SAN DIEGO — UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn hung his head. Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo patted him on the backside. Punter Jeff Locke empathized with him.
The biggest kick in Fairbairn’s life had gone wide and fell short with 34 seconds left on a rainy night in Palo Alto. His 52-yard field-goal try, on a field better suited to grow rice, would have tied the Pac-12 championship game. Instead, Stanford was off to the Rose Bowl with a 27-24 victory.
Fairbairn had every reason to wallow, but by the time he reached the sideline, there was no trace of disappointment.
“There wasn’t any sulking,” said Locke, who holds for kicks. “He jogged off. You have to know as a kicker that you’re going to miss. There is not a kicker out there who hasn’t gone through a big-time miss.”
Fairbairn, a freshman, betrays little in emotion and even less in conversation. Getting him to say, “I tried my best. It didn’t go through. What more can I say?” seems about as deep into his psyche as one can get.
Locke, a senior, said that is how it should be.
“I’m sure there are lonelier moments in life that are a lot worse than missing a kick,” Locke said. “But in football, it’s tough. You automatically blame yourself. The great kickers are the ones who rebound from that kind of miss.”
Fairbairn is on the rebound.
“Knowing the seniors could have gone to the Rose Bowl is hard,” Fairbairn said. But, he added, “You can’t look at the whole season as that one kick.”
Events leading to that one kick started more than a year ago. Fairbairn, then a senior at Honolulu Punahou School, committed to UCLA. He had a kicker’s resume.
There was the big leg. Fairbairn made a 55-yard field goal as a senior in the thick air of Hawaii.
There was the eclectic personality. Fairbairn hunts for octopus. (“He shoots ink, you grab him, he suction-cups your arms and you hook him into the bag,” he said.)
All he needed was a little seasoning on the college level, but because the Bruins were out of kickers, there was no time for that. He was asked to produce immediately.
Kip Smith, who missed most of last season with a torn muscle, transferred after the season. UCLA made do in 2011 with walk-on Tyler Gonzalez. So while most kickers get to redshirt their first season, “We couldn’t even give him one play,” Coach Jim Mora said.
Brett Hundley sprinted 72 yards for a touchdown on the Bruins’ first play against Rice. Fairbairn’s extra-point try was blocked. The Bruins had protection issues on the kicking team and Rice blocked three of Fairbairn’s kicks.
That, to Locke, was a tipoff how good Fairbairn might be.
“Seeing him climb back when a lot of kickers would have gone in the hole was great,” Locke said. “If you had seen me punt as a redshirt, it was not pretty. I think I shanked two punts in the fall scrimmage. I would not have come in and been productive as a true freshman.”
Locke said that Fairbairn already had basic principles.
“Even in practice, he comes in from the sideline like it’s a game, running to the goal posts so they looked like they’re getting closer,” Locke said. “I didn’t have to tell him that. He already knew it. It’s kind of crazy.”
Fairbairn made 14 of 20 field-goal tries this season, but only one from 40 yards or more. He did make a 33-yard field goal as time ran out to give the Bruins a 45-43 victory over Arizona State.
All season, Mora’s plan was to put his kicker in situations where he could be successful.
That changed in the Pac-12 title game. UCLA lurched along on a final drive, getting to the Stanford 34-yard line. On fourth and five, Mora opted for the long field goal.
“I asked him to go out there and do something that we hadn’t asked him to do all year,” Mora said.
Fairbairn walked off the field after the missed attempt.
“It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking half the time,” special teams coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “All great kickers have that attribute. Good kick, bad kick, rainy, sunny, they are always the same guy.”