COLUMBIA — Concealed behind an equipment shed, Ian Patterson is alone.
He stands on the Rock Bridge football practice field, a desolate surface bordered by a chain-link fence. An inclined pathway leads to the varsity field where his teammates are practicing, a three-minute walk away from where Patterson stands.
If Rock Bridge defeats the Blue Springs Wildcats on Friday night, they will advance to sectionals for the first time since 2005. Currently, the Bruins have a 1-1 record in district play, while Blue Springs is 2-0.
Blue Springs (7-2)
at Rock Bridge (6-3)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Rock Bridge Stadium
Despite their proximity, Patterson is in a different world.
He is surrounded by uneven ground littered with dying grass between two sets of worn down field goal posts, both of which are encrusted with chipped yellow paint.
Equipped with two footballs and a kicking stand, Patterson practices his kickoffs.
The ball hisses through the air as the sound of his contact with the ball echoes throughout the barren field. The ball soars, cutting through the gusting wind, refusing to cooperate with the laws of gravity.
From the varsity field, the blast is faint. Hard tackles, screeching whistles and blaring voices drown out the noise.
But in Patterson’s world, it’s the only sound.
Sometimes, if you’re paying attention from the varsity field, you can see a bruised football fresh off of Patterson’s foot barely flutter over the roof of the equipment shed.
But nobody ever does.
Patterson, a senior kicker for the Bruins, coaches himself.
“We don’t,” coach A.J. Ofodile said. “There’s not really a whole lot of coaching that we can do. He knows more about the position than any of us do at this point.”
Patterson strikes his second football and watches as it rapidly fades away. With each second, the ball appears to decrease in size as it flies toward vacant ground.
Patterson shakes his head with dissatisfaction. His form was off.
“I can coach myself pretty well on technique and can work myself quite a bit,” Patterson said. “I pretty much spend practice kicking by myself.”
Patterson has always known that he’s had an abnormally strong kick. At 12 years old, in his very first football game, he kicked a 35-yard field goal. A year later, he kicked his first 50-yard field goal in practice. He realized at an early age that he would benefit from specialized coaching.
“Ian came to me about two years ago to do a private lesson, and I saw a lot of potential,” said Brooks Rossman, who kicked for Kansas State from 2006 to 2008 and also spent time at multiple NFL training camps. “Right away, I knew he had the leg strength to play Division I football.”
Patterson’s bulky frame once again appears beyond the horizon. He disappeared momentarily to retrieve the footballs he had recently drilled across the deserted field. He jogs back slowly to his kicking stand, both footballs cradled tightly to his chest.
As monotonous as it is for Patterson to retrieve his footballs during practice, it’s even more frustrating for the opposing kick returner during games. On an almost regular basis, Patterson’s kickoffs are within or beyond the end zone, not allowing the opposing team to return the ball.
Sometimes, his kickoffs will even go through the field goal posts.
“That’s an awesome feeling,” Patterson said, laughing. “I can’t always tell if it goes in, but I can by hearing the people in the stands. They really like that, I guess.”
The farthest field goal Patterson has ever made in a game was from 46 yards. In practice, he’s made one from 65 yards.
“I had witnesses,” Patterson said, laughing confidently.
But the most important aspect of the Division I recruitment process for kickers is kickoffs. They show off leg strength and potential. Patterson averages about 65 yards, the same as, if not better than, a Division I kicker. His hang time ranges from 3.9 seconds to 4.15 seconds. Most Division I kickers average 4.2 seconds.
“We have our prospect rankings, and he’s our No.1 kicker out of about 29 seniors,” Rossman said. “As far as leg strength goes, he’s got one of the best in the country.”
Patterson has attended various kicking camps over the past couple of years to not only improve his kicking abilities, but also to increase his chances of receiving a scholarship. He has kicked at camps in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Las Vegas (three times), Kansas City and Chicago, and at the University of Florida, the University of Oregon, Kansas State and MU.
But even with all of his experience, there are no scholarship guarantees for Patterson.
“With kickers, scholarships at the Division I level are few and far between,” Ofodile said. “So, that’s kind of a tough deal.”
Rossman agreed but pointed out that Patterson’s chances are better than most kickers'.
“A lot of good kickers get overlooked,” Rossman said. “A lot of kickers that don’t deserve scholarships get scholarships. It’s just one of those things where it’s such a crapshoot.
“It’s always a gamble in this business. Are you hyped up enough out of high school? Do the right people have your best interest? There’s a little luck involved with it.
“If anything, I think that the word’s out on Ian now, so I don’t think he’s going to have a problem finding a place to play in Division I. But you never know.”
Patterson has received attention from Kansas State, the University of Montana and Harvard. Rossman would love Patterson to kick at his alma mater, Kansas State, but it remains to be seen how strong the interest is.
After 45 minutes, Patterson has retrieved his final batch of footballs. With beads of sweat running down his face, he puts his equipment away and begins his three-minute trek back to the team.
He emerges from the depths of his lonely world and is clearly visible in front of the equipment shed.
After maneuvering along the chain-link fence and down the inclined pathway, Patterson sits beside his teammates on the sidelines of the varsity field.
He’s no longer alone and no longer the coach.