Punting Bond Being Shared (by Norm Weber - News Sun)
BEREA, OHIO -- When Scott Nealon left Avon Lake High School in June 2006, he thought his football career was over and made plans to join his fraternal twin, Chris, in pursuing a college baseball career at Baldwin Wallace University.
After all, he had been on an undefeated state championship team with the Shoremen as a sophomore and was second-team all-Ohio as a senior. He had accomplished a lot and it was time to concentrate on one sport while pursuing his higher education.
That was until he was punting a Nerf football around with some of the BW pitchers during some down time last April. His play punts caught the eye of Adam Howard, an assistant baseball and football coach at BW.
Howard knew the Yellow Jacket special teams were in a bind with the graduation of three-time all-American punter Kevin Soflkiancs, who led the nation in punting twice. He began putting the concept of returning to football in Nealon's mind and eventually Nealon decided he'd try to help the Yellow Jacket grid program.
"I wanted to test the waters at first," Nealon said. "I didn't want to be a back-up punter. I wanted to make sure I had confidence in myself. Even though I punted in high school, it had been almost three years."
The Yellow Jacket coaching staff wasn't going to throw Nealon into the fire and let him fend for himself. Right away, they assigned him a tutor -- none other than Soflkiancs himself. The former Midpark kicker, punter and wide receiver volunteered his time to mentor Nealon and impart to him all the fine points about the art of punting.
"I approached coach (John) Snell last February and told him that I wanted to help out," Soflkiancs explained. "I knew that from time to time players finish their careers and come back as graduate assistants. I told coach Snell that I didn't want any money. I just wanted to volunteer."
Soflkiancs, the only player in the 105-year history of the Ohio Athletic Conference to be first-team all-league four times, already had a busy schedule, but wanted to make sure the punting was left in good hands or at least good feet.
When he saw Soflkiancs punt at the John Carroll game last year, sports columnist Terry Pluto talked to Browns General Manager Phil Savage about offering him a tryout. Soflkiancs got one, but didn't make the cut, leaving him with more time to channel his punting knowledge elsewhere.
Avon Lake, a huge football town, is proud of the many players who have gone on to play college football. Nealon had contemplated playing college football while still in high school, but when he received no letters from coaches or scouts, he abandoned the idea. BW was interested in both Nealons for baseball, so they made the natural choice to head to Berea.
"It felt good being out there the first time, even though it would have been more fun at wide receiver," said Nealon, whose older brother, Brian, was a punter on Air Force's prep team. Playing both positions was not in the cards, though. Soflkiancs admitted that he already tried that request to no avail. This left Nealon in a position to focus on learning from one of the best.
"The reason I do this and a lot of other volunteer things is I just want to give back," Soflkiancs said. "So many speakers have given me things that have been useful in life that I only had to do the same thing. I think I have the gift to be able to see what someone needs to be a better punter."
Soflkiancs, also an academic all-American who will have his MBA in the spring through the five-year, bachelor-plus-masters program, attended many punting camps throughout his life, while Nealon has attended none. Yet, with help of the All-American, Nealon's punts have gone from 30 yards when Soflkiancs started working with him to 40 yards and a No. 2-ranking in the Ohio Athletic Conference going into Saturday's Gold Bowl game against John Carroll here.