BY JEFF FALK
MOST PHOTOS COURTESY OF WALT MIDDLETON, WM PHOTOGRAPHY
They’re not like you and me. Place-kickers are a special breed, a different breed.
Imagine Chad Ryland’s surprise when one day he woke up to discover that he was one of them. But the way it has turned out, Ryland’s revelation helped define the athlete he is inside, because he has really embraced his calling.
Ryland, a 2018 graduate of Cedar Crest, is about a month removed from his freshman season of place kicking for the Division One football program at Eastern Michigan University. We’d like to say it went better than anyone could’ve expected. The only problem is no one really knew what to expect.
“I can’t say it went better than I hoped,” said Ryland, recently during a phone interview from Ypsilanti, Michigan. “Every time I’m on the field, I go into it like, ‘I’m going to make the kick.’ The only thing that exceeded my expectations was how the guys embraced me and accepted me. I got their full support and that meant more to me than anything.
“I’ll be honest, I tried to come into it as open-minded as possible,” continued Ryland. “I wasn’t there to stand by as a freshman. I tried to compete for the starting job.”
Starting as a true freshman on the Division One college level – in any sport – is a true rarity. But Ryland welcomed the challenge, and the Eagles were rewarded in their faith in the former Falcon.
Ryland coverted all of his 41 point-after-touchdown conversions this season, and went 12-for-20 on field goal tries. Ryland booted the game-winning three-pointer in Eastern Michigan’s 20-19 upset of Purdue and drilled a 51-yarder at San Diego State.
Ryland helped Eastern Michigan to a 7-6 overall record, a 5-3 mark in the Mid-American Conference and a post-season berth in the Camellia Bowl.
Not bad for his third full season as a place-kicker.
“I think the thing I like most about kicking is just the team here,” said Ryland. “It’s about the guys. Through the success, they’ve been with me, and through the failures, they’ve been with me. But there’s nothing like watching a football go through the uprights. It’s just the little intricacies of it, the fine things about it. And just the full-on support I’ve received.
“I knew coming in I was going to have a chance to compete,” Ryland continued. “It just worked out well. It’s all about making the kicks. This year, more than any I’ve had in the past, was a great learning experience. I learned a lot about myself as a place-kicker and a person. The season went great.”
The art – science? – of place-kicking is like no other pursuit in all of sports. While it may seem cliche-ish, kicking is truly more mental and cerebral than physical.
Needed to succeed are repetition, a special mental toughness, preparedness, focus and an innate ability to flip the performance switch. Oh yeah, and a short memory.
“My sideline deal is I’m watching the offense all the time,” said Ryland. “Then it’s like, ‘Get ready to go.’ I’m warm the whole time, almost like a pitcher in the bull pen. When it’s third down, I take a few leg swings.
“It’s hard to put into words, and it’s different for everyone,” added Ryland. “When I’m going well, after the kick is gone, I can’t remember it. I’m so focused in. I can’t hear anything. Everything just slows down. Mentally, you’re in a cleared-out zone where nothing is in your head.”
Just as compelling was Ryland’s journey from little old Lebanon, PA and Cedar Crest High School to the world of big-time college place kicking. After bursting on to the scene under Falcon head coach Rob Wildasin, Ryland was recognized as one of the top scholastic place-kickers in the country, before receiving collegiate offers from the likes of UConn, Bucknell, Delaware and Shippensburg, just to name a few.
“I would say I realized I liked it after my junior year in high school,” said Ryland. “I was invited to a camp in Florida and it was for the top guys iin the country. I was rated a five-star kicking prospect. I was like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ Plus, I loved it.
“I love being busy,” Ryland added. “Even after the Christmas break, I was ready to come back to school. I like the year-round aspect of it. I knew I wanted to play a sport in college, but which one depended on how I did in high school. But growing up, I never thought I’d end up going to college in Michigan.”
During his high school days, Ryland competed in soccer and baseball for the Falcons. One day, at the urging of his father, Todd, he tried kicking a football, and then ultimately approached Wildasin about the possibility of doing it on Friday nights.
“It started my sophomore year,” said Ryland. “My dad was like, ‘The football team is probably going to need a kicker.’ I got two Wilson footballs and started kicking at LVC. I started thinking, ‘This is pretty cool. I think I like this. I’m going to run with this.’
“Everything sports-wise, my dad never forced me to do anything,” continued Ryland. “At the end of my sophomore year, I walked into Coach Wildasin’s class and I told him I was interested in kicking, and he was excited about it. I’m grateful for my time at Cedar Crest and what he did for me. I attribute a lot of my success to him.”
If getting to the top is difficult, then staying there is even harder – especially when there are talented athletes who want what you have. The only way to combat that is to become the best kicker you can.
That Ryland enjoyed success as the Eagles’ primary place kicker in 2018 creates no guarantees for 2019, or beyond.
“Over the next four years, I’m just looking to become a better kicker,” said Ryland. “Nothing at all is guaranteed. Next year, there’ll be new guys coming in and competing. But it’ll make me a better kicker. I live for the competitive nature of this. It’s straight-up, pass or fail. You either make the kick or you don’t.
“I definitely need to improve my overall accuracy,” Ryland continued. “Twelve-for-20 is just over 50 percent. That’s not awful, but it’s not as good as it could be. My accuracy between 30 and 39 yards has got to improve. We’re working in the weight room all the time, espcially on leg strength. ‘Stay smooth. Stay relaxed. And hit that same ball, every time’.”
Consistency, thy name is ‘place kicker’.