The the most vertically-challenged kicker in college football spent last year taking coursework at a community college in St. Louis. He was not a member of any football team then — college or otherwise — and if you saw Nick Bartolotta strolling into a class at St. Louis Community College, you probably wouldn’t have guessed it, either.
The shortest kid in the class is a Division I prospect? No way.
On a good day, with the benefit of football cleats, Bartolotta measures in at a solid 5 feet 6. His Kansas teammates call him “Yoda” — at once a reference to his small stature and the final five letters of his Italian surname. His height, as you might presume, has been a lifelong curiosity — and something of a liability.
“It hurt me in the recruiting process,” Bartolotta says, sitting inside the KU football facility on a recent Tuesday. “But it’s also (motivated) me to be a better kicker.”
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For Bartolotta, the road to becoming a Division I kicker was long, the recruiting process sort of frustrating. From Fox High School in Arnold, Mo., to a very brief stint at Western Michigan in 2012, to a year kicking at the College of DuPage in 2013, to a year on the sidelines last year. The decision to sit out last year was simple, Bartolotta says. He yearned to kick for a Division I program, and when he couldn’t find any takers last season, he decided to lay out a year and spend the fall working out by himself. It would be a de facto redshirt, he figured, and it would preserve a year of college eligibility.
One year later, the decision appears to have paid off. As a sophomore kicker at Kansas, Bartolotta is splitting time with junior kicker Matthew Wyman — the friend and teammate responsible for the “Yoda” moniker. Bartolotta handles the extra points and short field goals, while Wyman does kickoffs and long field goals. Aside from a shaky performance at Rutgers — Bartolotta missed a 42-yard field goal and extra point — the duo has turned the KU kicking game into a pretty decent option for first-year coach David Beaty. Bartolotta is three for four with a long of 33, while Wyman has drilled a 51-yarder.
“I was concerned about it, to be honest with you,” Beaty says of his two-kicker system. “I think each one of those kickers have kind of taken their own identity and they've ran with it.”
That Bartolotta found kicking at all is a story of somewhat long odds. A three-sport athlete in high school, Bartolotta played soccer, baseball and spent his winters as a wrestler in the 126-pound division. The weight class forced Bartolotta to shed close to 25 pounds from his 150-pound frame before meets, and it also led to kicking. During one laid-back practice, a wrestling teammate laid a foam football down on the gymnasium floor and asked Bartolotta to take a swing.
“Try kicking this,” the friend said, “you got a boot.”
Bartolotta crushed the football high and straight, and an assistant football coach just happened to be watching. Soon enough, the football coaches had coaxed Bartolotta to try out for a vacant kicking spot, and he added a fourth sport to his high school schedule.
By his senior year, Bartolotta had dropped wrestling and soccer and began working with renowned kicking guru Jamie Kohl, who trains kickers for the college level. Bartolotta took to kicking quick, he says, and he was always pretty accurate. Coaches often compare the act of kicking a football to swinging a golf club. At its core, both are mechanical acts of repetition, and in this way, Bartolotta may actually have an advantage. If a 6-3 kicker with long legs is swinging something like a 3-iron, Bartolotta’s stubby legs are more like a pitching wedge.
“Some people believe that,” Bartolotta says. “Some people will say that. I don’t know. It works for me. But I don’t think there’s any disadvantage to being short…
“What’s the difference if the ball comes off the same?”
In the end, it didn’t. Last offseason, KU special teams coach Gary Hyman contacted Kohl, asking if he knew of any kickers who could contribute this season. Kohl mentioned Bartolotta, mentioned that he was only 5-feet-6, and that was cool with Hyman.
So Bartolotta, a lifelong Missouri fan, packed up his bags for Lawrence. Oh yeah, the Missouri thing. Yes, Bartolotta grew up in St. Louis, enjoyed rooting for the Tigers and pondered a future at Mizzou.
That changed, he says, the day KU offered him a chance to kick.
“I’ve been a Mizzou fan, up until I cam here,” Bartolotta says. “Not anymore, obviously.”