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Tulsa Kicker Handles the Pressure in His Own Way : Freedom Bowl: He might be eccentric, but Eric Lange made 16 of 19 field-goal attempts this season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The weather at Skelly Stadium, home to the University of Tulsa’s Golden Hurricane football team, was frightful on the afternoon of Nov. 2. The earliest snow in city history was falling, and so were players for the Hurricane and visiting Southern Mississippi, locked in a 10-10 slip-fest on the ice-covered artificial turf.

Southern Mississippi made a late drive into Tulsa territory, but a 35-yard field-goal try with 12 seconds left went awry when the Golden Eagles’ kicker lost his footing.

It could have ended there, but Tulsa came back on a wing and a prayer. A 65-yard gain on a pass tipped by five players gave the Hurricane the ball at the Southern Mississippi 25-yard line with one second left, and the call went out for kicker Eric Lange.

It was up to Lange, always comfortable on ice, but never at-ease on a football field, to win this one for Tulsa.

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But Lange slipped, too, and the ball sailed wide into the blowing snow. However, he caught a break when Southern Mississippi was penalized for having too many players on the field.

This time Lange’s footing was firm and his 24-yard field goal gave Tulsa a 13-10 victory on its way to a 9-2 record and a berth in the Freedom Bowl against San Diego State Dec. 30 at Anaheim Stadium.

Orange County is familiar turf for Lange, a 6-foot, 180-pound junior who played at Los Alamitos High School and Fullerton College before landing a late scholarship to Tulsa.

At Los Alamitos, he learned the delicate art of field-goal kicking. At Fullerton, he became good at it. At Tulsa, Lange has become the nation’s top percentage kicker, making 16 of 19 attempts this season.

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Through it all, he’s been unable to relax a lick. Before, during, after games, it hasn’t mattered. He has been a nervous wreck ever since he walked into Coach John Barnes’ office at Los Alamitos and asked for a tryout.

In high school, Lange suffered in silence, often letting the pressure turn him into a basket case. But since then, he has elevated blowing off steam to an art form.

“They think I’m weird,” he said of his Tulsa teammates. “I’ve got my rituals. I’ve got to keep my mind off what I have to do. I avoid the game. I really don’t pay attention.”

Which explains why Lange once smuggled a hand-held video game onto the sidelines during a community college game. Petrified he would be caught by an assistant coach, however, he played with it for only a short time before tossing it in an equipment bag.

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At Fullerton, he and punter Kevin Leon were famous for playing cards or backgammon in the locker room before games. They hatched a plot to play on the sidelines, but gave up when they figured that was too obvious.

On Friday nights, Lange ice skated at a rink in Costa Mesa. The rink was a refuge. Football always seemed a million miles away whenever Lange spent an hour or so gliding over the ice.

Besides, rinks have always been a friendly place for Lange. He met his fiancee, Denise Gall, while playing hockey at a rink in Torrance.

“I guess you don’t see many kickers playing hockey,” Lange said.

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On game days, Lange had a peculiar dressing routine. He wore the same sock, on the same foot, for each game. He even went so far as to label them “right foot, left foot” with a magic marker so he wouldn’t get confused.

A little flaky?

Sure, but if it helped Lange’s peace of mind, he was willing to give it a shot. Certainly no one at Fullerton laughed at the results. Lange was a J.C. Grid-Wire All-American and set school records with a 55-yard field goal and 27 consecutive extra points.

Lange hasn’t skated since he left for Tulsa last summer, mainly because the opportunities in Oklahoma leave much to be desired. Bowling is a new possibility, however.

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“We’ve got a lot more bowling alleys than ice rinks, that’s for sure,” said Hurricane Coach Dave Rader, a lifelong Tulsa resident who is well aware of Lange’s fondness for skating.

For now, Lange has replaced skating with tossing a racquetball around on game day mornings. He has tried playing cards, but it’s just not the same without Leon as his partner. He has also ditched the socks routine.

On the field, he has taken to pacing. Not like Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz, or even San Diego State’s Al Luginbill, but bouncing a football as he goes.

“I count how many times I can go until I miss,” he said.

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When he’s not walking, he’s stretching, trying to stay loose. Leon’s mother used to call Lange the rubber-band man because he stretched so much at Fullerton. Nothing has changed at Tulsa.

“I find ways to keep warm,” he said. “With all the rain we’ve had back there, it gets a little cold just sitting there on the bench.”

When he finally gets a little action, he follows another well-rehearsed routine. He sings to himself, usually a cornball top-40 tune from the 1960s or ‘70s. “Feelings” is still a big favorite.

Then, just before he lines up to kick, he taps his holder on the helmet twice. “If I hit you on the head, don’t worry,” he tells each new holder at the beginning of the season.

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Again this season, there’s a method to Lange’s madness. He has missed only two field goals, including the shanked first attempt against Southern Mississippi that didn’t count, and had two blocked against Texas A&M.; He has also made 27 of 32 extra points, a total that displeases him.

But no one at Tulsa is complaining.

“It’s kind of great how this one worked out,” Rader said. “We’re glad he’s here. He’s an excellent kicker with excellent concentration. We’re fortunate to have him.”

Rader’s not just saying that. For a time, it seemed Lange wouldn’t land a Division I scholarship anywhere. He sent resumes and videotapes, pestered coaches with telephone calls and relied on word of mouth, but no one seemed interested.

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Finally, Tulsa assistant coach Rockey Felker took a second look at Lange’s tape and the coaching staff offered Lange a scholarship over the phone last summer. He accepted without ever visiting the campus. It was a chance to kick and he wasn’t about to let it pass.

When Tulsa played Southern Mississippi and the snow began to fall, Rader wondered aloud whether Lange, being a Southern California boy after all, had ever seen snow.

Lange has seen plenty of ice, though, and in the end, he skated on the artificial turf well enough. Sometimes it pays to have a weird routine.


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