Come Saturday afternoon, Andy Pappanastos hopes he’ll make it over to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in time for kickoff.
Though just a little over a year old, the plastic turf of Atlanta’s new football palace is familiar ground for the Alabama grad. Now working in sports marketing for a firm in organizing the pre-SEC Championship FanFare event, Pappanastos stood at the center of college football’s orbit 327 days before Saturday’s league championship game.
Second and 26 were unrelated numbers with three seconds on the fourth-quarter clock, a 36-yard field goal separating Pappanastos and Alabama from a walk-off national title.
Nearly 11 months later, Pappanastos is at peace with what happened next. The former Crimson Tide kicker who made 18 of 25 kicks before missing his last has a unique perspective at the challenge of what can seem like the most difficult job in football.
“It’s a tough position. It really is,” he said. “If you’ve been kicking long enough, if you’ve been playing the game long enough, you’re going to have a lot of kicks not go your way.”
That’s been the case more than a few times this fall. A total of eight missed extra points shared between two Alabama kickers is more glaring considering the 12-game demolition tour led by their offensive and defensive teammates.
Pappanastos remains in contact with Joseph Bulovas, the redshirt freshman he mentored last season now in that high-intensity job. It’s all about confidence, Pappanastos said.
In Tuscaloosa last Saturday night, Pappanastos watched Bulovas drill a 30-yarder in Alabama’s 52-21 win over Auburn. All seven extra points were true after two missed the mark a week earlier.
“The more he’s able to make some field goals like he did the other night, I think it’s going to make a 5-foot putt look like a 2-foot putt,” Pappanastos said this week in an interview with AL.com. “The hole is going to get bigger. You have to see the ball go in the basket a couple of times.”
Less than a week earlier, Nick Saban called Alabama’s season-long kicking struggles “unacceptable.”
Alabama’s won every game this fall by at least 21 points, but with a national-championship trajectory, the margin for error narrows.
You never know when you’re going to need a kicker in the clutch.
The busy week for post-football Pappanastos has involved lining up former Alabama stars to appear in the FanFest event at the Georgia World Congress Center. He loves the new job because it keeps him near the sport he grew up loving and the Tide program he adored.
Sitting in his old Bryant-Denny Stadium seats Saturday for the first time in years at the Iron Bowl, Pappanastos said his seat neighbors recognized the guy who was suited up in his No. 12 jersey just a year earlier.
Kicking in that stadium can be a complicated task. Before Pappanastos transferred from Ole Miss, that home crowd booed Tide kicker Adam Griffith after missing four straight to open the 2015 season.
The criticism of the program’s perceived inability to field an automatic kicker is not lost on Pappanastos. It bothers him a little.
“It kinda does because they act like Alabama’s never had a good kicker,” he said. “You look at Jeremy Shelley who won the (2012) national championship game — literally, his leg won the national championship game and he’s just kind of forgotten. He had a good career. Leigh Tiffin was great.”
The number of NFL kickers booting it all over the field this fall proves how thin the line can be between success and failure at that position, Pappanastos said. Still, he acknowledges the expectations placed on a kicker in an SEC power like Alabama.
“That’s what you sign up for,” he said. “You’re expected to make it and you expect yourself to make it, too.”
That creates a unique tension, the Montgomery native admits. Pappanastos said he never trotted out there worrying ‘What are the fans going to think.” It was about delivering for his team.
“Even in the national championship for me last year,” Pappanastos said, “I was fortunate to kick and get us to the position that we were. Even after I missed that last one, I knew my teammates would rally behind me and that’s the same way it’s always been.”
Before Pappanastos jogged to his place at midnight for his potential game-winning moment, the senior was part of the second-half comeback that made it possible. He knocked one through with 5:15 left in the third quarter to make it 20-10. That was from 43 yards out.
Then his 30-yarder with 9:24 left in the fourth made it a one-score game at 20-13.
The first one, Pappanastos said, was one of his best kicks of the season. It’s up there with the 44-yarder at Texas A&M that silenced the Kyle Field crowd and iced a challenging 27-19 win.
The fourth-quarter kick was a different kind of challenge since officials decided to review the previous play after he was ready to go. It was more nerve wracking, he said, than the game-tying extra point with 3:49 left.
“I was like ‘Crap,’” Pappanastos recalls. “I actually got iced and then I went in and was able to put it down the middle.
All of that led to the moment that could end with oil paintings in Alabama living rooms for eternity.
Middle of the field, 36 yards from immortality.
“Yeah, I didn’t even have to watch the tape to know what happened,” Pappanastos said. “I was just a little bit quick. I had more time than I realized and the adrenaline of the moment. I got to the ball too fast rather than take my time and put a good swing on it. I kind of rushed myself rather than take another breath before kicking. I was a little bit too quick. But that happens. That happens in a lot of big-time kicks. It was a small issue but it can send it awry.”
Instead, it was Tua Tagovailoa’s 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith that preceded the confetti cannons firing crimson tissue paper in overtime.
Video of the missed kick isn’t something Pappanastos avoids. It’s just one of the 148 snaps in a classic that ended with a new set of jewelry.
But does he think about what could have been?
“To be honest with you, not really as much,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that we won and even more than that, I think it really helped Tua out. His throw goes down as the greatest play in college football history. And it also kinda jump-started his Heisman campaign, in my opinion. But I really don’t. I moved past it. I’ve learned from it. It’s really helped me in life to overcome adversity.
“And if I had another chance in that overtime, I would have made it. I would have tweaked some mechanics and it would have been the next kick. It doesn’t define me at all. If anything, it helped me as a person.”
Life is good for Pappanastos in the aftermath of his college football career. He got married in May and is doing well in the sporting event business.
“It’s kinda fun being on the other side of it,” he said.
By Saturday, he’ll be back at the scene of last year’s national championship with the same two teams playing with playoff spots at stake. Having another year as Alabama’s starting kicker would have made the job much easier, Pappanastos said, with a season of knowing the routine.
He sees Bulovas coming down the stretch in his first year under the heat lamp knowing the extra work is former teammate does outside of public view.
The redshirt freshman is 12 of 16 kicking field goals and 63 of 68 on extra points.
From his seat in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Pappanastos will be sending positive vibes in the direction of Bulovas.
“The more he’s able to kick, the better he’s going to do,” Pappanastos said. “We might need him coming down to the end, it’s just going to help us if we cheer him on and help him out.
“Because we’re going to have a lot riding on him at one point.”