BY Ryan Gorcey
What do you do when your three-year starting place kicker, a man who is a mere 32 points behind the Cal football team’s all-time leading scorer, goes down with a freak injury 20 minutes before arguably the Bears’ biggest home game of the Jeff Tedford era? You put the hopes of a season on a pair of knees held together with spit, surgical tape and sheer force of will. You put your hopes on the legs of junior place kicker, Jordan Kay. “This kid is a walking oxymoron,” says Neil Kay, Jordan’s father. “He shouldn’t even be walking.” The eyes of 70,000 people are now on that walking impossibility every Saturday, at least until senior starter Tom Schneider recovers from an upper quad injury that he suffered during warm-ups before the Sept. 1 game against Tennessee. “I want (Schneider) to succeed and I want him to break that record,” says Kay. “I feel being second-string all these years, I’ve improved competing with him.”
After Schneider tried to test his leg, to no avail, special teams coach Pete Alamar approached Kay after warmups and told him that he would be starting the first game of his college career. A career that was nearly derailed long before it even began. Twice since Kay came to Cal, he packed his bags to go home, because the road hasn’t just been bumpy—it’s had a boulder sitting in the middle of it. Several times he called his father in tears, ready to give up. But he never has.
After recovering from a severe case of osteomyelitis (staph infection of the bone) at the growth plate of his right ankle—which nearly cost him his right foot at age 11—Kay developed into a three-sport athlete, making the baseball, football and soccer varsity teams by his sophomore year at Peninsula High. But after that year, Jordan complained of soreness in his right knee. An X-ray revealed a condition called osteo-contrydis-desecans. “Basically you lose blood supply in a portion of your knee,” says Kay. “They were going to do surgery then, but I was going into my junior year and I was already starting to get a few letters (from colleges) asking ‘Can he kick?’ The doctor said that it was OK, but taking the risk in just kicking, he said ‘If your bone is to snap because it’s losing blood supply, your career would be hard to get back.’” He kicked, and was named to the first-team All-Bay League. Following his junior season, Kay had the surgery to repair his knee, but it failed to respond to treatment. It took an MRI and another surgery to discover and fix the heads of the screws that held his knee together, which had not dissolved and were rubbing on the inside of his knee. Because of further rehab, Jordan made it to Peninsula’s fall football camp just one week before the start of his senior season. Playing kicker, running back and cornerback, Jordan had verbal commitments from Oregon, Northern Arizona, Michigan State and Minnesota, with walk-on offers from the rest of the Pac-10 schools. But he wanted to wait until after the season to officially commit.
Then lightning struck again. In the second-to-last game of Kay’s senior season, as he was playing corner, one of his own linemen fell back and pinned his left leg as he was extended to make a tackle. His anterior cruciate ligament exploded. As Neil carried his son off the field, both were crying. No more scholarships. On one leg, a despondent Kay made the recruiting trip to Cal, where he was told he could be a walk-on. After surgery, Kay came back to Cal ready to start kicking again. Once more, something wasn’t right, but he was determined to kick during spring practice. Unable to fully lock his plant leg, he developed hip flexor and lower back problems. “Coming in, all that hard work, those dreams of being at D-I and knowing that you’re not kicking to your full potential, it was very tough for me,” says Kay. “I was depressed, I was homesick.” That’s when the calls home started. And the bag-packing. But Schneider and Neil offered encouragement and advice. “I kept wanting to leave and I wanted to come home and not play football anymore because I wasn’t kicking to my potential,” says Kay, “but my dad was always there to say ‘Stick it out, get healthy, see what it is. You’ve got to be stupid to leave the No. 1 school in the country.’” Dr. Robert Eppley examined Kay’s knee and—to Jordan’s relief—found that the kicking problems were the result of scar tissue caused by an oversized ACL graft. In June of 2005, Eppley performed surgery to allow the graft more room to move within the knee. By August, a cyst had formed behind the knee because of the inflammation caused by trying to rehab the defective graft. Kay lost another year. By the time Kay was finally healthy in 2006, Schneider had the best season of his career, making every point-after attempt and 14-of-18 field goals. But, even though Kay freely acknowledges that he is just keeping the seat warm until his good friend Schneider gets back, he has put on quite the show himself, making all 16 of his point-after attempts and three-of-four field goals, including clutch 41- and 47-yarders against Colorado State. Some force in the universe may not have wanted Kay to play football, and did everything possible to knock him down. But he has a focus and determination seen only in baseball closers, and yes, kickers. When thousands of voices scream, demanding nothing short of failure, you just keep your head down and split the uprights. Just like Kay did on his first collegiate kick.