitor to make tuition, and his first game was on national television at LSU in 2004. Serna missed three extra points, the last in overtime, and the Beavers lost by one. As he cried in the locker room afterward, defensive players yelled at him, and he couldn't look any of them in the eye. Kickers start at the bottom of the college football hierarchy, building goodwill three points at a time, but Serna had none in reserve. One e-mail from a supposed fan read, "Your parents are embarrassed of you." Another: "You should go kill yourself."
Serna also received a letter from a 12-year-old boy in Spokane named Austan Pierce, who was suffering from soft-tissue bone cancer. He encouraged the kicker to move on. Serna analyzed his gaffes with help from then Saints kicker John Carney and identified his problem. Usually, a kicker takes about 1.35 seconds between snap and contact. At LSU, Serna had taken about 1.19. "I was way too excited and moving way too fast," he says. "I wasn't seeing the ball." He was benched for a game, and when he returned against New Mexico, he was booed when he attempted a field goal. A week later, against Arizona State, he attempted his first extra point. "I was super scared; my body was really hot; and I didn't know how I was going to walk up to the ball," Serna says. He made that extra point, as well as every other one he tried over the next four years, 144 straight. He won the Lou Groza Award in 2005, given to the nation's premier kicker, and when he was introduced on Senior Day in '07, the crowd at Reser Stadium grew so loud he couldn't hear the public-address announcer say his name.
From Oregon State to the CFL, Serna wrote the initials AP on his thumbs before every game, to remember Austan Pierce. Serna beams as he talks about Pierce, whose left leg was amputated in high school, but who now plays wheelchair basketball at Texas-Arlington. Serna still follows the Pac-12, and when Stanford freshman Jordan Williamson missed three field goals in the Fiesta Bowl, including a 35-yard game-winner at the end of regulation and a 43-yarder in overtime, he sent him a Facebook message that read in part: "You know you're a better kicker than that."
Williamson was one of the best last fall, making 11 of 12 field goals, before he tore a muscle in his groin and started hooking every ball left. "Part of our job is counseling," says former UCLA kicker Chris Sailer, who trains hundreds of FBS kickers, including Williamson. "A lot of guys get a job as a young player, falter early and can't get over it. I see that all the time." Since 1978, when Division I split, college field goal percentages have climbed from 58.8 to a record 73.8 in 2010, in part because so many kickers work with private coaches like Sailer. However, they still lag well behind their NFL brethren, who made 82.9% of field goals in '11.
Last Friday night at Stanford Stadium, with two seconds remaining in the first half against San Jose State, Williamson trotted out for his first field goal since the Fiesta Bowl. "It's still in my mind, and I think it always will be," Williamson said. "But it has to motivate you instead of break you." As he spoke, he was wearing a Fiesta Bowl cap. Several kickers contacted for this story asked about Williamson. They wanted to know how he was doing and whether he received their notes. They said they would watch him this season.
Out on the field Williamson took three steps back and two to the left, pausing only to draw an imaginary line between the uprights. He wiggled his arms, the way he always does, as if he's shaking out the tension. The field goal was 46 yards, the longest of Williamson's career, spotted on the troublesome left hash. He cleared his mind and swung his right leg.
He drilled it.