With 45,237 witnesses, Utah kicker Andy Phillips lined up for his first career field goal attempt.
He was, understandably, a nervous wreck.
Phillips’ team trailed 23-14 to its second-biggest rival, Utah State, when he lined himself up, put his head down and put every ounce of energy he had into his right leg. The ball sailed through the uprights for a 45-yard field goal and Phillips exhaled. He went on to hit two more, including the game-winner, and the Utes beat the Aggies 30-26 on Aug. 29.
“I was confident in my execution, but I didn’t know how I was going to handle the pressure,” said Utah’s 24-year-old freshman kicker.
Wait, did he say pressure? Pressure?
This is the same Andy Phillips who, as a 19-year-old, finished fifth in the slalom at the 2008 World Junior Ski Championships and had a good shot at qualifying for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
This guy was worried about pressure?
“In ski racing, it’s totally different,” Phillips said. “You’re racing for a minute and a half and then it’s over. In football, you have to be zoned in, block everything out and execute.
“I’ve been really excited about how I’ve adapted to the pressures of the game.”
Nobody thought Phillips would adapt to the game this well.
The freshman is 11 for 11 on field goals and 27 for 27 on extra-point attempts this season. Earlier this week, ESPN named Phillips to its midseason All-America team.
“We no longer go to the soccer fields for kickers; we go to the slopes to try to find those guys,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We’re just elated about what Andy has given us and what he’s done for us. He’s just been lights out and that’s something that’s been a big difference for us.”
Phillips never envisioned a career path that might take him to the NFL. Instead, he figured he’d be gearing up for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
But after his strong showing at the world juniors in 2008, Phillips decided to put religion before skiing. Instead of training for the Vancouver Games, Phillips went on a two-year Mormon mission that started a couple months before the games began.
He figured when he got back, he would start training for the Sochi Games and have that opportunity.
But there was one thing Phillips, then a member of the U.S. Ski Team, wasn’t accounting for.
“The funding for the ski team was especially difficult,” Phillips said. “They were asking for money for its athletes to participate. At that point, I realized it was something that I needed to move on from and spend my money elsewhere, like an education.”
So he prepared to enroll at Utah, but wanted to stay involved in athletics someway. A former soccer player, Phillips decided to start kicking. He watched videos of other kickers do their thing and began getting better and better.
He sent a film of his kicking to Utah special teams coach Jay Hill, who liked what he saw, but wanted to see more. Phillips kept working and eventually the tape impressed Hill enough to invite him to walk on.
Phillips redshirted the 2012 season and kept working on his new craft. He beat out Jon Halliday in fall camp to earn the starting job and the rest has been history.
“Something that’s been helpful is that I didn’t grow up kicking, so I didn’t have any bad habits to correct,” Phillips said. “It was easy to see where I needed to improve. I’ve made some natural adjustments and I’ve been working on my own and Coach Hill. It’s been going really well.”
And does he miss the no-pressure slopes with his newfound football success?
“Absolutely, I miss the competition,” Phillips said. “I miss traveling like I used to and get to see the beautiful parts of the world. But coach hasn’t told me I can’t ski yet, so I still get to do some powder skiing from time to time.
“Football, though gives me the adrenaline, and I love what I’m doing now.”