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His parents were told that he might lose his right foot and might never walk again, so obviously the doctors never predicted that a decade later Jordan Kay would be the placekicker for the nation's No. 3 team. "That's become my spark and my drive," the Cal junior said. "There's never a time when I think I can't do something, because I know the details of where I've been." That confidence shows its face in Kay's performance: perfect on 26 extra-point attempts and 5-of-8 on field goals. The walk-on from Rolling Hills (Los Angeles County) made all seven of his kicks on a national stage in the Bears' 45-31 season-opening win against Tennessee and drilled 47- and 41-yard field goals in a 6-point win over Colorado State in Week 2. But that confidence was cultivated in where Kay has been: He's had four knee surgeries - two on his right (kicking) leg. Before that, a staph infection threatened his right foot and his kicking life. "It was scary and painful," Kay said. "My parents didn't really explain the severity until after I'd healed, but I knew it was serious."
At an overnight camp as a 12-year-old, Kay thought he was innocently picking a scab on his foot. It turned out to be a staph infection that spread into the growth plate of his foot. He was in the hospital for a week as doctors did bone taps with needles that were nearly three inches long. "I could barely walk," Kay said. "I'm past it, but I still have the scars." Almost miraculously, Kay went on to become a three-sport star at Peninsula High. As a sophomore he played varsity football, soccer and baseball. Then, came the junior season. Kay developed runners' knee. Kay's fibula and tibia were losing the blood supply to a portion of his right knee. More mature than he was at the time of his first serious injury, Kay knew the questions to ask this time. He realized that playing tailback, receiver, corner and returning kicks - as he had done the previous season - was out of the question, but he wanted to know about kicking. "It was clear that the bones were brittle, and reinjuring the knee would be career-ending," Kay said. "But I had little choice."
Kay pushed back the surgery. He went 6-for-7 on field-goal attempts and didn't miss a point-after attempt. The postseason operation cost him the baseball and soccer seasons, and it almost cost him more. Five months after surgery, Kay started feeling sporadic sharp pains in his right knee. Another MRI, another problem. There was a piece of cartilage floating around.
By Week 2 of his senior season, Kay had worked his way back into the lineup and was playing cornerback, along with his kicking duties. Then, he heard a pop - in the last quarter of the last league game. As Kay sprinted right to tackle a running back, a defensive lineman fell on his left foot. In an emotional scene, Kay was carried from the field knowing something was terribly wrong, but not knowing his ACL had just been destroyed. "I was trying to keep it quiet, because I didn't want to lose the scholarships," he said. "As teams found out, scholarships disappeared, but Cal called (with a walk-on opportunity)." So the choice Kay wanted to make became the only choice. He arrived in Berkeley eight months after another surgery, but something still wasn't right. His knee was swelling. His hips, lower back and groin had tightened and were causing severe pain. "I packed my bags and called home at least twice," Kay said. "I would have been an idiot if I had left." An MRI showed that the pain in the knee was caused because the ACL graft was too large. It created an absurd amount of scar tissue and the rest of his body was compensating for the abnormality. So it was time for a fourth surgery in a 31/2-year span.
"I almost shut down," Kay said. "I had had enough." Finally, the 2007 season arrived. He felt healthy. Kay, who said he'll apply for a sixth year of eligibility, had reclaimed his kicking routines, and his muscle memory was returning.
Tom Schneider, an established big-game kicker who is fourth on the school's all-time scoring list, approached Kay before the season-opener against Tennessee. "He said I was going to have to kick," Kay said. "We're always pretty serious before games, but I still thought he was joking." There was no punch line. Schneider had pulled his groin during pregame warm-ups, and Kay, the walk-on who could barely walk at one point, would attempt his first collegiate kick in front of more than 60,000 fans in person and a national TV broadcast. "I was in shock that I was going to play," Kay said. "I tried to motion to my dad in the stands that I was going to kick, and he thought that I wanted him to take pictures of me kicking during warm-ups." The butterflies didn't interfere with the results. Kay made six extra points and a 27-yard field goal against Tennessee. He was given a game ball as the special teams player of the game. "His success hasn't surprised me at all," Schneider said. Schneider says returning for Saturday's game against Oregon State is still a "legit" goal. Once he returns, Kay will probably go back to backup. "I'm having the time of my life right now," Kay said. "Of course, I want to play, but I'll be right there rooting for Tom."