LARAMIE, Wyo. -
Freshman walk-on . . . Played soccer until his junior year at Radnor High School, outside Philadelphia . . . Had just two field goal attempts his senior season . . . Unrecruited out of high school, contacted about 65 schools looking for a chance . . . Attracted little interest and no scholarship offers . . .
This biographical sketch of University of Wyoming kicker Ian Watts didn't appear in the Cowboys' preason football guide, of course. Even if it had, it wouldn't have been the sort of resumé that would have led any sane person to suspect that a few months later Watts would have:
Gone 10-for-11 in field-goal attempts, best percentage in the Mountain West Conference;
Gone 3-for-3 in field goal attempts against UNLV on Sept. 26, including the game-winner with 4 minutes, 21 seconds left, in the first tries of his college career;
Done it again at San Diego State on Nov. 14, this time booting it through with 23 seconds remaining to break a tie;
Kicked his third game-winner on Nov. 27 in the annual Border War at Colorado State with 1:27 to go, a boot that put the Cowboys (6-6) in the New Mexico Bowl today (ESPN, 4:30 p.m.) against Fresno State (8-4).
That's precisely what happened, though, a remarkable believe-it-or-not saga featuring plenty of perseverance and a dash of serendipity.
"It's kind of a great story," Radnor football coach Tom Ryan said.
Kickers are often reduced to here's-the-snap-the-kick-is-up-it's-good. Watts' story is packed with enough twists and turns that could have made the whole thing unravel at several points.
To begin with, soccer was his first love. He was good at it. When he was in eighth grade, his family lived in Seattle. One day his father, Bob, had a suggestion.
"Dad said, 'Since you have such a good leg, you should try kicking a football.' So we messed around a little bit for a few days, kicking footballs a little bit.' I said, 'Everyone wants me to go out for football.' He said, 'Why don't you do it?' '' Ian remembered after a late-season game against TCU at War Memorial Stadium.
"I said, 'Because I want to play soccer.' "
He decided to give it a try, almost by default, as a junior after Ryan visited soccer practice and asked whether anybody wanted to try out as a kicker for the football team. "And everyone points to me, because I always had the leg. I was the one who scored from half field. I took all the goal kicks and corner kicks," Watts said.
He only kicked off the rest of that season, attending soccer practice and then running over to catch the end of football practice. And somewhere along the line, something clicked.
"In a short period of time, he really took to football," Bob Watts said. "The camaraderie. Something about it. He just loved it, and he decided that he just wanted to play football exclusively."
Said Radnor soccer coach Kyle Shilcock-Elliott: "As far as soccer went, I felt he had a lot of potential. His junior year, he ended up playing mostly JV, because he was in that awkward growth stage. His strongest asset, absolutely, was always the way he could strike a ball. He was always way above average. I missed having him as a senior, but he obviously made a great choice."
Part of the calculation was pragmatic, too. Bob Watts owns a small business. Financial aid was a consideration.
"In Division I soccer, they have less than two scholarships per school. And football has, like, 85," Ian noted.
Trouble was, the Raiders didn't exactly showcase his talents in the fall of 2008. He got a chance to try only a pair of three-pointers. At least he made both.
"We didn't have much opportunity to kick field goals," Ryan said. "But he was good at kickoffs, getting the ball deep, what we call sky kicks."
Being at Radnor also gave Ian the opportunity to work with Berj Yepremian, brother of former Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian; Berj's son was a freshman at Radnor that season.
Still, there was little interest from colleges. So Ian and Bob decided to push the issue. They researched schools that might be looking for a kicker. They made a highlights video and sent it out. And then they waited.
Ian attended a kicking camp in Pittsburgh before his senior year in high school. There, Bob first heard about kicking combines. After Ian graduated, somebody mentioned one in southern California. Unfortunately, it started the following day. Luckily, Ian was visiting his cousins in Phoenix at the time . . . and they happened to be at Disneyland in Anaheim, making it possible for him to attend.
That was a regional competition. He qualified to advance to the semifinals in Denver. He then moved on to the finals in Houston and finished eighth, impressive for a kid with so little experience.
Still, the colleges didn't seem to be paying attention. Ian made some calls, but they weren't returned.
"We weren't getting much action," Bob said. "He started calling all these coaches, but nobody was calling him back. I thought maybe it was because he couldn't call during school hours, so I said, 'Give me your list.' "
When he called Wyoming, head coach Dave Christensen happened to pick up the phone.
"One day, I was sitting in my office in the summertime, and I got a phone call from Ian's dad asking if we needed a kicker, if his son could come here and walk on," the Cowboys' first-year coach said. "I said, 'Apply to school, get him in, have him come here. And if you get eligible, call me, and we'll let him come out.' "
That's not exactly rolling out the welcome mat, but it was a chance. Watts agreed to go to Wyoming.
"He eventually got eligible right around the time school was going to start and got better and better and better through 3 weeks of the season. We gave him a shot [in the fourth game of the season] and he's had the job ever since," Christensen said.
Watts doesn't appear to be overwhelmed by his success or incredulous that he just showed up and starting winning games as the clock was ticking down.
"That was so cool. It was great," he said. "I wasn't surprised that we had a game come down to a field goal this year. I was just surprised that we had [three] come down to a field goal while I was playing. It was very exciting, and I'm really glad it happened."
Shrug. "I guess I wouldn't be so glad if I didn't make them," he added with a laugh.
And just when it seemed like this was a fairy tale that already had a happy ending, it got even better.