Best foot forward

Best foot forward

Best foot forward

Before football practice starts, kicker Andrew Gassen is out on the turf ,wearing only one shoe.

“I’ve always had abnormally large feet,” he said. “I wear a size 16 shoe, and it’s incredibly difficult to find a kicking shoe in size 16.

“So I started kicking barefoot; it worked well for me, and I stuck with it. There really isn’t anything too glamorous about it, but it works.”

Though going barefoot seemed most practical given his shoe size, Gassen says there are other advantages to kicking sans shoe. Kicking shoes are thin by nature, and removing the extra layer of leather between foot and ball can give kickers greater control.

“It’s just like hitting with a golf club,” he said. “There’s a sweet spot on the club. . . it’s the same thing with your foot. You’ve got a solid bone that classifies as the sweet spot and if you connect the sweet spot of your foot with the sweet spot of the ball good things will happen.”While Gassen, the starting kickoff specialist and backup punter, is still working on the accuracy of his kicks, his coaches believe his raw talent and determination will serve him well both as an athlete and as a person.

“He is so driven,” said defensive backs coach Mike Mutz. “He’s on the field before practice kicking the ball.

“During practice he’s kicking the ball. When we break down and I’m walking off the field, going to get some dinner, he is kicking the ball. He wants to be a good kicker, that will take him so far in this game.”

Though Gassen has potential to be an all around starting kicker in football, he began his career in athletics playing youth soccer, going on to play five sports, football, baseball, soccer, basketball and track and field, in high school.

“I like track because it’s a big one-on-one sport,” he said. “You put the work in and you can see the benefits immediately, football’s great because it’s a team atmosphere.”

In addition to kicking for the Lions, Gassen is also expected to go All-American in the decathlon for indoor track and field season under Tom Rutledge, men’s head cross country and track and field coach, who recruited Gassen three different times.

“It’s a humbling experience because a big part of being an athlete, especially as a place kicker and in track and field, those are two really independent positions and when there’s a coach like Coach Rutledge, who really gets behind you and really pushes you and backs your self esteem up, that really makes a difference,” Gassen said.

Gassen will have to compete unattached for the 2009 indoor track season but Rutledge is glad to see him producing for the football team and looks forward to seeing him compete in green and gold for future seasons.

“Bottom line is we have him,” Rutledge said. “He’s a good man who comes from a good family. He’s the guy you want to date your daughter.”

Southern is Gassen’s third school in three years, having done stints at the University of Oklahoma and the Ohio State University. Leaving U of O after being heavily recruited by Ohio State, Gassen suffered a hamstring injury similar to one that put his collegiate athletic career in question as a senior in high school.

“I felt the pop, dropped to the ground and rolled,” Gassen said. “The first thing that came through my mind was I don’t know what’s going to happen to college now.

“I’d never contemplated the end of an athletic career, and it’ll come someday but there’s not one athlete in the world that thinks it’s coming soon.”

After serious rehabilitation, Gassen is back to his favorite thing, competing and while he had good experiences at both other schools Gassen says Southern is a good fit for him.

“Ohio definitely wasn’t for me,” he said. “I was raised in a small town and that university had more people than I’d ever seen in one place before.

“Southern reminds we a lot of my first school. Your teachers know who you are, coaches from the other sports know who you are, and you can walk across campus and run into 10 people you have a relationship with and that’s always a good thing in making it feel like home.”

Though the size and attitude of Southern make Gassen feel at home, he says his greatest support system is his family who travel to almost all of his athletic events, watch the games they miss on and, above all, encourage his academic achievement. Neither parents finished college and his mother, a native Brazilian, made education a top priority.

“She will not let me waste this opportunity,” he said. “Every college student has the time where they’re like “I’m overwhelmed right now,” and she’s just like, get over it.” She brings me back down to earth and keeps me going.”

Between school, practice and morning weights Gassen admits to spending his limited free time playing on one of his many video game systems, writing or drawing.

“I’m actually one of the world’ s biggest nerds, I’ve got every video game machine since at least 1999,” he said.

Gassen plans on one day using his love of writing to tell the story of his parents, who got married unable to speak the same language.

“I’ve always been the type of person that I’d rather write my own story than read someone else’s,” he said. “Love doesn’t know any distance, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t know any language either.”

After formal practice is over, Gassen will do a few more kicks, or maybe kick off his shoes altogether and run barefoot around the field to work out the soreness from morning weights and enjoy the weather.

“It’s too nice a day to be inside,” he said, still wearing no shoes.