When 19-year-old kicker Landen Nealy jogs out onto the field for Avila University’s football team, there’s more than winning a game on his mind.
He tunes out the roar of the crowd and narrows his focus on what’s coming — a long snap from Ozzy Hoversten.
The football sails into the hands of holder Isaac Alberto.
Then like the lever of a well-oiled machine, Nealy’s right leg springs forward, the bridge of his foot snug in a black leather Nike soccer cleat strikes the inflated spheroid, and lifts it high and toward his target.
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When it all works — the snap, the hold, the wind and the temperature — the ball sails between the goal posts.
“The money shot,” Nealy said, smiling because it literally is.
Every point the starting Avila football kicker scores for his team, is money for pediatric cancer research.
Nealy, a college freshman from Houston, Texas, started kicking for the cause during his senior year in high school, through a national charity called Kick-It, based in Cleveland.
Kick-it Champions Program began three years ago, giving high school football kickers a chance to help “kick childhood cancer,” one field goal at a time.
“I heard about it from a friend, because we had a teammate in high school who battled leukemia,Vincent Salario,” Nealy recalled. “He didn’t win that fight. It was very emotional. I wanted to do something.”
So now Nealy thinks about his Cypress Christian School teammate every time he pulls on his helmet and takes the field for Avila.
Last year, while still in high school, Nealy raised $32,000, for Kick-It, more than any other kicker in the country. He had first set a goal to raise $25,000, because 25 was his teammate’s jersey number. Once he had hit that goal, Nealy upped the ante by $7,000.
On New Year’s Eve 2015, at a party in Houston with friends and their parents, Nealy celebrated by going from person to person asking them to donate and help him meet his new goal before the end the year.
“I made it,” Nealy said.
Now he’s raised the stakes again, setting this year’s fund raising goal at $42,000. This time it’s the number 42 emblazoned on his purple Avila Eagles jersey that has inspired his target.
Out of the four or five colleges Nealy had thought he might attend, the Houston native chose Avila because coaches there were quick to support the idea of him dedicating his freshman season to his high school friend through fund-raising efforts.
“I think it’s a great idea” said Justin Berna, Avila head coach. “It gives him some notoriety and it is for a good cause. “
The school has gotten behind him on it.
A week ago, Avila cheerleaders and other team boosters set up a booth near the field where fans could pledge their support to Nealy’s cause.
Since September Nealy has raised more than $7,200. Some contributors give a flat amount to help the cause, but most pledge by the point. Nealy earns points for every made field goal, extra point, and kickoff that results in a touchback. Nealy is five weeks into the season. Coach Berna said that so far he has landed 11 of 16 kicks and made 17 points.
“He had a bit of a rocky start, but that’s normal for freshman,” Berna said. “He’s kicking very well right now and he’s getting better.” Nealy averages 33 yards a punt, and his longest punt was 45 yards. As far as Avila football goes, Berna said, Nealy is in a good spot.
But being at Avila means he’s far from home. That hasn’t stopped his parents, Levi and Kristi Nealy, from visiting every weekend of the season. On Thursday evenings the Nealys climb into their black Ford F-150 and make the 13-plus-hour drive through the night every week to see their son play on Saturdays at home and away games.
“I have never missed a game,” Kristi Nealy said. She’s also never seen her son kick: “I get too nervous, I have to cover my eyes every time.”
When Nealy first got the notion he would spend part of his high school senior year raising money for childhood cancer research, “I wasn’t all for the idea,” his mom said. “I was selfish.”
She wanted to support the cause but thought with all that a high school student has to worry about in a senior year, she didn’t want her son to have the added stress of trying to meet a fundraising goal. Especially one that, according to the folks at Kick-It, was far and above the goals most high school kickers set for themselves.
“Traditionally high school students set goals at $3,000 to $5,000,” said Nina Sheffler, a Kick-it coordinator. “Landen is a special case.”
Not really, Landen Nealy says. “I can’t do this by myself,” he said. “This isn’t a me, it’s we. There is no way I could make a kick if I don’t get a good hold and no way we get a good hold if we don’t get a good snap.”
Hoversten and Alberto feel the pressure.
“It really feels like we are contributing to the cause,” Alberto said. “We have to work as a unit. So we even stress at the same time.”
But what Nealy feels, he said, is support from his teammates, “They are always pushing me,” he said.
And if that’s not enough to get the kickoff without the opposing team knocking it down, the three have a plan. “We’ll just tell them we are kicking for childhood cancer research and every point counts,” Nealy said. “Who’s ever gonna block that kick?”