Sept. 17, 2002
By Ken Kleppel
Go ahead opposing crowds, make some noise. Take note, opposing coaches, and be sure to use any fourth-quarter timeouts to ice the kicker.
Can the equipment staff fit him to wear jersey No. 13?
Kicking through rain, wind and the occasional towel errantly flipped by opposing kick-block units, nothing stands as an obstacle for unflappable senior kicker Nicholas Setta.
Sporting the unluckiest of all jersey numbers, Setta allows his confidence and work ethic to yield success on the gridiron.
“Maybe I’m ignorant to the definition, but to me there is really no such thing as pressure,” says Setta.
Ignorant, of course not. Composed and collected, most certainly.
“I’m really carefree when I’m out there. I don’t zone out the fans, the sounds or anyone. I try to soak everything in so that later that night I can remember how enjoyable it was when I was out there. You’ve got to be able to hear it all the time and enjoy everything about it.”
“When he hears the whistle blow for the kickoff he doesn’t tense up,” says senior kicker and holder David Miller.
“He relaxes and makes sure everyone on the line is ready. If you’re holding for him on field goals, he stays back and relaxed. His deal is to stay really relaxed so he can focus on what he has to do and kick the ball.”
The formula yielded immediate results.
In just his second career game, Setta notched an overtime field goal against top-ranked Nebraska on Sept. 9, 2000. One week later, Setta booted the game-winning 38-yard field goal against Purdue as time expired, giving the Irish a 23-21 comeback win, catapulting Setta onto his teammates’ shoulders as the student section rushed the field.
“I never thought you would be able to get the whole stadium down on the field,” says Setta.
“It was like a big party down there. To be carried off the field, it pops into your mind all the traditions, and you think ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ It is good to have done that, to know I’ve been here and I can do this. That’s a confidence builder.”
“He has a good time out there when we’re kicking,” says senior punter Joey Hildbold.
“Sometimes in practice, the coaches will talk to him and try to mess with his head. Setta will be right there talking back to them. People try to heckle him and he thinks it’s funny. But once the snap gets back there, he is focused on kicking the ball and hitting it well.”
“A lot of people don’t realize it, but kicking the football is a one-on-one battle with yourself,” says Setta.
“Who else is out there? Logically, it’s you and yourself. If you mess up, there is no one else beating you. If you miss it, you miss it because you didn’t do something right, not because you choked under the pressure.”
Setting the tone for his collegiate career by improvising upon a high snap to record his first career field goal, Setta is now setting the standard for Irish kickers by improvising his way into the Notre Dame record books.
Entering the season opener in Kickoff Classic XX against Maryland, Setta converted 55 consecutive PATs, the fourth longest such streak in school history, and established the Notre Dame record for consecutive regular-season games with at least one field goal at 14.
In what perhaps was his finest moment of what is becoming a record-setting career, Setta connected on a Notre Dame record-tying five field goals against Maryland in the season opener. After narrowly missing a 56-yarder on the first drive of the game, Setta nailed a 51-yard attempt with plenty of room to spare, giving the Irish a 3-0 lead. His 51-yard make, a career-best, tied him for the second-longest field goal in school history.
Highlighted by a career-best kick of 47 yards in the season finale against Purdue, Setta converted all eight field goal attempts of 40 yards or more in 2001. His .882 field goal conversion percentage as a junior stands second on the all-time Notre Dame charts.
In 2000, Setta became the first Irish kicker since Kevin Pendergast in 1993 to lead the Irish in scoring, with the help of converting the final 32 PATs of the year.
Prior to the start of the 2002 campaign, Street & Smith’s named Setta to the Lou Groza Award preseason watch list, given annually by the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Sports Commission to the nation’s top placekicker. Lindy’s recognized Setta as the fifth-best kicker in the country.
“You always want to be the best, the one they remember, and the one they put on the top of the records list,” says Setta.
“But for me personally, all I can do is concentrate on being the best I can be right now, about each kick and not any records. Being mentioned in the company of the John Carney’s or the Reggie Ho’s is unbelievable.”
Together with Hildbold’s emergence as an annual contender to win the Ray Guy Award at the punter position, Setta’s ability to solidify the Irish kicking game constitutes his crowning achievement.
During a seven-year span from 1993-99, Notre Dame kickers converted just 264 of 292 extra points and 69 of 111 field goals, resulting in conversion percentages of .904 and .621, respectively.
In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Setta converted PATs at a .985 clip and field goals at a .742 mark for respective improvements of eight and 12 percentage points. To place the improvement in proper perspective, Notre Dame kickers failed to convert a PAT once every three games over the seven-year period, while Setta averages a failed PAT only once every two seasons.
“It’s one of those things where my offense has given me the ability to do this,” says Setta.
“It’s not me who is getting it, it is my offense who has put me in position to get this many extra points in a row. My line is blocking and letting me get the ball off the ground. My snapper and holder — they are the ones getting me the consecutive field goals over 40 yards. It is my job to put it through the uprights. All I do is kick the ball. I have the easiest job of anyone on the field.”
If Setta possesses the easiest job on the field, he certainly maintains the most rigorous schedule in the off-season. A two-sport student-athlete, Setta will enter his third season as a middle distance runner on the Notre Dame men’s track and field squad this January after running unattached as a freshman to preserve his football eligibility.
Yet, Setta is much more than a football player who runs track.
Serving as four-time team captain and most valuable player in both cross country and track and field at Lockport Township (Ill.) High School, Setta boosted Lockport to the state cross country championships in both 1996 and 1997, while posting one of the fastest times in two decades en route to the state gold medal in the 800 meters. He competed as a high jumper, long jumper, hurdler and middle distance runner while at Lockport.
