ovember 27th, 2010.
ovember 27th, 2010.The Blazers were making their long and final drive home from Houston, TX following a loss to the Rice Owls. The 23-28 loss closed the book on a disappointing 4-8 record for the UAB football team.
On the team buses, emotions varied. For most of the seniors, the feeling of finality started to creep in as they realized that the days they had left playing the game that they loved had reached a bitter end. Dissatisfaction weighed over the team, clouding much of any optimism for the next year. Morale was at a staggering low. While most of the team would eventually shake it off and begin with a clean slate the next season, that slow bus-ride home began one young man’s battle with a deep, life-changing decision that would mean substantial consequences for his education, his family, and his future. I sat down with him to gain some insight into what went wrong and what went right.
Trying New Things
Joshua Zahn was born to be a football player…just not an American football player. His passion from a very young age was on the soccer field. Excited by the game’s pace and motivated by his natural ability to play it, Zahn couldn’t get enough of the sport. His plan was simple enough: play club level soccer in his free time and start on the soccer team when he reached high school. It wasn’t until midway through his 8th grade year that a new idea presented itself: try kicking footballs, instead of soccer balls. “I was always like the big leg on the soccer team so people thought it would be a good idea.”
With no experience or technical knowledge for kicking pigskin, Zahn spent his Christmas break that year out on the football field practicing field goals and kickoffs. “I was actually not too bad at it, but I had no idea what I was doing.” Hindered by little acquaintance with the techniques involved, but encouraged by the support of those around him, he tried out for football team as a freshman. Zahn was surprised with the outcome. “I made varsity right away…apparently, not a lot of kids can kick.”
He spent his high school years playing on the varsity soccer team in the spring, and playing club soccer in his free time during the summer and fall to stay conditioned. He kept kicking field goals, too. “It was definitely fun, and it was probably more fun because I was good at it. But really, when it came down to it, it was more because I was good at it. That’s what brought my enjoyment, rather than because I really, really wanted to do it. I didn’t mind doing it and it was fun, but soccer was always my love.”
Change of Plans
Zahn certainly enjoyed having success on the football team, but he never viewed it as anything more than a hobby…something to do in the fall before soccer season that could also help his school’s football team. That all changed during the first quarter of his final game as a junior in front of the home crowd. “I hit a 50 yard field goal…and it was cleared for a while.” It was at this point when others took notice. “It became more and more talked about – hey, you could probably do this, you could probably do this.” Seeing that it could be getting more serious, Josh decided to step up his game his senior year. “I went to kicking straight off the ground…usually people are still using some sort of block to help them.” Despite the change, he didn’t miss a beat. “I had a good year. I made a lot of field goals, and I still had good distance.” That is when Josh started to see the possibility of making something out of kicking. “I started realizing ‘Okay, I could really do this’. Everybody in college and the NFL is kicking off the ground, and I was kicking pretty close to what they were all doing.”
Zahn decided it was time to get serious. At the end of his senior year, he decided to kick at the 7th Annual Kicking and Snapping event in Las Vegas. The event, sponsored by Nike and run by Chris Sailer, had over 400 athletes participate. “My school really wasn’t a good football school. We weren’t on the radar. My name wasn’t going to get out there, so I signed up.” He wasn’t sure what, if anything at all, would come out of it. What did come out of it, however, was more than he could have hoped for. His initial performance was good enough to get selected for the final round, an opportunity only 21 kickers out of around 300 earned. He didn’t disappoint in that round either, tying for 2nd overall in the final which earned him a coveted spot in the “Top 12” kickers in his class. It was at this point that UAB came calling.
The Blazers were desperately looking for someone to replace First Team All-Conference USA kicker Swayze Waters. They had gone through the early signing period without successfully filling the role and were at a crossroads. Would they try to find a last-minute kicker to fill up a scholarship or cut their losses and go with a walk-on? After analyzing just how important the kicking game would be for the success of UAB’s next season, Tyson Helton made a call. Helton had a relationship with Chris Sailer, who ran the previously mentioned kicking event, and inquired about some of the kickers. Sailer recommended one of the surprises of the competition, Joshua Zahn. Zahn flew out to Birmingham to tour the campus and was offered a scholarship on the spot. “They offered and I signed.” The decision wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Birmingham, Alabama was over 1,600 miles away from Gilbert, Arizona. Signing would mean uprooting his life and going to a place with no friends, no family, and no previous connection whatsoever. On the other hand, he would be given the opportunity to earn a college education on an athletic scholarship…which, in the end, was just too much to pass up. “I graduated high school at the end of May and a week and a half later I was in Alabama starting college.” As if the quick transition wasn’t enough, the pressure to produce was on from the beginning. “They told me going into it – ‘we’re really looking for a kicker that can start now…we need someone that can start now.’” The UAB coaching staff felt confident in Zahn’s ability and so did he. Starting school in the summer would help him get accustomed to his new surroundings and develop relationships with his teammates prior to the fall, and his experience already kicking directly off the ground meant minimal adjustment was needed for the collegiate level. “I was excited. I didn’t really have any second thoughts. It was a big decision, but it was more just – is this where I want to go, not – is this what I want to do.”
