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May 2, 2012

Tavecchio's journey takes him to the NFL



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The life of a kicker is a series of moments: isolated instants that flash across a movie screen in a montage of success and failure, of reflex and instinct. Those moments aren't out-of-body experiences, but rather moments of total consciousness: Every muscle fiber firing in the proper sequence, the smell of the grass -- or the super nachos in the front row -- the muffled din of the crowd, the thonk of foot meeting ball, the cheers -- or the boos.

Then, there are the moments off the field, moments like the head coach not even knowing your name mere days before your first game. For former California place kicker Giorgio Tavecchio, all those moments -- and many more -- add up to one thing: an NFL contract.

It's August 27, 2008.

Just three days before opening kickoff against Michigan State. Tavecchio pedals away from California Memorial Stadium on his one-pedaled bicycle. His head coach Jeff Tedford yells from behind him: "Hey, so, Giovanni, are you ready for Saturday?"

As he stroked away on his hobbled conveyance, Tavecchio smiled. He didn't have the heart to correct Tedford.

That Saturday, the Bears squeaked by the Spartans, 38-31. Tavecchio kicked off five times, averaging a paltry 51.4 yards per boot. He didn't attempt a single field goal, but he did have the honor of literally kicking off the season, firing a 60-yard drive to the Michigan State 10 to open the game.

"I've been so fortunate to come to school here, to be a part of the football program, and to have been a part of all of these experiences," says Tavecchio. "If I wanted to chose one particular moment, it would be my first day, when I found out I'd be kicking against Michigan State, three days after I showed up. That was something that I'll never forget. That was incredible. It was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm actually a part of this team. I made the cut.'"

Merely a few months before that, Tavecchio didn't even know where he was going to school. Weeks before that morning, he didn't even know what sport he was going to play.

"It's been an incredible journey," says Tavecchio. "Every time I look back, it still amazes me, how I ended up where I am."

It's Tuesday, May 1. Sitting in what he calls his coffee shop -- Café Strada -- Tavecchio had another one of those crystalizing moments.

He set down his cappuccino, whipped out a pen and signed with the San Francisco 49ers. Shortly thereafter, he spoke with BearTerritory.

"I guess it's official now," Tavecchio says. "I think the first thing is that I see myself being incredibly blessed to have been given this opportunity, and it's just that: an opportunity. There's no guarantee. The world of football -- the business of football -- is very unpredictable. I'm just trying to do my best, put my best foot forward -- no pun intended -- and really show well this summer, and hope that it amounts to something."

The life of a kicker is one of opportunities. It is the most transient position in the NFL. There are no plays beyond kick the ball and fake kicking the ball.

"In kicking, the only measurable I can think of is whether it's good or not: the field goal percentage or whatever. When you kick a ball, it's good or no-good," Tavecchio says. "But, in my mind, there's so much more that goes into kicking a ball. That being said, there's not much difference between a lot of these kickers. The NFL kickers are great. They're masters of their craft. College kickers, the difference between a top college guy and maybe someone in my position, isn't that noticeable, I would say. You've got maybe 100 kickers all going for maybe four spots, and there's really not that much difference between them all. The fact that you throw that factor into this whole process of kind of all the uncertainty and the mentality that kickers are kind of fungible, where you can sign one on Thursday and have him play on Sunday and he'll be fine, it just makes this whole thing -- this whole process -- for a kicker, very, very unpredictable, volatile and uncertain. That's something that I've kind of had to deal with."

The professional life of a kicker is hardly stable. It can be fleeting -- as short as a one-week emergency contract -- or a never-ending story. For every Bill Gramatica -- who blew out his ACL in his first season after hitting 16 of 20 field goals and then went on to attempt just 28 more over the next five years for four different teams -- there's a Gary Anderson, who played into his mid-40s. After being picked up in the seventh round of the 1982 draft, Anderson played for five different NFL teams over the course of 23 years, hitting 538 of 672 field goal attempts.

Kickers and punters are roster spots that can be stepped into almost immediately, and hold jobs which can be lost just as quickly.

"There are no guarantees," Tavecchio says. "Right now, the only thing I'm guaranteed is a handshake. After that, it's all uncertain. It's all unwritten. It's up to me to take it day by day, do the right thing both on the field and off the field, in the weight room, in the film room, to prepare myself to improve as a kicker."

Life off the field won't be a problem for Tavecchio. He joked upon signing that he won't even have to find a new place to live. The best part about staying local for this paisan? Mama's cooking.

