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In each issue of Bucknuts The Magazine, we have in-depth features on Ohio State football players, coaches and prospects. We also have analysis pieces on the Buckeyes as well as their opponents, the Big Ten and college football world in general. Plus, we have features on OSU athletes in a variety of sports, including men's and women's basketball, hockey, wrestling, baseball and other sports.
Headline: The Dreamer
By Charles Babb
(From Summer 2006 issue)
It has been an unexpected journey for Ohio State place kicker Ryan Pretorius.
The heir apparent to Josh Huston, Pretorius is a native of South Africa. He grew up playing the sports common to his nation, not America. He excelled in tennis and track and field events as a young man, winning tournaments and races. He was even more proficient in rugby and football.
No, not American football; the football game the rest of the world plays – soccer.
His father, Danny, remembers fondly, "His first steps were with a ball at his feet. I used to coach rugby, and he used to come with me. Even as a 3-year-old, he could kick the ball over the rugby posts from the ground."
Danny continued, "He had this dream he wanted to make it in sport. Whatever sport it was, he didn't know. As a kid, he used to get all the national anthems of all the teams, and he knows the national anthem of every country. He would stand there with his fist on his chest singing their national anthems. His dream was to do it."
Pretorius' father and grandfather both played rugby so, at some point, he opted to follow in their footsteps and give up soccer and other sports. He focused his energies on seeing just how far he might go carrying on the family legacy.
Danny admittedly was not keen on his plans. For his son to play in South Africa perhaps was possible. He had done well at every level and had the athleticism and necessary contacts to succeed. To play in Europe was considered beyond his reach; it was a pipe dream.
Obviously the two disagreed, and Pretorius decided to roll the dice and bet it all on a trip to England.
"He did everything himself," said Danny. "He didn't have an agent. Barth, a top rugby club, said, ‘Come play for us. Someone will meet you at the airport and give you a job.'
"In Africa, he was pretty spoiled. But when he came across, he was working in a hotel making bread rolls. One Saturday he really damaged his ankle badly, but he had to get to work on the Sunday. (He went) on crutches because he needed the money, couldn't afford a taxi, and there was no bus service. He hobbled at least two miles on crutches to go to work."
Yet, Pretorius refused to yield; he wasn't going to quit and go home with his tail tucked between his legs. Rugby became his ticket to see the world and provided a different sort of education. After playing in England, he found his way to Spain and finally France as a professional. Along the way, he played in stadiums around the globe and even visited America.
His specialty of course was his leg strength and accuracy, and he hit more than his share of big kicks.
Yet through it all there was another nagging dream in the back of his mind. When he was just 14, his coaches were trying to motivate the rugby team at the start of the season. They chose an inspirational film to show to their players just what might be possible if one gave their all.
The film was "Rudy," and Pretorius was hooked the moment he saw it.
It should come as no surprise that he started looking into American football. After mutual friends put him in contact with NFL kicker Gary Anderson, he was sold on the idea.
"I spoke to Gary Anderson who had 23 years in the NFL, and he is from the same hometown (as me) in South Africa," Pretorius said. "He called me on the way to one of his Tennessee Titans games. I had a few questions for him, and he answered everything. He was very knowledgeable and kind to me. (In rugby) I was just a smaller guy on the field. Kicking was my best thing, and when Gary told me how you could just play a sport where you kick field goals, and if you are good enough you never have to worry about money. I decided to come out here and give it a shot."
Once again, he decided to gamble on his golden leg and athletic abilities.
Danny recounted, "He said, ‘Dad, I think I can go to America. There are a couple chaps who went across from Africa on tennis scholarships and semi-scholarships.' I said, ‘Ryan, you have never played American football in your life. We don't have any contacts in America. It is an expensive thing. Don't be foolish.'
"He said, ‘Well, I will prove you wrong.' I said, ‘Please go to university – you are wasting your life' and all of this. He said, ‘No, I have this dream, and I will prove you are wrong.'
"So, I have to take my hat off to him," continued Danny with quiet parental pride. "He has done it all himself, and he has never said, ‘I told you so.'"
Pretorius crossed the Atlantic with no job, little money, and only a dream. He sold his car back to his father to finance the trip, and he used what savings he had scraped together playing professional rugby. He lived in Denver, mostly with friends, and for two years he practiced kicking the football. At first, he could barely get the ball up off of the ground, but he persevered – day after day after day after day. He continued to practice and once again refused to quit.
Finally, he believed he was ready. He had a video of his kicking taken and sent it to coaches at Ohio State. They took one look, and he was officially invited to join the team. At 25, his dreams were about to come true.
