There are phone calls you get and phone calls you make. Conrad Ukropina made a special one in September.
“Calling my mom and dad once Coach Shaw told me I had a scholarship is without a doubt the best phone call I’ve ever made,” says Ukropina, the football team’s senior placekicker.
Ukropina, a science, technology and society major from Pasadena, spent his first three seasons on the squad as a non-scholarship walk-on. That’s a status that implies a special grit: You weren’t among the chosen; you were simply impossible to reject.
After three seasons spent mostly in reserve, Ukropina won the first-string job this year, and head coach David Shaw has a well-established custom of rewarding walk-ons with scholarships in those situations. But two games into the season, even after going 3-for-3 in field goal attempts that included a 52-yarder, Ukropina was feeling the worst thing a kicker can, on or off the field: He still wasn’t sure of his footing.
“I actually texted him,” recalls Ukropina. “Just wanted to go up and talk to him. Coach Shaw’s awesome. I love talking to him—he’s a great guy. Just wanted to talk to him really about, ‘Hey, where am I at, in your eyes? What can I do to earn a scholarship?’ And so I walk into his office and he actually says, ‘Before we say anything, Conrad, does this have anything to do about you being on scholarship?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, sir, it does.’ And he was like, ‘Well, you don’t need to worry about that because you are on scholarship.’ . . . I remember asking, ‘Excuse me, what did you just say?’ And he was, ‘Yeah, we’ve been talking about it, and you’ve earned this.’ And he had the scholarship financial agreement already written up.”
A series of team-related meetings kept Ukropina from calling his parents for about an hour. One part of their conversation was a little different from the rest: In addition to the shared joy, pride and love, there was the moment when his parents reminded him to keep working hard every day.
That’s the Ukropina mind-set, which is ideal given the one-game-at-a-time ethos that’s taught by Shaw and his staff like it’s part of the playbook.
“Are you visualizing yourself hitting, let’s say, the Pac-12 championship game winner? No, I’m not,” says Ukropina. “I take things week by week. And that is how everyone does it here.”
So what’s in his head when he’s going to sleep? For the week of his interview with Stanford, it was the opponent three days ahead. “I’m thinking about Arizona. I’m visualizing myself going out and hitting a 42-yarder on the right hash. Or hitting a 32-yarder on the left hash. Or hitting a PAT.”
In game three, a 41-31 road win over USC, Ukropina nailed important 42- and 46-yarders. He didn’t have a hiccup until missing a field goal in the game four 42-24 victory at Oregon State, but he improved his point-after-touchdown stat to 15-for-15.
His meticulous visualization is so real and so essential to his performance that Ukropina barely makes any distinction between preparing and doing.
“One thing that I do is, after I’ve taken my steps—three back and two to the side—most kickers will look back up at the uprights and say, all right, that’s where I want to kick it. But I don’t do that. I keep my head down because when I have taken my steps, I’ve already aligned myself to make the kick. So the kick’s already been made. Now all I need to do is just go through the motions of kicking, which I’ve done a million times.”
“Once I’m in my stance and I’m set up, I’ve already made the kick. It’s already good.”