With each failed attempt, the pressure built. Teammates looked on in disbelief. Frustration burned on the sideline. The UAB Blazers, a football team that received little respect in its own state – let alone on the national stage, had SEC opponent Tennessee on the ropes in Knoxville. It wasn’t easy. The defense kept the Volunteers at bay while the offense helped their two quarterbacks scrap their way onto the scoreboard. Backup quarterback David Isabelle had a passing and rushing touchdown. Quarterback Bryan Ellis had 373 passing yards, a touchdown, and two 2-point conversions in his first career start. Everything the Blazers had to do to win, they did it…except have a successful field goal attempt. UAB fans both in the stands at the game and watching on national television had the palm of their hands planted squarely on their faces. The Blazers had missed four field goals so far in the game, all results of kicks by sophomore Josh Zahn. Earlier in the season, the Blazers lost a heart-breaker to FAU in the season opener as the result of a blocked 28-yard FG attempt…but that was different. That was blocked. These were misses, clear misses…that over 95,000 in person and countless others on national television witnessed.
Still, despite the mistakes in the kicking game, the Blazers truly looked like the comeback kids, having been down by 23-7 at the half (the same halftime score of the previous week’s game…which resulted in a 34-33 win against Troy) yet still securing a 23-23 tie against the Vols and the ball towards the end of the game. The Blazers hoped that the final drive could end with at least 6 points. Unfortunately, a touchdown did not come…instead came a 4th and 2 with a major decision to make. Callaway decided to once again give Zahn the chance to convert a field goal attempt…this time to put the Blazers up in the final seconds of the game. The problem? The attempt was from a distance of 54 yards…a kick that, had it been made, would have set the Blazer record for longest successful field goal attempt (the record was set this past Saturday against Ohio State by current kicker Ty Long on a field goal of the same distance). Many wondered why a kicker who had missed 4 field goals consecutively in the same game would be asked to set a school kicking record to win the game when a 2 yard gain would have resulted in a fresh set of downs.
Regardless of the other possibilities, the decision for Zahn to attempt a 5th field goal try in regulation was made…but the kick wasn’t. The Blazers went into overtime with Tennessee, and the Volunteers had all the momentum and the home crowd back on their side. Despite five misses in regulation, Zahn did have two successful field goals in overtime to extend the game – one to send it to double overtime and another to put the Blazers up in that overtime. Tennessee would score a touchdown and seal the victory.
Immediately following the game, then-head coach Neil Callaway was asked by media where his team self-destructed. He responded, “Field goals…were you at the game?” The reporter then stated that Josh Zahn “seemed to be having a pretty bad day out there today” which prompted Callaway to respond simply, “No comment.” As the team loaded the buses on the way home from Knoxville, one thought prevailed – if just one of those missed kicks had gone in…just one…UAB would be on a completely different track.
Despite their disappointment, Zahn says that his teammates were still being supportive. “Even after the game…everybody on the bus was really nice and in interviews nobody really called me out and said anything bad.” The same could not be said about the media and fans. The buses were equipped with satellite television and, without surprise, the televisions were tuned to SportsCenter. As the highlights of the UAB-Tennessee game were put on the screen, the entire team was forced to relive a heartbreaking loss that had just happened. The minds of the players once again went to Zahn’s missed field goal kicks. As the highlights counted off each miss one by one, the commentator asked, “How would you like to be Josh Zahn sitting on the team bus wondering if you will still have a scholarship when you get home?” Comments weren’t much better from the UAB fanbase. “I knew a lot of people despised me after that game. Not the football team, not the coaches. They were disappointed, but they knew what I had and knew who I was and knew we were going to be okay. But the fans….just reading BlazerTalk and just seeing stuff…I knew a lot of people had, basically, just written me off and thought I was the worst thing that could have happened to the team.” For any player, the constant criticism would have been hard to take…but as a kicker, Zahn was a much easier target. “It’s hard not to sense it. I mean, everybody talked about it around you.”
