Against the Odds: Kyle Brindza
Mike Monaco | Friday, October 10, 2014
“You’re made to be a kicker or you’re not.”
The words of Brandon Kornblue ring true on Notre Dame’s campus. Kornblue, the former Michigan kicker and current kicking coach, sees the innate traits in one of his budding pupils, Irish senior kicker Kyle Brindza. Kornblue sees the power, the strength. He sees the confidence, the mental ability.
“Choosing kicking and having all those physical traits and mental traits, I feel like I’ve been born to be able to do this,” Brindza said.
But what happens when the kid born to kick is born, well, not to kick? What happens when the otherwise ready-made kicker is born with clubfoot?
With his next made field goal, Brindza will set the all-time Notre Dame record for most career field goals, breaking a tie with former Irish great and 23-year NFL kicker John Carney. Still, even though as a young peewee soccer player Brindza said he wanted to be an MLS goalie or a “field-goal kicker” when he grew up, it was tough for him to envision it playing out as it has.
“I look back now and I’m like, I never ever would have thought he’d be where he is today,” Brindza’s mother, Tiffany, said. “But with his determination, this is where he’s gotten.”
Dennis the Menace
Born with clubfoot that had his right foot turned backward, young Kyle was not like the other kids. Soon after his birth, Tiffany hauled her son to Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago to be treated.
“You hear the words from the doctors that he’s not gonna be able to play sports, he’s always gonna be handicapped, he’s not gonna be like the normal kids,” she recalled.
But sitting at Shriners, Tiffany soon realized that other kids had it worse. And right then and there, Tiffany made up her mind that she wouldn’t let a birth defect stop Kyle.
“I’m not gonna let this affect him and I’m not gonna stop him if he wants to do something, I’m gonna encourage him and help him do what he wants,” she said. “That’s how I’ve always felt.”
Unable to put any weight on his foot, Kyle was carted to day care in a wagon. Before he even reached seventh grade, Brindza had somewhere between five and eight separate surgeries on his right foot. One even forced him into two different casts for a combined 12 months and sapped the calf muscle from his right leg, a difference still palpable today. Now, roughly 10 years removed from his last operation, the evidence is still convincing. His right foot is etched with stitching and scars the way the brown pigskin he boots is lined with white laces.
Amid the various braces and casts, other kids called him Forrest Gump.
But people also called him Dennis the Menace, as he was always running around the house, even in a cast.
“Having all the odds put against you, not being able to walk and all these stories about this person’s life being affected — I threw it out the window,” Brindza said.
In sixth grade, for instance, Brindza had surgery in November and was told he probably wouldn’t play sports for two years — an eternity for someone who said he grew up playing any sport within an arm’s distance. By Christmas break, Brindza had returned to his travel soccer team because, well, it needed its goalie. It was at that time, Tiffany said, she truly noticed the determination and confidence her son possessed.
Confidence comes naturally to Brindza. He had never kicked a football until the summer before his freshman year at Plymouth High School in Canton, Michigan. Set to be an outside linebacker on the freshman team, Brindza was called over to give kicking a try.
He connected on a few 40-yarders. Then from more than 50 yards. Soon enough, Brindza was the varsity kicker.
In 2008, Brindza attended his first Kornblue Kicking camp at the University of Michigan.
“We saw a ton of potential in him,” said Kornblue, the Florida-based kicking and punting coach who holds camps in more than 20 locations now. “He was a very strong kid for his age. He was just a sophomore in high school but had the leg strength of one of the older guys.”
But potential, as Kornblue is quick to note, is a dangerous word. Some lack the drive and determination. Others lack the discipline to stay sharp with weights, nutrition and flexibility.
“That’s one of the things that separates Kyle, that drive to be the best and not just being satisfied with being better than most of the people,” Kornblue said. “He wants to be as good as he can be. He wants to be better than everybody.”
Brindza has always admired his all-time favorite athlete, former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. He loves Rivera’s mindset on the mound, the potent knowledge that nobody could touch Rivera’s cutter.
In a similar way, Brindza is an avid golf fan and roughly a nine-handicap, even though he just began playing two years ago. Brindza, whose favorite golfer is Rickie Fowler, said he sees perfect parallels between kicking and golfing.
“It’s the exact same thing,” Brindza said, citing similarities not just with the requisite on-your-own mental toughness but also with eye placement, follow-throughs and hip orientation. “I treat my drive like it’s my kickoff. I treat my field goals like it’s my 9-iron.”
“Are you sure?”
Brindza has been too busy to golf of late, naturally. The do-it-all senior handles kickoffs, field goals and punting for Notre Dame.
As a freshman, Brindza handled just kickoff duties, allowing him to “get his feet wet.”
As a sophomore, he drilled 23-of-31 field goals. Last year, he only missed six field goals despite adding punting duties.
“I’ve always had the leg strength,” Brindza said. “But it’s been accuracy that pushed me to get better.”
Brindza has also developed the trust of Irish head coach Brian Kelly. Brindza said he is always in Kelly’s ear on the sideline toward the end of drives, prodding Kelly to just “take the three points and get out of here.”
“You got this?” Kelly will ask Brindza.
“Yes,” Brindza replies.
“Are you sure?” Kelly double-checks, as if Brindza’s answer will change.
Brindza says he could hit from 65 yards away in a game with the wind at his back. He says he hit a 74-yarder this past summer with a snap and a hold, not just a stationary stick.
With his 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win over Stanford, Brindza pulled into a tie with Carney for 51 career made field goals.
“This record is a blessing,” Brindza said. “John Carney was one of my idols growing up and he still is. He was so accurate, pinpoint accurate. Being able to take that record is a blessing but at the same time I couldn’t care less just because I want to be 6-0 rather than have a record.”
Brindza still works with Kornblue here and there throughout the summer, now honing multiple crafts. During nearly every session, Brindza and Kornblue will work on all three phases of his game — kickoffs, field goals and punting.
But Kornblue said the pair will soon need to start deciding which area Brindza will focus on. He’ll almost assuredly handle kickoffs in his pursuit of the next level, but will he punt or kick field goals?
“It’s actually a dilemma that we’re in,” Kornblue said. “There’s nobody in the NFL that does all three.”
Brindza is well aware of that. But that’s not stopping him from setting his sights high. Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee wants to perform all three, Brindza said. But so far, no one does it.
“If somebody takes a risk on that, it’ll be the best risk they’ll ever take,” Brindza said.
The odds have been stacked against him before.