From fútbol to football: Graves transitions to the gridiron

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For years, Occidental football kicker Alex Graves (senior) defended the goal. Now, his only job is to aim between the goalposts.

“I never imagined myself playing football,” Graves said. “I’ve always been a soccer player. It’s definitely a weird thing to hear.”

Until his junior year, Graves played goalkeeper for the Tigers’ soccer team. After totaling just over 33 minutes of time on the field in his three appearances, Graves decided to leave the game.

“I wanted to focus more on school,” Graves said. “I wasn’t enjoying soccer as much as I used to in high school. So I figured with that combination I would stop playing.”

Two years later, Graves is now the starting kicker for the Tigers’ football team. In nine games, he has racked up 26 of 27 extra points, providing stability for the Tigers’ kicking game.

“PATs (point after attempts) are huge,” head coach Doug Semones said. “Making sure we make all of our PATs is one of our special teams’ goals each week. Alex has done a great job on that.”

Graves worked as the football team’s student athletic trainer in his junior year, which is when defensive lineman Joe Barbosa (senior) asked him if he wanted to come to practice and try kicking. Graves attended four practices in the spring and by the fall he was competing for the starting kicker job.

Graves’ high school, Sacramento Country Day School, did not have a football team; besides watching the San Francisco 49ers, he had no football experience. In the spring practices, it was apparent that Graves kicked like a soccer player.

“You could tell he was pretty nervous every time he went up to kick,” quarterback and kick holder Tom Stivers (senior) said. “We all knew he had good technique and could kick the ball a long way, but it was a matter of teaching him how to kick a football and get it to go up faster than you would a soccer ball.”

Graves had to adjust to the shape of the football, snap count, wearing football gear and being confronted by hundreds of pounds of linemen. He said his first time kicking against a defense in practice was overwhelming.

“The first time it was scary,” Graves said. “Tunnel vision, dry mouth, shaky limbs—it was really nerve racking.”

Graves also had trouble trusting the ball was going to be there when it was time to plant and kick. He shanked kicks left and right, and once, he hit his offensive line with the ball. But one aspect of kicking he never had to adjust to was the mentality. He got that from goalkeeping.

“I think as a goalie you make a lot of mistakes,” Graves said. “And in kicking too you make a lot of mistakes but you can’t let them keep you down. You can’t let them affect your next kick.”

To learn the fundamentals of kicking a football, Graves traveled to San Diego this summer to take a one-day kicking lesson from former NFL kicker Michael Husted. According to Graves, Husted had experience working with soccer players making the transition to kicker and knew the similarities and differences between the two sports well.

Over the course of that summer, Graves gained confidence in his kicking ability. His teammates’ confidence in him also grew after they saw tape of him nailing a 55-yard field goal off of a tee.

“Most people were shocked,” Stivers said. “Because in the spring he was getting better but we didn’t think he’d be hitting a 55-yarder during the summer. It gave us a lot of security knowing that if the offense drives down and we get down to around the 20, we know we can kick a field goal from there.”

In the fall, Graves worked his way to the starting position by exhibiting improved accuracy and consistency in practice. When SCIAC play started, Semones gave him the nod. Graves knocked in a 40-yard field goal against Cal Lutheran Nov. 8, his longest of the season.

“It’s just cool to see someone, from my perspective, as an athlete, be able to switch sports and come in and contribute and be successful,” Semones said.