When Carson High kicker Austin Pacheco collapsed at school last November, he thought his kicking days might be over.
He underwent surgery for Compartment Syndrome and spent nearly a week in the hospital. He watched helplessly from a wheelchair when Carson lost to McQueen in the Northern 4A regionals.
Sometimes it takes a tragic event to make a difference in somebody's life. Sometimes it's the threat of having something taken away that forces a person to change.
The Carson star, after a lengthy rehab process, has made a full recovery. He had a solid season last spring for the baseball team, and he made national headlines this fall after a 64-yard game-winning field goal against Bishop Manogue on Oct. 1.
"I look at things very differently now," Pacheco said after a recent practice. "I don't take anything for granted. I don't take plays off because you never know when you've played your last game.
"I didn't think I was going to be able to play this year, but there is no way I wanted to miss my senior season."
And, it's been some senior season. Pacheco has made a difference on both sides of the ball and of course on special teams for the 5-1 Senators. Unofficially, he's carried the ball eight times for 40 yards, grabbed five passes for 121 yards and is averaging six tackles a contest,
Prior to Friday's game at Damonte Ranch, Pacheco recorded back-to-back game-winning kicks . He beat Manogue 27-24 with the aforementioned 64-yard field goal in the final half-minute and then came back last Friday to beat Douglas 31-29 with a 42-yard field goal with :02 left. It was the second straight season he beat Douglas with a field goal.
The 64-yarder brought him national attention. He was on Yahoo! Sports, Rivals.com, MaxPreps, ESPN.com and CBSsports.com to name a few. He and coach Blair Roman also did some radio interviews, too. It was exposure Carson football had never received before.
Pretty heady stuff for an 18-year-old, but Pacheco is doing his best to take the attention in stride.
"It opened a lot of eyes," Pacheco said of his long kick. "I don't want to get all caught up in that.
"I'm the same guy. I'm just getting more attention."
In fact, after his game-winning kick at Manogue, Pacheco said he went out with teammates Chance Quilling, Dylan Sawyers and Logan Peternell. The quartet went to see "50-50." Just another night with the boys.
"He knows not to get a big head," Roman said. "I haven't seen any change. I think he's stayed grounded. Inside, he's probably tickled pink. I know I would be.
"With Austin, it's just a matter of consistency. He was spot on last year. He's been a little erratic from over 45 yards this year."
Pacheco, who was 10-for-13 last year, is 6-for-13 this year. Of his seven misses, six have been from over 45 yards. He's being asked to make much more difficult kicks compared to the 2010 season.
That's small consolation for Pacheco.
"I should have made all of them," said Pacheco, who has been the beneficiary of good snapping by Logan Peternell and holding by Brock Pradere. "If I'm inside 55 I shouldn't miss because I know I have the leg to do it."
He gets no argument on that fact from kicking coach Jim de Arrieta, who is probably Pacheco's biggest fan.
"In 29 years of doing this (coaching), he is the best kid I've ever had," de Arrieta said recently. "His leg strength is good and his technique is solid.
He has a Division I leg no doubt about it.
"He knows what part of the ball he wants to hit it. I've coached him to the point where he knows what he's done wrong when he's missed. When he misses left it usually means that he's tried to overpower the ball, and if he misses right, he hasn't followed through."
De Arrieta, the former Notre Dame kicker is on the field at every Irish home game, and he says that Pacheco has a stronger leg than anybody he's seen this year.
But, the Carson assistant said Pacheco's biggest issue has been mental, and Pacheco admitted that de Arrieta constantly talks to him about the "six inches between his ears."
"I think it's more of a focus lapse," de Arrieta said of Pacheco's misses. "He wants to be perfect. I tell him guys at every level miss. I told him he's going to miss, but you don't want to miss when needed."
And, he hasn't.
A normal practice will find Pacheco and de Arrieta working together before the full-scale practice starts and then usually for about a half-hour after practice. Pacheco has paid the dues of being a good kicker, and he's grateful for de Arrieta's guidance.
"Coach D has been working with me since my freshman year," Pacheco said. "He's made all the difference in the world. He's been a tremendous help."
Even at 18, Pacheco already has a kicker's mentality. Outwardly, he doesn't appear to get nervous. He welcomes the challenges of big kicks.
"The only time I've been nervous was before my first varsity kick against Del Campo," Pacheco said.
Pacheco gives the Senators a weapon not many high schools have, and Roman for one, is happy about that.
"It's nice to know that all you have to do is get to the 33-yard line to score points," Roman said. "For a play-caller (head coach or offensive coordinator) it's a nice luxury especially in a two-minute drill. He's been clutch for us."
The Douglas kick was especially big, according to Roman.
"He had a horrible cramp (in his leg)," Roman said. "He showed a lot of mental toughness. He had a tremendous game. The only thing he didn't do was score his own touchdown."
Pacheco threw an option TD pass to Brock Pradere, caught a 38-yard pass from Matt Nolan, rushed for more than 40 yards and kicked the game-winner. He also did an excellent job on defense.
"He's played a lot more than we expected on offense with the injury to Dylan," Roman said. "He's been chomping at the bit to play more offense. We needed him more on defense which is why we hadn't used him a whole lot there. He's done a lot on both sides of the ball."
Pacheco said it's a matter of just trying to help the team win. He wants to make sure that the Senators are playing well into November.
Pacheco is hoping that all of his hard work pays off in a college scholarship. He has a college-level leg. Ask his coaches. Ask anybody who has ever seen him kick.
Billy Daniel, a former Wolf Pack player who used to do color work for the Wolf Pack radio broadcasts, marveled at Pacheco's leg strength as he watched the Carson star warm up before the Damonte game.
"The ball explodes off his leg," Daniel said. "That kick at Manogue would have been good from 70 or 75."
Daniel is convinced that Pacheco is good enough to be kicking at a four-year school next year. Whether that means Division I, Division I-AA, Division II or an NAIA school remains to be seen.
"I'd prefer it be a Division I school," Pacheco said. "The most important thing is that I get my education."
Nevada and UNLV have expressed interest. In fact, Nevada assistant Cameron Norcross saw Pacheco kick against Douglas. Washington, San Diego State, Utah and Northern Arizona have shown interest, too. Pacheco also kicked this summer at the University of Oregon's camp, and did very well.
"There's also been a couple of D-2 schools who have shown an interest," Roman said. "Sometimes it's difficult for a kicker out of high school to get a scholarship. We're going to look for schools where Austin can fill a need."
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