"Now she can keep cooking for me!" he exclaims. "I love the Bay Area. It's always been home for me. I've always had a sweet spot, especially, for San Francisco. I love this place, and I love the city."

Tavecchio's mother Gabriella and his support system have always been strong. Some stereotypes are there for a reason, after all. Tavecchio spent his bye weeks at home in Moraga with his family, where his mom always cooked up big meals for her growing boy.

RED AND GOLD
In the 2012 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts picked up former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, as well as former Cardinal tight end Coby Fleener, later signing Griff Whalen as a free agent, much to the consternation of former Cal offensive lineman Mike Tepper. Now, Tavecchio will be joining a 49ers squad helmed by Stanford's former skipper: Jim Harbaugh.

"I'm really interested, actually, because everyone that plays for him just absolutely loves him," says Tavecchio. "I'm interested to see really, who he is, and how the team dynamic is, how he manages everybody."

During his collegiate career, Tavecchio was 2-2 against the Cardinal. In his four Big Games, Tavecchio averaged 57.2 yards per kickoff and hammered home three field goals on three tries, including a 2-for-2 performance last season.

"I can always poke fun at him, because we did beat him a couple times when I was here, so I can use that a little bit," Tavecchio laughs.
"Being so close is great," says Tavecchio. "In my time at Cal and my time in high school, I've had a great amount of support, which has meant a lot to me, and I've been feeling it, especially in the past couple days. It's been very, very hectic, but there's been an outpouring of support, and I feel very, very blessed to have all these people really supporting me and sending me words of encouragement."

As far as pure citizenship and community awareness go, you won't find many people -- football players or otherwise -- more civic-minded than the curly-haired little kicker, who is clock-settingly consistent as far as facial expressions are concerned. Rare is the moment when Tavecchio isn't caught smiling, ear-to-ear. If he had a tail, it would be constantly wagging. He's happiness in a 5-foot-10, 178-pound package. They say a dog is man's best friend, but Tavecchio is everyone's closest pal, whether he's meeting you for the first time with a gleeful grin, or has known you for years, in which case, you get a hug.

While maintaining a 3.71 cumulative GPA as a Political Economy major -- which earned him a spot as a national semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy (the so-called Academic Heisman) -- Tavecchio participated in Athletes in Action, including going on "PB&J giveaways," where the group makes sandwiches and hands them out to Berkeley's homeless population.

His involvement with the portion of the Berkeley population that most students come to ignore by the time their time at Cal is over, however, didn't just stop with bread and preserves.

Tavecchio took part in a COPWATCH DECal class, in which homeless individuals were educated about their rights and Berkeley civic law. Any Italian athlete at Cal could count on Tavecchio if they needed any one-on-one tutoring, and he took part in the SAGE mentorship program, which provides Cal students as mentors for elementary school children in local public schools in mostly one-on-one settings.

He's sponsoring a poor child in Honduras through Compassion International. He volunteers at a local Catholic church to help with confirmation proceedings. His disposition alone could change weather forecasts in his foggy new home.

It's Sept. 25, 2010.

Tavecchio has scored all nine points the Bears have put on the board. Cal is leading Arizona by six points. With 2:37 left in the game, he lines up for a 40-yard try, wide right. On the very next series, the Wildcats engineered a 77-yard drive, culminating in a three-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles to Juron Criner. In the locker room, Tedford puts his hand on Tavecchio's slumped shoulders.

"I felt like I did everything right, but the results on the field just weren't there," Tavecchio said. "It was just disappointing."

"Three were good. Two weren't," Tedford said. "It just happened to be enough for the game. But, he can't get down. He'll come back. We have faith in Giorgio."

A kicker's life is replete with singular moments. They are expected to be perfect. After all, how hard is it to kick a ball? That's all they do. They don't have to read coverages. They don't have to follow blocks. All they do is kick. The best thing a kicker can be is dependable, which, in their world, means being invisible. There are two things that put kickers -- or any specialist -- in the headlines: game-winning success, or game-losing failure. There is no middle ground. A 3-for-5 day in baseball is front-page stuff. For a kicker, it means compounding offensive failure.

Six weeks after Tucson, in the cold and the rain of Strawberry Canyon, Tavecchio lines up for a 24-yard field goal against Oregon. He begins his lean just a microsecond too early. He trips. False start. After the five-yard flag, he misses a 29-yard try. Cal loses, 15-13. That was Tavecchio's only field goal attempt.

