Something was lacking the first time Jose Cortez stepped onto the practice field at Oregon State.
Specifically, a shoe.
His kicking foot, the one that earned Cortez a scholarship out of Valley College, was clothed only in a sock.
“You can’t kick barefoot,” a coach told him. “You have to put on a shoe.”
“Uh-uh,” he replied. “Can’t do that.”
A year later, the senior remains steadfastly short of a pair. He also ranks among the better kickers in the Pac-10 and his coaches are won over.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” Coach Mike Riley said. “He’s one of those guys who likes where he is and he works hard.”
Cortez returns to Southern California on Saturday when the Beavers face USC at the Coliseum. He is on a roll, kicking field goals of 50 and 51 yards in a 27-17 victory over Baylor last weekend.
“That was my dream--to kick a 50-yard field goal in a game,” he said. “It finally came true.”
His entire football career seems like a dream come true.
Four years ago, Cortez was a senior goalkeeper for the Van Nuys High soccer team. A native of El Salvador, he gave little thought to the other kind of football until coaches noticed him booming goal kicks past midfield.
“They asked me to try out for football,” he said. “I did it because I was watching the football games on Friday and I saw how many people came out. There were five people watching the soccer games.”
At 5 feet 11 and 205 pounds, Cortez kicked and played tight end. In his third game, he caught two touchdown passes and kicked an extra point in a 19-7 victory over Marshall.
“He was a soccer player that turned into a football player,” said Van Nuys Coach Mark Pomerantz, an assistant at the time. “He was a really, really quick learner.”
His education continued at Valley College. There, Cortez began kicking with one shoe off, an experiment that became a habit.
But the Monarchs used him sparingly, mostly for punting and the occasional long field-goal attempt. It seemed his career might end with a 40-yarder against Hancock in the 1996 Western State Bowl.
Then, a videotape found its way to the Oregon State football offices.
“We were looking for a kicker,” Riley said.
They were looking in a region that has three other kickers in the Pac-10. UCLA has Chris Sailer of Notre Dame High. Cal has Tim Wolleck of Simi Valley and Ignacio Brache of Village Christian.
“We looked at 40 guys and we narrowed it down to three,” Riley said. “Jose was one of them.”
No one at Oregon State realized the recruit kicked with a stocking foot until he arrived on campus. The kicker had to prove himself.
In his first game, he made kicks from 44 and 27 yards against North Texas. The next week, against Stanford, he went three for four.
Concerns about his footwear quickly faded.
“They saw me kicking,” he recalled. “They said, ‘All right, whatever makes you comfortable.’ ”
Cortez made 11 of 19 attempts last season, tying for third in the conference with an average of one field goal per game. He also made 18 of 19 extra points and averaged 36.6 yards on 11 punts.
This season, the Beavers are trying to break an NCAA-record string of 27 losing seasons. They are 2-0 for the first time since 1985 but Riley knows his team’s only hope is to keep games close.
“A kick by Jose Cortez could decide those kind of games,” he said.
It seems the kicker has won the confidence of his team.
“Now that I’m a senior, everybody believes in me,” Cortez said. “They believe I can be a pretty good kicker.”
Even minus a shoe.