Notre Dame cross country and track and field head coach Joe Piane offers praise for the man he considers a genetically gifted athlete.
“You shouldn’t be able to do those things,” says Piane.
“It is rare to have that many slow-twitch muscle fibers and fast-twitch muscle fibers in the same body to run cross country, high jump, run half a mile and kick. He is probably the best athlete on the football team, but you look at his abilities and he could be a great decathlete, great half miler or a real fine high jumper. There are all kinds of things he could do. He is really versatile.”
Competing in the 500 meters at three indoor meets for the Irish in 2002, Setta finished first versus Michigan State, second at a tri meet versus Ball State and Western Michigan and third at the Meyo Invitational. As a sophomore, Setta competed in the high jump.
“I can’t say enough positive things about Nick,” says Piane.
“He works really hard.”
Such off-season efforts on the track translate into durability on the gridiron.
“You acquire a lot of discipline, a lot of strength in your legs,” says Setta.
“You’re able to kick a lot of balls and not get tired. You are able to swing away with whatever you need to kick in preparation for what you need to do.”
The typical fall day for Setta is grueling by all standards:
5:30 a.m. – Wakeup if weightlifting is on the schedule
9:30 a.m..-2:00 p.m. – Class and a quick lunch
2:00-7:00 p.m. – Football practice
7:30-8:30 p.m. – Dinner
8:30-9:30 p.m. – Run for track and field
9:30 p.m.-2:00 a.m. – Study
“Pretty much every day is a long day of getting your mind ready for what you are doing at that moment. Sometimes you have football and sometimes you have track. You have to be ready to concentrate on one at a time because it is two different worlds.”
Those two worlds collided just following spring practice in late April 2002.
As part of his visit to the Notre Dame and South Bend communities, former Irish two-sport standout and All-American Raghib “Rocket” Ismail addressed the Notre Dame squad in the Loftus Sports Center.
Finishing second in Heisman Trophy balloting as a junior flanker, Ismail broke Tim Brown’s school record in the indoor 55 meters in 1991.
“He’s basically the guy that hooked me onto Notre Dame football,” says Setta.
“When someone like that comes back, you listen to what he has to say because he has something which is going to be useful. He did something right. You want to know what that is and what drives him. It was neat to have an opportunity to pick his mind and see what was in there.”
The following day, Ismail took part in an autograph session at the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore. Setta patiently waited in line to receive an autograph for his family before greeting Ismail in a get together the football archives would appreciate as a moment that “past meets present.”
In addition to Ismail, Setta joins former standouts Allen Rossum, Randy Kinder, Bobby Brown, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, former athletic director Moose Krause, legendary head Coach Knute Rockne, one quarter of the Four Horsemen Elmer Layden and College Football Hall of Fame halfback Creighton Miller as Irish football players to compete on the Notre Dame track and field team.
Regardless of his place on such an impressive list, Setta’s confidence distinguishes the kicker and runner as his own unique student-athlete, while an outgoing personality carves a niche in his relationship to his teammates.
That is, Setta doubles as the sideline’s most celebrated cheerleader.
“When you’re out there you have a lot of time to be interactive with the players,” says Setta.
“You have a little bit of extra energy than some of the other guys that have been beat up out here every day. You have to speak up and keep it positive even if you haven’t been able to do as much of the physical hitting.”
Setta plays an even greater role with the kicking unit. “He fits in well because we are a big group of jokers,” says Miller.
“We do what we have to do to get the job done, but we like to screw around and Nick is definitely involved in that.”
“He’s probably one of the most confident people I know,” says senior snapper John Crowther.
“He is constantly working to get better. He likes to attack any challenge before him. But at the same time, he also lightens things up. He is a fun guy to be with in practice.”
But his competitive nature is no laughing matter.
“He wants to do everything all the time because he knows he can,” says Hildbold.
“He wants to be first team on everything. Even when we’re doing scout kickoffs, he likes to go out there and get those few extra reps.”
Miller emphasizes the impact of the friendly competition.
“Knowing that Nick wants to do everything makes everybody else better,” says Miller.
“He wants to punt this year and that makes Joey better. Because of the competition with him year in and year out, I feel like I keep getting better kicking. He just raises the level for everybody. If they would let him play quarterback, he’d play quarterback.”
“I’ve been to summer football camps and there will be three or four punters who are really good and can compete against you,” says Hildbold.
“But one of my best competitors is right here at school everyday. It helps us that he is a good competitor, a good athlete and can do a lot of things.”
“When you have the caliber of kickers I have around me, you realize if you are going to be the best you have to be really good to be the best,” says Setta. And by being himself, Setta redefines the kicking position each week.
“If you can’t enjoy the moment, you’re not enjoying football.” No mental zones to enter. No pressure to experience. Just confidence to exploit.
“Being a kicker you have to be confident,” says senior strong safety Gerome Sapp.
“You have to know you will excel when put into special situations. Nick has confidence in himself and in his teammates. He is definitely a team player, but he has the inner confidence that is warranted and needed at that position.”
“It is confidence that is going to allow you to have the ability to play and do what you want on the field,” says Setta.
“You want to go out there because you want your coach to know you are unbreakable. The only kind of pressure you can put on yourself is by not doing the right thing the week before in preparation.”
Nicholas Setta will always find the right thing to do.
His teammates believe that with all the confidence in the world.
A native of Concord Township, Ohio, Ken Kleppel was a four-year student assistant in the Notre Dame Sports Information Office. He is currently a second-year student in the Notre Dame Law School.