Uncertain Voyage : Notre Dame Kicker Sailer Struggles With His Choice of Sport, College

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The football field at Notre Dame High is a mosaic of earth tones as the Knights' kicking specialists gather to practice their craft before the rest of the team arrives.

Strolling across the battered turf, Chris Sailer moves his kicking tee back from yellowed grass near the 20-yard line to a patch of sickly green sod at the 40 and finally into the dark brown mud of midfield.

At each stop the result is the same: After a quick exchange between snapper and holder, Sailer launches the ball more than 60 yards off the tee and between slightly skewed goal posts. The solid thump of foot hitting leather is audible on the sidelines.

"We have to have (Sailer) practice extra points from the 20-yard line now," Notre Dame special teams coach Jeff Kraemer says, grinning. "When he was a sophomore he'd barely hit balls over the scoreboard, but now (if they are kicked from the ten) they go well over it and onto speeding cars on Riverside (Avenue). It's actually quite dangerous."

Facing Notre Dame and its senior kicker has been a real hazard for the Knights' opponents this season. The team is 10-1 entering tonight's Southern Section Division III quarterfinal against Royal at Moorpark College, and Sailer's rocket-launcher of a right leg has both benefited his team and established him as one of California's top kicking prospects.

Sailer, who acquired his foot skills and leg strength through years of playing youth soccer, has received little coaching on his punting form and nearly none on his kicking. Nonetheless, in his third year of varsity football the 17-year-old Burbank native has made all 30 of his extra-point attempts and 16 of 21 field-goal tries for a total of 78 points. He has tied the state record for field goals in a season and his phone number is beginning to show up on the auto-dial of college football and soccer recruiters across the country.

Sailer has not only scored in every game this season, he has consistently pinned opponents deep in their own territory by booming kickoffs through the end zone and craftily dropping punts near the goal line.

"A lot of our defensive success has been because of him," said Notre Dame Coach Kevin Rooney, who plucked Sailer out of a freshman physical education class and has seen his field-goal percentage and punting average rise each season. "I think his effect on other teams is tremendous, because I know our offense hates to start on their own 20 with the whole field in front of them."

Sailer is effective on the soccer field as well. The son of German parents with a deep love for the game, Sailer first played at age 5 and was competing nearly year-round when he was 9. Currently a member of the California Stars soccer club, he suits up in shorts for the Stars on weekends and in pads with the Notre Dame football team during the week.

He also plays for the Notre Dame soccer team during the winter season, taking a break from club competition to dominate the Mission League, in which he was last year's most valuable player, from his center-midfield position.

Sailer's lifelong dream has been to play national-level soccer and eventually in the World Cup, and the local college programs he would want to be a part of are definitely interested in him. On the other hand, his knack for booting a pigskin has football recruiters in hot pursuit of his talents. The choice is not made any easier by the fact that Sailer carries a 4.0 grade-point average and is unsure of what he wants to study in college. He also must take into consideration that football programs are wary of offering scholarships to kickers early in the recruiting process.

All in all, Sailer is at a crossbar in his life. Which university to attend? Which sport to play? Which program is best?

"I've known since I was a sophomore that I would have to make a decision (between football and soccer) and I was hoping I'd have decided by now," Sailer said. "But I probably won't know until the day I make the decision."

Several college football programs are doing their best to make it easier for Sailer to plot his course. Notre Dame coaches have told him they are desperate for a kicker and will definitely be offering one a scholarship, and, less than 24 hours after Stanford kicker Eric Abrams missed what would have been a game-winning field goal against UCLA, Cardinal coaches called and said Sailer would have a good chance to play as a freshman in Palo Alto.

But it is UCLA that has wooed Sailer with particular ardor and might have the inside track. The Bruins invited him to their 1994 summer football camp, have brought him to cookouts with lavish spreads and attractive recruiting hostesses, and installed him and Notre Dame teammates David Dupetit and David Sobel on the Rose Bowl sidelines for the Bruins' recent victory over USC.

All this is flattering to Sailer but not overwhelming. The phone calls and frequent requests for videotape of his performances will no doubt increase once the season is over and recruiting picks up, but he is aware recruiting coordinators are paid for their ability to sweet-talk prospects.

"They're gonna do and say what they need to get the best players," said Sailer, who booted a season-long 58-yard field goal against St. Francis three weeks ago. "I listen, but it's just words. Once they offer me a scholarship, then I'll believe it."

One coach who believes in Sailer is Rooney, whose perpetually worried expression might have been more severe had his kicker not made four field goals of more than 50 yards this season and appeared stress-free whenever he trots onto the field.

A prime example of Sailer's composure came last weekend in Notre Dame's first-round playoff game against Santa Barbara. The Dons' fans heckled him during warm-ups before the start of each half, but they were forced to eat their words when Sailer kicked three field goals, including one of 52 yards, to pace the Knights' 22-17 win.

"He seems immune to pressure," said Rooney, who has seen opposing coaches claim Sailer's cleats are too long and watched teams use consecutive timeouts to try to rattle him. "He's able to overcome things that might distract other kickers."

One of those distractions is the field at Notre Dame. Despite efforts by the grounds crew, the field's center strip has been uneven at best and a quagmire at worst. Hardly ideal footing for a kicking specialist, but Sailer even considers it a distinct home-field advantage.

"It's pretty deceiving out there because even if the ground looks solid on top, it may be wet underneath," said Sailer, who consistently loses his footing in practice. "I have the advantage, though, because I get a feel for the good and bad spots and (opposing kickers) only have five or ten minutes before the game.

"I've fallen a couple of times in games, mostly on kickoffs, but not badly enough to cause a miss."

Should the Knights advance in the playoffs, look for opponents to bring earth-moving equipment and hoses along with their helmets and shoulder pads.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°