With a Nike swoosh religiously painted on his bare right foot, Yale football kicker Andrew Sullivan ’05 is not afraid to show off his most valuable body part. After all, Sullivan has been using his bare foot in all its naked glory to pound a pigskin ball 60 yards downfield since his freshman year.
“Some of the guys on the team embrace it. Some think I’m a weirdo,” Sullivan said. “It just comes with the territory.”
The territory is the dying art of barefooted kicking, in which the kicker launches a football without the protection of leather cleats. But while Sullivan admits that the practice is “a little unorthodox,” he partly attributes his status as Yale’s star kickoff and field goal kicker to this unique habit.
Sullivan, a Calhoun senior from Minneapolis, began playing football in elementary school but found himself the last pick during touch football games. To improve his catching skills, his parents signed him up for peewee football, where he found his calling in kicking instead. It should not have been a surprise.
“My whole family is a soccer family,” Sullivan said. “So it made sense that I’d be kicking.”
His foot did not see the light of day until the summer before his sophomore year of high school when he observed a few players kicking barefoot at a kicking camp. Sullivan thought it was “pretty neat,” and began kicking barefoot for practice during the following summers.
The coup was completed one day at training camp before Sullivan’s freshman year at Yale. Though high school players are allowed to use a kicking tee, college football rules require the ball be held on the ground for field goals. Sullivan has a low, aggressive swing, and his shoe caught the ground as he struggled to adjust. He finally took it off in frustration and hit three 40-yard field goals in a row. After that, he was permanently converted.
“I decided not to put my shoe on again,” he said.
Though he admits the effect might be psychological, Sullivan believes barefooted kicking gives him a greater sense of control over the ball.
“When I get a good kick, I know it,” he said. “I don’t even have to look up.”
Exposing his bare foot to arguably the most brutal game in America, however, does not come without its challenges. Sullivan’s foot is swollen throughout the season, and his toes have cuts that constantly reopen.
“It grosses the holders out,” Sullivan said. “They’ll look at the blood on my foot and say, ‘Oh God.'”
Still, Sullivan insists that the risk is not serious.
“I don’t think that a thin strip of leather is going to save my foot,” he explained.
Sullivan seldom has to make a tackle, but opposing players often threaten — only half-joking, Sullivan believes — to stomp on his foot. His most serious injury, however, occurred when he was on the sideline freshman year. Yale scored a touchdown and a jubilant teammate jumped on Sullivan’s foot by mistake.
The fall season itself is a menace to barefooted kickers like Sullivan.
“I think it’s crazy, just because of the fact that it’s freezing outside,” said fellow kicker Ryan Allen ’05, who wears a shoe to kick.
With hardy Minnesota blood, though, Sullivan is not bothered by the weather. In fact, he wears sandals off the field year-round, even in snow.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I’ll wear sandals with my suit if I can get away with it.”
But whatever deep-seated aversion Sullivan may have to footwear, it does not prevent him from dutifully drawing the Nike swoosh on his foot before each game. The rest of the team is bound to wear Nike exclusively, and Sullivan does not make himself an exception.
According to head coach Jack Siedlecki, this team-oriented attitude extends to summer training and weightlifting with the other players, distinguishing Sullivan from the typical kicker.
“In a lot of teams, kickers are looked at as separate from the rest of the team,” Siedlecki said. “He’s worked as hard physically as anyone else on the team, and the staff and players have a lot of respect for him.”
And though Sullivan loves football, his future plans do not involve any bare feet. He is a history major and plans to be a secondary school teacher. A mentor in a local school outreach program, Sullivan has also applied to the Teach for America program, in which college graduates are sent to under-funded school districts for two years.
“I want to go back and give kids a different view of history other than dates,” he said. “I want to give kids more confidence in approaching learning.”
Combining his interests, Sullivan is an instructor at a three-day summer kicking camp at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Though it is the same camp where he was first exposed to barefooted kicking as a camper years ago, Sullivan is keeping the method to himself, citing potentially angry mothers.
While he may not actively pass on barefooted kicking to the next generation, Sullivan continues to keep the method alive each game. Despite teasing from his teammates — “I don’t think a day’s gone by when I haven’t heard, ‘Where are your shoes?'” — he has made four out of five field goals so far this year. As a result, his team does not mind his muddy, bloody foot.
“As long as he’s kicking field goals and hitting kickoffs well, you can’t hate on him for not wearing a shoe,” Allen said.
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