Ka’imi Fairbairn sat in a ballroom in Atlanta on Thursday, wearing a Hawaiian lei around his neck, and waited to see if his name was called.
When it was, he stood up and hugged his mother.
Fairbairn had won the Lou Groza Award given to the nation’s top kicker, the first UCLA player to win the award since Kai Forbath in 2009.
The other finalists were Daniel Carlson of Auburn and Jake Elliott of Memphis.
Fairbairn’s career began with two blocked extra points. It will end with Fairbairn atop a list as the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer.
This season, he made 20 of 23 attempts. His three misses were from 47, 49 and 50 yards. His 60-yard field goal was a UCLA record and the longest field goal in college football since 2012.
“Rough start,” Fairbairn said after accepting his award. “But you’ve just got to keep at it and persevere.”
He called his 60-yard field goal “a dream come true.”
Fairbairn, selected Thursday to the Water Camp Football Foundation All-America team, was only a second-team All-Pac-12 selection by the conference’s coaches last week.
If his grandfather were here to witness the Foster Farms Bowl, UCLA Coach Jim Mora isn’t sure which team he would root for. Mora, it seems, also has a soft spot for Nebraska, UCLA’s opponent in the Dec. 26 game at Santa Clara.
O.G. “Bob” Saunders, Mora’s grandfather, lived in Nebraska. He died in 2007.
“I can’t tell you who he would be pulling for because I tell you what, he was a diehard Husker,” Mora said.
Mora has an unusually strong tie to Nebraska football. For a while, Mora owned property in Nebraska, inherited from his grandfather, he said. He has maintained a long relationship with Nebraska Coach Mike Riley, though the two only played once while Riley coached at Oregon State.
“Oh shoot, I feel like I’ve known him forever,” Mora said.
And, Mora said, he has admired the Nebraska program since the teams played in 2013, UCLA’s first game after the death of walk-on receiver Nick Pasquale.
Typically, Nebraska fans release red balloons before the start of every game at Memorial Stadium. Instead, they released blue and gold balloons. Several fans made homemade banners honoring Pasquale.
Mora called it one of his most memorable experiences as a coach.
“The love, the outpouring of love, they showed for our players, that’s something that will stick with me forever,” Mora said. “It certainly makes this really special for us.”
Ulu-Perry to transfer
On Thursday afternoon, Hawaii Coach Nick Rolovich tweeted a photo of lineman Fred Ulu-Perry in front of a Hawaii logo.
“We would like to welcome Fred Ulu-Perry back home,” Rolovich wrote.
The tweet seemed to confirm multiple reports that Ulu-Perry had transferred from UCLA to Hawaii. Ulu-Perry, a freshman, was utilized as a fullback and on the offensive and defensive lines. Had he stayed at UCLA, he would’ve competed for the starting center job next season.
On a conference call Thursday, Mora declined to discuss Ulu-Perry’s status.
“I think we’re here to talk about the bowl game,” he said.