"As the years went on, there were other moments, like against U of A, and the U of O kick," says Tavecchio. "For me, that's the one. That was a turning point for me, personally, both on and off the field. On the field, I just realized that I couldn't have worked harder. It was a 29-yard field goal. I don't have to lift more weights, watch more film, kick more kicks to make that kick. It wasn't so much how I worked that guaranteed on-the-field success. That's what I realized. You can't really guarantee success. It's not about results on the field. It's just about doing as much as you can and then, just letting go. That kick, that's how I became a kicker. It was the end of my junior year. I said, 'You know what? You just have to do your best. There's nothing you can do to guarantee it. There's nothing you can do to guarantee any accolades. Just do your best, and there's nothing more you can ask of yourself.'

"Off the field, I really felt huge support from my family, coaches, my teammates, and that was incredibly important for me. I had to overcome that. There were 14 minutes and 52 seconds left on the clock. Yes, I shouldn't have missed that kick, and that's the thing that I take responsibility for. When I line up for a kick, I want to make the kick. But, I got a lot of support after that. I had a lot of people who were hard on me, because I lost the game, but it was just fine. I really realized at that point, and I can really sum it up with a Dr. Seuss book: 'That mind over matter is that matter don't mind.' The ones that matter are those who support me, no matter what happens on the field. My teammates were a huge support. I know they were probably pissed off, but they were there for me with huge support, saying, 'We've got another game coming up. We've got Stanford coming up.'"

Despite the more infamous moments he's had in a Bears uniform -- including a rash of missed point-after attempts as a senior -- Tavecchio is irrepressibly upbeat. Even with 14-year NFL veteran David Akers ahead of him on the depth chart, the only thing Tavecchio sees is an opportunity to learn at the feet -- this time, pun firmly intended -- of the NFL's single-season record holder for points by a kicker (166 in 2011-12).

"Their kicker is very, very good, and that's one of the other things that I'm really excited about: working with David Akers," says Tavecchio. "I've admired him. He's a very good kicker, a stand-up guy, from what I've heard, and obviously pushing him and learning what it takes to be a real professional from someone who's had success."

It's late May of 2008.

Tavecchio comes to Berkeley unsure of even which sport he will play. He had only just decided to come to Cal.

"I can go back almost four years, to the day, and I still wouldn't know where I would be going to school," he remembers. "I didn't know whether I'd play football or soccer. I didn't decide to come to Cal until late May, so at this point, I could have never imagined any of this happening, let alone getting the opportunity to play in the NFL."

What gets lost in the field goal misses and the PAT gaffes, is a remarkable upward trend, and a player who has -- year-in and year-out -- improved in every statistical measure. In his first year, Tavecchio struggled, hitting nine of 13 field goal attempts and averaging 56.6 yards on his 52 kickoffs with one touchback. As a sophomore, Tavecchio went 8-for-12 (66.7 percent) and averaged 58.1 yards per kickoff with two touchbacks. As a junior, he hit 68.8 percent of field goals with a long of 53 -- a career-high -- and belted kickoffs an average of 64.8 yards with four touchbacks. Though his kickoffs in 2011 were a tick shorter -- 61.2 yards -- he pounded the ball into the end zone seven times, while hitting 20 of 23 field goal attempts with a career-long 54-yarder against the Ducks in the pouring rain.

"I don't think anybody expected me to have as good a senior year as I had," says Tavecchio. "Because of that, maybe, I was overlooked."

It's March 15, 2012.

Again, the rain is coming down. Cal's annual Pro Day is all but washed away. The other players have long since retreated indoors. Almost all of the NFL scouts are gone. Tavecchio is still kicking.

"I kicked as though I was just basically going through my field goal workout. I don't know if anyone was really watching," he admits. "We were kind of small-talking during the workout stuff earlier in the day, and when we went up there, I asked, 'Do you want me to kick now?' while they were doing 40s, and they just told me to wait until later. Then, as soon as everyone finished up the 40s, one of them said, 'Hey, by the way, we can't stick around. This weather's just too bad, so we're taking off.' Everyone took off, and at that point, I'm already kind of warmed up, so I just kicked anyway.

"The ball popped off my foot, and for me, I kind of told myself I was kicking, regardless of who was watching, where it was, whatever. It was something that I'd been working on for the past couple months, and I wasn't going to let the weather or people not being able to watch stop me. I had a good day, and whoever saw me, saw something special."

From there, Tavecchio went to Ford Field in Detroit for the NFL Super Regional Combine on March 30 and 31. No, it's not some unholy marriage of NCAA playoffs and the NFL. It can best be described as the little cousin of the more-ballyhooed NFL Scouting Combine held in Indianapolis.

