The growing legend of Eddy Pineiro
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Any other time and it would have been considered just a routine play hardly warranting much notice at all from the 46,000 enthusiastic University of Florida football fans gathered at The Swamp, let alone a rousing standing ovation that eclipsed any other that night.
But Eddy Pineiro’s thundering PAT not only punctuated a Luke Del Rio touchdown pass to open the scoring in the recent Orange and Blue spring football game, but served as an emphatic notice that the team’s kicking woes of 2015 could well be a thing of the past.
All thanks to a converted soccer player/YouTube sensation and Gators folk legend in the making. An early enrollee who has never kicked a field goal in a game at any level.
But there’s ample evidence on social media to think the transition to major college football won’t be a problem for Pineiro, the easy-going redshirt sophomore who only arrived on campus in January after transferring from ASA Community College in Miami.
SOCCER STAR, JUST LIKE HIS FATHER
Soccer had always been the sport of choice while growing up in the South Florida. The middle of Grace and Eddy Pineiro, Sr.’s three children had naturally gravitated to the same sport in which his father had excelled enough to play professionally for the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League.
By 8 years old, young Eddy was equally as consumed with the sport, captivated by his innate ability to take over games with his ball skills and inherent scoring ability. His athleticism and powerful right leg made him a natural.
Pineiro played on the varsity soccer team as a freshman at Miami Sunset High School, and it wasn’t long before the coaching staff noticed his immense potential. Staying cool in the face of pressure came naturally to him, recalled Knights coach Jay Flipse.
“He had the swagger of a riverboat gambler,” the coach said. “Only nobody knew that he really had a loaded hand with all the aces.”
Pineiro was just a sophomore when he first raised more than a few eyebrows during a game by scoring a goal with a laser-like blast from midfield. It served as the official notice of Pineiro’s Howitzer for a right leg.
After moving to striker, Pineiro paced all Dade County schools in scoring in both his junior and senior seasons. He almost single-handedly turned around a once-moribund Miami Sunset program. He was tapped as the Miami Herald’s high school soccer Player of the Year as a senior and received a full soccer scholarship offer to Division I Florida Atlantic University.
Football was little more than an afterthought, but Pineiro gave it a try as a high school senior when the football coach became so desperate for a strong leg that he turned to the soccer team.
With his thoughts solely on his soccer future, Pineiro almost turned down the offer, only to abruptly change his mind after hitting a 60-yard field goal with his father as his holder on his first attempt.
Pineiro assumed the team’s kicking duties over the final seven games, but the struggling Knights never afforded him the opportunity to kick a field goal in an actual game.
Pineiro, however, knew very little about the football, even if his tremendous upside had already become obvious to everybody else. He had just sent his first kickoff through the uprights for a touchback when he turned to the Knights sideline and asked, “That’s three points, right, coach?”
The Sunset coaching staff laughed, letting their new kicker know that the game of football didn’t work that way before adding that it was a great kick anyway.
“I don’t know too much about football,” Pineiro says now. “I just kick the ball and it goes in.”
FALSE START ON FIRST COLLEGE TRY
But that was OK then because Pineiro assumed soccer was his future. Playing football in college was never even a consideration.
That changed when he arrived at FAU and enrolled, only to find out that he was missing an English class he needed and couldn’t gain NCAA eligibility.
Disappointed, Pineiro attended ASA Community College in North Miami Beach. He played soccer with the hopes of transferring to a Division I program.
As it turns out, ASA was beginning a football program and asked Pineiro if he were interested. Pineiro soon was practicing with the team even though he never played for the school.
It made for some long, arduous days for him and his father, as he awoke every morning at 5 a.m. to make the football’s team’s 6 a.m. practices and attended classes from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. He ended each day with soccer practices starting at 6 p.m.
Eddy Pineiro Sr. drove his son to school each day and regularly worked with him to help him at nights and on weekends. The family has limited financial means, so making sure his son could get a full scholarship was imperative.
It wasn’t long, however, before the younger Pineiro realized that he was actually a pretty good field goal kicker, and that he might have a future in football after all.
It was then, after deciding to get serious about football, that he reached out to a friend who was working out with kicking coach Brandon Kornblue.
That’s when Pineiro’s future began to really take off.
‘INSTANTLY, I SAW A HUGE LEG’
Kornblue is no stranger to the big lights, having punted and kicked for Michigan’s 1997 national championship team before enjoying a stellar career in the Arena Football League. One of his holders during his time in Ann Arbor was some guy named Tom Brady.
Kornblue, who has been coaching kickers and punters since 2000, was immediately intrigued by what he saw in the raw, but physically gifted six-foot, 183-pound Pineiro when they met in February 2015.
“Instantly, I saw a huge leg,” Kornblue said. “He had no idea what he was doing technique-wise. He was spraying left and right, but you could see that he had a lot of potential. He showed me that he was committed and willing to work.”
Pineiro began working with Kornblue twice a month and was sending videos of his workouts for Kornblue to review at other times. It wasn’t long before the young kicker had become noticeably better and a student of kicking.
But his father still needed convincing that football was the best path for his son’s future. The soccer scholarship offer from Florida Atlantic was still on the table following Eddy’s graduation from ASA with an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice, so Eddy Sr. wanted to be certain that his son had Division I football ability before passing on a Division I soccer offer.
He was quickly assured that wasn’t a problem.