Finishing The Season
Josh Zahn remained the field goal kicker for UAB throughout the rest of the 2010 season. However, rebuilding the confidence of Zahn as a kicker wasn’t entirely a top priority. Rumors of football staff eying the soccer team for potential walk-on kickers were only exacerbated by Callaway opening up a kicking competition between Josh Zahn and Punter Trey Ragland. Ragland had no interest in kicking field goals, despite doing so in high school. News was even put out that Ragland would take over kicking field goals for the Mississippi State game (which did not happen). Not only did Zahn have to compete with somebody who really didn’t want to kick…but he was aware that the coaching staff was searching for a potential replacement elsewhere. The Blazers had already received a commitment from a kicker in the 2011 recruiting class, Colin Anderson, who was expected to compete strongly for Zahn’s job when he arrived the next season. Despite this, Zahn continued to work towards bettering his field goal efficiency and won every internal kicking competition for the remainder of the season. “They were sending a message to me, but I also know that they got to do the best thing for their team. I was ready for anything.” No matter what was taking place behind the scenes by the coaching staff, Zahn always felt that they were critical for the good of himself and the team. “I didn’t have a negative relationship with any of the coaches.
Some of the coaches I didn’t necessarily know very well, but none of them had a negative relationship. Most of them had a very positive relationship…wanted to encourage me but also were very blunt and straight-forward about a lot of stuff. I didn’t ever feel like anything that Coach Tyson Helton or Coach Callaway said was ever going to be something to just be hurtful.” That wasn’t the case for all the coaches though, as Zahn pointed out. “There was a coach, I don’t want to name him…that during practice, a lot of the guys probably know, he would just degrade you to no end to get you to perform. That was his way to do it. This is probably just me as a person, but I don’t like being belittled and targeted and just being hammered on the entire time with just the worst stuff…” This particular coach, who remained unnamed by Zahn, clearly wasn’t interested in the mental side of the kicking game. “That didn’t help me get any better when things were really bad. I got better through other people, but there was a specific coach that would just tear you down completely.” It wasn’t just at practice. The same coach had previously used the same tactics with Zahn during the first half of the now infamous Tennessee game. “At halftime, he came up to me and said ‘I’m sorry…I said those things to you to try and make you better, not make you worse.’”
After starting the season 3-of-9, Zahn was able to make 50% of his field goals (4-of-8) for the remainder of 2010 and ended the season 37-of-38 on extra points (the one miss coming in the last game of the season). While it was certainly better than his start, it still wasn’t good. “Every week there was a competition and every week I was the best kicker and earned it in every practice. So going into every game, the coaches never felt that I couldn’t do it and I never felt like I couldn’t do it because I did it all the time in practice. Something…I don’t know what it was in the game…maybe I had flashbacks…I don’t know. It was more subconscious than anything, because I don’t remember thinking ‘I am scared to death of kicking.’” For Zahn, the writing began to show on the wall. The fans had almost completely given up on him, the coaching staff had already started looking for new kickers, and, worst of all, his passion for kicking seemed to have been lost. An important decision had to be made. On the bus ride home from the final home game of the season, Zahn began to consider if this was the right place for him to be.
For Josh Zahn, the options were straight-forward: either stay at UAB and compete for the job while earning an education on scholarship or go home and move on with his life. The decision, however, was far from easy. To leave UAB at the end of the season would mean being labeled a quitter, not just by fans but possibly his teammates. His legacy at UAB would always remain as the guy that lost the Tennessee game…and leaving would mean never having a chance to overcome that. On the other side, fans seemed to be ready for a change…and it was unlikely they would be supportive of Zahn even if were to get a shot at kicking again. It just didn’t seem right to him. Why stay and take up a scholarship when his heart isn’t in it anymore? He had already let his team down and felt terrible for it…would he really have the drive to go through it all again and make himself better for the team?
Zahn thought about it for about a week before making a final decision. “I did not sleep at all for that week. I would go back and forth during the night wondering what I was going to do. I’d call my family. I’d talk to the chaplain at the school. I was just going back and forth…couldn’t sleep. I prayed about it and just finally came up with – this isn’t right…I can’t do it anymore.” It wasn’t until he finally came to the conclusion of going back home that he found peace. “That’s how I knew that it was definitely the right decision.” The decision would have serious consequences. Leaving the football team would mean leaving behind a full-ride scholarship…which would mean problems with family back home. “Who in their right mind would want to give up – especially with how expensive college is – a full ride scholarship?” On the outside, it appeared to many that Zahn had simply quit or gave up, but he doesn’t view it that way. “A lot of people won’t think that I went that deep. They’re just going to think I quit. Should I have been selfish enough to just say ‘I don’t really want to do this but hey – I’m getting a free scholarship out of it’? I’m just not about that.”