"I got to see what it feels like, not quite at the level of the main combine, but I got a feel for it," Tavecchio says. "You get put up on a pedestal and get measured, height, weight, all the measurables, physically, and you get to kick in front of scouts. Plus, I got to kick at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, so that was a great experience. It went well and I met a lot of good kickers and got to be a part of a combine."

Of course, preparing for a combine, when you're a kicker, isn't quite as nerve-wracking as what other players go through, or trying to shut out 70,000 screaming fans with a game on the line. Bench pressing and running the 40 don't have the same kind of impact as pure game film or good old-fashioned, in-person scouting.

"I definitely agree with the fact that it's different," says Tavecchio. "I think the one thing -- probably the biggest difference -- is that only a kicker can really understand a kicker, and a lot of these scouts have been playing football all their lives, and they only see a kicker as a body that you throw in. With the players, there's much more knowledge and much more certainty as to who he is, how good he is, his potential, all these different things, because there are so many measurables."

To get ready for the combine and the Cal Pro Day, Tavecchio did exactly what he's always done: kick until his shoes wear out.

"I lifted three times a week, kicked three times a week and practiced my swing," says Tavecchio. "I specialized even more in the lifts that I have. I got one of the lifting coaches to design it for me, where it's very specific to the explosive movements of the hamstrings and quads, very specific to my technique. I honed in even more on trying to be more explosive. I was focused on being more consistent, mentally, and sometimes, when you're by yourself, you have to create those pressure situations, and you don't mind. That takes a lot.

"I just really tried to commit as much as possible, and I tried to ingrain the kind of detailed thinking, because if I think about the big picture, I have no idea where the next week will take me. I had no idea what would happen, because of all of that unpredictability. I tried to do everything I can in each individual day, whether it's in the weight room, on the field, to put myself in the best position to get the most out of that day, and I feel I can do no more than do my best. I can find satisfaction knowing that I did my complete, maximum best, training to prepare for the tryouts or combines or whatever may come down the line."

All that work was, as Tavecchio says, just to get the chance to show what he can do. It was only a chance. In Detroit, he put the months of preparation to work.

"There were two groups, and I was part of the first group, which was place kickers, punters, O-linemen, D-linemen and fullbacks," Tavecchio says. "The skill players came the next day. There were probably about 75, I would say, total, for the first group. In terms of kickers, there were probably about eight other kickers, including me, so about nine total. They were good guys, so it was a lot of fun. I ended up going to Detroit, did relatively well and I don't know if much came of it, or at least any more than the workout that I did a couple of weeks ago."

The 49ers took note of both Tavecchio's career numbers and his performance in Detroit, and at the last minute, invited him to their local Pro Day two and a half weeks ago.

"Every NFL team does a pre-draft local workout, where they invite all the local seniors who are eligible to come work out for them, and I'd heard about this, but I hadn't really been invited, so I didn't know," says Tavecchio. "Then, the day before, I found out about it and I went and I was the only kicker there, so the special teams coach spent the whole day just kind of following me around as I kicked. I kicked well, and me being a lefty, I guess, proved to be a factor with bringing me in. I think he liked what he saw, and we kind of kept in touch."

It's several days before the NFL Draft. Tavecchio gets a call from the 49ers.

"[They] called me and said, 'We really liked what we saw. Keep an eye out for the draft, and if you don't get drafted, we'd like to bring you in as a free agent,'" says Tavecchio. "At that point, I was stoked. As soon as the draft ended, he gave me a call and he asked me if I wanted to [sign], and I said, 'Heck yeah.'"

From that point until Tuesday, things moved quickly, and Tavecchio's life doesn't figure to slow down much from now until the start of the 2012 season.

"First mini camp, I'm supposed to report on May 11, and that's the rookie mini camp, and after that, really not 100-percent sure," he says. "I know that there are OTA's throughout the summer. Late June, I have a couple weeks off, and then we start training camp, starting in late July."

And then, he'll have his shot. He'll have that chance, that fleeting opportunity. That's all he can ask. And no matter which way life swings -- if he lines up on the Frozen Tunda of Lambeau Field on Sept. 9, across from names like Aaron Rodgers and Desmond Bishop -- or if his journey takes another unexpected turn, he'll still be smiling. He'll still be happy to talk off any willing ear. He'll still be wagging his tail. He'll still be Giorgio. He'll still be living the life, because it could always be worse: He could still be pumping away on that one-pedaled bike.

"I remember that," he chuckles. "Those were the good old days, huh?"


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