It was love at first sight for Pretorius.
"When I first watched a game, I walked into the stadium (and) couldn't believe how loud the crowd was," he said. "Everyone wore scarlet and gray – more scarlet than gray, but when you go to big rugby stadiums it is not as loud. Certainly people don't all wear the same color. I love the scarlet colored stadium and the cheerleaders and all the cheers going up. It was amazing.
"I think the Buckeye fans are way out there. I think it is awesome. I've never seen so many cars with Buckeye stickers and flags. I mean, there is nothing like the support here; it's out of this world. There were no fancy cheers or whatever; it was just ‘Beat Michigan!' I love it."
He continued, "I never knew what to expect when I came here. The only thing I had seen was the movie ‘Rudy.' That's the first time I saw football. I thought, ‘Jeepers, Notre Dame looks amazing, and our stadium is almost twice as big as theirs.' So, I think it is amazing everything that goes on here."
Pretorius was a walk-on at OSU for two years before going on scholarship as Huston's backup last fall. He made his college football debut by kicking off once in last year's wins over Indiana and Northwestern.
He has made a made a believer out of his father Danny, who says, "He is so proud of Ohio State University. He sends me pictures of the campus and all the different degrees people are getting and things people are doing. He is so proud of it. He loves the Buckeyes. Absolutely. Now he is halfway through his degree and is going to get a degree as well. That is fantastic. Academically at school, he really struggled. All of a sudden, he is getting recommendations. We can't believe it. Maybe it is the mature age. Maybe it is the environment, but it is has brought out the best in him."
Now, after two years biding his time behind Mike Nugent and Josh Huston, Pretorius has locked horns with freshman Aaron Pettrey. In a winner-take-all battle, each is intent on becoming the next place kicker for the Buckeyes.
For his part, Pettrey gained a leg up in the spring with a 59-yard kick to end the annual kicking scrimmage.
"It's good for the team," commented Pretorius. "Obviously, I was on the Scarlet team, and we wanted to win, but he is a kicker just like me. I spend every day with him. Great kicker – fair play to him."
Still, this is not a one-day or even one-kick contest. The winner will be the one who is most consistent over the long haul. Since both possess the leg to put the ball through the uprights from 50 yards and deliver it to the end zone even with the change in the kicking tee for 2006, the victor will be the one whom the coaches believe can make the field goal when the pressure is on and the crowd is roaring.
This gives Pretorius the advantage because aside from his 7 of 8 performance that afternoon, he has a history of nailing important kicks during his stint as a professional rugby player.
"There was one in France when I was playing against our big rivals, and those French people are crazy," Pretorius said. "I hit one from inside my own half. That was early on in the game, but it ended up being the decider – which was, I don't know, close to 60 yards. I had a nice wind behind me when I hit that. I did the same with a drop kick once, too, in my own half. Those are big kicks early in the game. I've had a few at the end of games, but those two, because of the distance, stick out in my mind."
He currently is practicing with the first team, Pettrey with the second, and the other kickers alternate third string and scout, but Pretorius isn't about to rest on his laurels. Missed kicks are not acceptable. Taking the easy route is not an option. Work, hard work, is the way he intends to seize this job.
He observed, "You know I gave up my whole life and rugby to do this. I'm my biggest critic, and I put so much pressure on myself every day. If I miss one kick I am so mad because I have done it a thousand times."
"I have never heard of him training as hard as he is training now," said his father. "It's not just the kicking. It is the weights and the running and all the rest of it. He is totally dedicated. His wife said he is terribly hard on himself. He might get 8 out of 9 in practice, but he will talk about the one he doesn't get over. He has spoken to me, but I have given him nothing but encouragement."
In the end, Pretorius has already exceeded expectations. Already he has achieved above and beyond what any person might expect.
His goal is the NFL, but even if he falls short, he has one believer.
His father summed it up: "I've said, if you look at the Rudy story, this is a better story than that. To me it was an impossibility that he could ever get to America and play American football. What is the possibility to make that transition? I've tried to kick with the ball, and it's hard. I thought there was no way he could compete with the big boys. He's given up everything, and he has made it. To me, making the squad means he has made it."
Pretorius' family will travel from England to watch the first four games this season. They can't wait to see their son and take part in something that is so important to his life.
For his part, Pretorius intends to stay one way or the other.
"I just love the American people," he said. "They are so healthy and full of fun. I just love being an American. I'm never going to go. It's the best place on earth. I get my green card soon. I've been married for 2 ½ years. Once I get that I may as well get citizenship."
In the end, you don't have to be an American to seize the American dream.
Just ask Ryan Pretorius.