The decision was made, but conveying the decision to the coaching staff was something else. Zahn called Callaway on a Saturday and asked to setup a meeting. The meeting was set for Tuesday. Three long days of nerves followed. “I already had my mind made up…but I’m like freaking out.” Callaway asked him what was on his mind. “I said ‘Coach, I’ve got to be completely honest with you. I don’t feel like my heart is in this and I won’t want to do it anymore.’” Much to Zahn’s surprise, Callaway didn’t have a negative reaction. Instead, he wanted to make sure that the young athlete was making the best decision for his own future. “It wasn’t a harsh conversation. I definitely had made up in my head that it was going to be a lot worse than it actually was. I think we both felt that it was the right thing at the end of it.”
Life After UAB
When Zahn first moved back to Arizona, it caused rifts in his family. Although they seemed supportive at the time, some family members weren’t willing to get past his giving up a full-ride scholarship to come back and live at home. “I had to decide where to live. I didn’t want to move in with people that I had tension with.” Zahn found a place to live and set out to make a new path. He wanted to go back to school and complete his degree eventually, but didn’t have the money. “My girlfriend at the time – who I had been with through all of college – her dad offered me a job.” It was a full-time job and, since Zahn was staying where he had little living expenses, he was able to save up his money. For what? “My girlfriend at the time…we were getting ready to take it to the next level. We went to Disneyland and I proposed to her.”
For a while after leaving UAB, Zahn worried if he put himself in too big of a hole. It turns out that wasn’t the case. He was able to get a reliable job, buy a house, and get married…all before turning the age of 21 (which he did just this past May). “A lot of awesome, big, huge things have happened for me in the past year or so since I’d left, that were definitely nothing that I had envisioned and they’ve all been huge positive things.”
“It has definitely turned out to be the best decision…not just for me but for UAB. Look at Ty Long. What a great kid, what a great kicker. I was following him last year and he was so solid for them. That’s a huge kid to have.” Zahn was so impressed with Long, he had to let him know. “I sent him a message in the middle of the season just letting him know who I was and to let him know how good he was doing.” Long, who had committed to South Alabama prior to Zahn leaving, appreciated the positive thoughts. Zahn still keeps up with UAB Football as much as he can and is excited about where the program is heading. “They’re making a lot of changes over there and I think they’re really geared towards doing better.”
Zahn hopes that his legacy at UAB isn’t just the kid that missed those kicks against Tennessee. He doesn’t even care if you remember his positive performances like the 2009 Southern Miss game – where he went 3-3 on field goals, including a 51 yard make, and averaged almost 60 yards per kickoff to help put UAB’s first win over Southern Miss in the record books. Zahn wants to be remembered as a young kid that made a big-time decision…a decision with risks and consequences. A decision that was made not out of selfish intent…but for the betterment of all involved.
He continues on his life path, wanting to go back to school and get an IT degree. He has gotten back into playing community soccer and has even been approached by former coaches about playing on the collegiate level. Zahn says he was flattered, but has no interest returning to college athletics – with one exception. “I have a couple of students…I’m still teaching kicking.” Zahn would love to see them make it on the collegiate level and be better prepared for the mental element than he was. Aside from that, his passion rests at home. “With the house comes the bills. With the bills comes the job. I have a whole life over here that is way different than the one I had in Birmingham. Here I have mouths to feed, house payments due. Coming home helped me grow up.”
Zahn still hopes to come out and see the Blazers play at some point this season. If that doesn’t happen, he’s still watching anyway he can. Zahn’s only advice to Blazer fans? “We understand disappointment. We get that…but when you start taking it to the level of demeaning us a human being? You already know as a kicker that he’s fragile…so just take it easy. Never bring them down…always bring them up. You can say ‘Well, he didn’t have to go on BlazerTalk and you didn’t have to do this’ but it’s in everything around you. You’re in college now…it’s a big deal. You’re in the paper and stuff. I would just say, the biggest thing you can do for someone is just do your best to keep them up. You saw what happened to me.”
Are there any hard feelings towards the Blazer fanbase for some of the negativity? Zahn says no. “I became kind of famous, so I’m not mad about it. I was reading BlazerTalk during the basketball season and somebody had a rough game and had missed a lot of shots. Somebody responded that he ‘pulled a Zahn’. I just started laughing out loud. That was pretty funny. “