Pineiro’s meteoric rise to blue chip college football prospect sought by the nation’s top programs began in earnest in April when Pineiro put on a show at the Spring 2015 Kornblue Kicking Challenge.
In addition to hitting all seven of his field goal attempts within 50 yards, he successfully booted a 60-yarder and had a 71-yard try narrowly miss when it hit the crossbar and caromed away. Pineiro added an event-record 86-yard kickoff to earn Kicking Champion honors.
Kornblue has mentored roughly nearly 10,000 kickers, punters and long snappers, including the likes of incoming Wolverines freshman kicker/punter Quinn Nordin, current Minnesota Vikings kicker and former Georgia standout Blair Walsh and former Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza among many others.
So you take notice when he asserts that Pineiro “might be the most explosive placekicker ever to have come through our camps.”
“He’s not just another kicker,” Kornblue said. “He might be the best one I’ve ever seen.”
A YOUTUBE SENSATION IS BORN
Video of the Kornblue Kicking Challenge appeared on YouTube a month later, immediately elevating Pineiro into one of the country’s top kicking prospects. The video boasted 91,470 views as of late Wednesday afternoon.
It was soon after that Alabama invited him to attend camp in Tuscaloosa in early June 2015. Flying there was too expensive, so Eddy Sr. borrowed money from his brother and rented a car so he and his son could together make the 14-hour trek from South Florida to join the group of 200 elite high school kickers.
Word of the video had gotten around, so it’s hardly shocking that Pineiro and his father were warmly greeted immediately upon their arrival.
“Everybody knew his name before he even registered,” Eddy Sr. said.
The Pineiros were impressed by the scenic Alabama campus as much as they were by the Crimson Tide coaching staff and the lavish facilities that come with winning four national championships within a seven-year span.
It didn’t take long for Pineiro to clearly distinguish himself. His booming field goals and kickoffs – including one of 97 yards that had a hang time of 4.7 seconds – caught the eye of coach Nick Saban and his staff.
Alabama didn’t, however, offer him a scholarship at that point.
The father and son and stopped in Gainesville on their way home to attend a Florida camp, but were exhausted by the time they arrived. They checked into a local hotel at about 4 a.m. that Sunday morning.
They met with second-year Florida coach Jim McElwain later that morning after catching up on some much-needed rest. Aware that the father and prospect were tired after driving through most of the night, McElwain asked if the young Pineiro could muster just a few kicks for him.
He needed to see for himself if the kid was as good as advertised.
Two resounding field goals of roughly 50 and 60 yards, respectively, and a pair of thunderous kickoffs well out of the end zone were more than enough for the Gators coach.
“He actually offered him right then in his office,” Eddy Sr. said. “It was great.”
Alabama, Miami and Georgia quickly followed suit with scholarship offers.
Pineiro soon committed to the Crimson Tide, eventually making several visits back to Tuscaloosa. But his family has always been close-knit, and attending Alabama meant he’d see less of them. Pineiro switched his commitment to the Gators in December and arrived on campus in January with three years of eligibility.
He’s already become a folk legend of sorts among an excited Gator Nation, all the more so after a scintillating debut.
Pineiro put on a show while strutting his stuff for the Florida faithful for the first time on April 8, making all five of his five extra points while booting field goals from 52, 46 and 56 yards and booming his kickoffs toward the stands. He missed wide right on field goal tries from 53 and 52 yards, but the leg strength and the mental fortitude needed to be a successful kicker were both readily apparent.
“It was a little bit of a relief, even for us as a staff,” McElwain conceded afterward. “We wanted to see how he could do in the stadium and that kind of thing. I thought he answered the bell pretty good.”
Where it all started 😈🐊🏈 pic.twitter.com/BlAp0jzsH7
— Eddy Pineiro (@eddypineiro1) April 16, 2016
Pineiro took all the attention in stride, but admitted to being somewhat taken aback by the visceral response he received from the Florida faithful following his first action as a Gators kicker in the form of a simple PAT.
“It was a good feeling,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be that loud for an extra point.”
But what most would consider a routine play came as welcome news for desperate Florida fans still reeling from the angst of last season, when Gators kickers missed on 10 of 17 field goal attempts. Austin Hardin was the biggest culprit, misfiring on nine of his 14 attempts, including three blocks.
Hardin, who is no longer with the team, also botched three extra points, but it was his 43-yarder to beat Vanderbilt that sent the Gators to the SEC Championship game for the first time since 2009. The kick accounted for Hardin’s lone successful try from beyond 40 yards.
In his first appearance, Pineiro gave Florida fans reason for considerably more optimism.
But kickers can be a temperamental bunch, so it was equally as important to McElwain to see how the newcomer responded to adversity.
Pineiro did just that after missing wide right from 53 yards in the third quarter, later begging McElwain along the sidelines for another chance. He rewarded his coach’s faith by powering up a 56-yard fourth-quarter field goal.
“I didn’t let it get to my head,” Pineiro said. “Usually, what happens to kickers is when they miss, they get down on themselves and just negative energy. I keep it positive all the time. Either I make it or I miss it – I’m positive 100 percent.”
Pineiro has clearly already begun making believers of fans and teammates alike.
“He’s definitely going to be a weapon,” quarterback Austin Appleby said. “You pretty much just have to cross the 30 and you’ve got points. That’s going to be huge for us going down the stretch.”
Next up is doing it when it counts most.
“Being a kicker, you have to handle pressure,” Pineiro said. “You have to learn how to deal with it.”
So far, so good.