ATLANTA—The kid was 10 years old when he came across a kicking block on the field at the high school near his home. His dad, who’d spent the last six years training his son in the nuances of soccer, happened to have a youth football in the car.
“I wonder if you can kick a football like you kick a soccer ball,” the father said, and set the ball on the block at the 10-yard line, extra-point distance.
The boy’s very first kick went up and over the crossbar in a perfect end-over-end rotation. He came back to the field again and again, kicking those arcing beauties, and it wasn’t long before his kicks caught the eye of a local youth football coach.
“Good lord, son,” the coach said, “what grade are you in?”
And that’s how the legend of Rodrigo Blankenship began.
Kickers don’t break through the white noise of college football unless they’re exceptionally good or a little odd, and Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship’s a touch of both. His rec specs-and-mustache appearance made him look like a college radio DJ who’d found his way onto a football field, and the way he did interviews last season—helmet on—endeared “Hot Rod” to a Bulldog fanbase looking for any flicker of good news in the immediate post-Richt era. On a team of ex-high school royalty and future NFL stars, Blankenship looks like a guy who might sleep through a football game, not win it.
And yet that’s exactly what he’s done in his two years as Georgia’s kicker. It’s not a stretch to say the Dawgs face Alabama in Monday night’s national championship in part due to Blankenship’s leg. He lifted Georgia to a clutch, we-belong one-point win over Notre Dame earlier this season, and his 55-yard field goal at the end of the first half against Oklahoma helped dull the pain of a traumatic 30 minutes and pave the way for Georgia’s epic comeback.
“He doesn’t have the gene in him that is affected by pressure,” says Ken Blankenship, Rodrigo’s father. “He’s never allowed any stress, any extraneous factors to bother him.”
For a guy who boots footballs toward the heavens, Blankenship keeps his gaze relentlessly downward. Consider, for instance, the way he regards that monumental 55-yarder against Oklahoma:
“It was great to make that kick and set a Rose Bowl record … but it was better to give our team a little momentum.”
When you kick as well as Blankenship does, you can get away with bland-oatmeal quotes like that all day long.
— Rodrigo Blankenship (@RodTheKicker3) January 2, 2018
After that fateful day on the field at Walton High School, a few miles north of Atlanta, Blankenship decided he wanted to add football to his repertoire. He joined a junior league team, even though the kicking game is all but irrelevant at that level; few kids possess the leg to kick a ball over their line’s butts, much less over a crossbar.
Then came the night when Walton’s junior team stalled out at about the 10-yard line. Coach Mack Cobb—the same coach who’d seen Blankenship kicking two years before—looked down his bench.
“Rodrigo,” he called out. “You’re up.”
The result—a 25-yarder that flew true—was the very first field goal ever kicked by a sixth grader in Georgia school history.
Blankenship spent his years at Sprayberry High School bouncing back and forth between soccer and football, often jetting from one practice to the next without a break to study or eat. Although he played striker and, later, midfield, his leg was so strong he would replace the goalie on goal kicks. And according to his father, he never missed a penalty kick or shootout kick, hitting “19 or 20” throughout his high school years.
But here’s a little secret not everyone knows about soccer: in that game, pretty much everybody kicks the ball well. In football, on the other hand, almost nobody kicks. “During senior year, we came to the conclusion that I’d have a better shot at football than soccer,” says Blankenship. “That’s when we started to put together [recruiting] tapes to push myself as a kicker.”
He had plenty of tape to work with; he went 78 of 79 on extra points in his final two years at Sprayberry, for instance, and was named to a range of postseason all-star teams. The pitch paid off; Georgia came calling, and then-coach Richt offered Blankenship a spot as a preferred walk-on. Blankenship redshirted his freshman year, and then Richt found himself with much bigger concerns than the plight of a kicker from Marietta, Ga.
The Kirby Smart regime arrived in Athens, and Blankenship—at this point still a walk-on—kicked his way into a job in the middle of the 2016 season. He missed his first attempt in September against Ole Miss, but then reeled off a consecutive run that culminated in a triumphant performance in Kentucky: four field goals, including the game-winner as time expired. He conducted his postgame interview with his helmet on, and the legend of Hot Rod added a new chapter.
— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) November 10, 2016
He was an instant campus legend, inspiring memes and the kind of worship that comes from standing tall on the SEC gridiron. Like many a Dawg before him, Blankenship even got his very own Bulldog caricature:
— Logan Booker (@LoganMBooker) November 8, 2016
All seemed right with the world. But beneath the surface, tensions bubbled. Georgia still hadn’t offered Blankenship a scholarship, and Ken started making noise in the press.
“Rodrigo has committed to the ‘G,’ but we are puzzled why Coach Smart has not yet committed to the ‘R,’” Ken Blankenship told the Georgia fan site Dawg Nation. “His support seems to stop at the front gate of the scholarship house.”
That set off a war of words between Blankenship and Smart, who deferred talk of scholarships until after the 2016 season.
“We’re obviously in hot pursuit of good specialists because that’s an area we’ve got to improve on,” Smart said in a news conference after the Kentucky win. “But [a scholarship for Blankenship] will be based off how he finishes up, the whole picture, where we are.”
Even though Rodrigo finished up with freshman All-America honors, Ken Blankenship hinted at the time that Rodrigo wouldn’t be able to return for the 2017 season without a scholarship. But Rodrigo did return, and on Sept. 9, kicked a 30-yarder to defeat Notre Dame 20-19. The sense of destiny that’s followed this Bulldogs team the entire season took flight that night.
In the locker room afterward, Smart praised the team’s determination, and then paused for one more announcement.
“Rod,” he said, “would you like to tell the team what I told you on Friday to let them know?”
“I’m on scholarship,” Blankenship said, and the locker room exploded in delirium.
“Rod is a hard worker,” linebacker Roquan Smith said after the Notre Dame win. “Day in and day out he comes to work, wearing his hard hat every day. I can’t be more proud of a guy like that.”
“He’s definitely a business guy. He has his way to do things, and he sticks to them,” says punter Cameron Nizialek. “That’s big in this position: repetition, doing things the same way.”
Blankenship’s routine on the sidelines runs something like this: “If we’re on our own half of the field, I’m not doing anything, just chilling and giving snaps to Cam to kick into the net.” But once the team crosses the opponent’s 40, it’s time for business. Nizialek puts down his ball and starts prepping Blankenship.
“I take a swing after first down, after second, and right before third,” he says. “If we don’t [convert], then I’m going out there.”
The routine has paid off. He’s a perfect 61 of 61 on extra points this year, and he’s hit on 17 of 20 field goals, including everything from inside 40 yards. That 55-yarder against Oklahoma was his longest of the year, of course, and only four kickers in the entire country hit farther field goals.
He’s as methodical in his personal life as he is on the sideline. The basement of his parents’ home is filled with Blankenship’s passion projects: a series of intricate, complex, expensive World War II dioramas. Blankenship has created re-creations of the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, the African campaign, and other World War II battles. They vie for space in the Blankenship home with the ever-increasing pile of honors he’s amassing.
“We’ve got his plaques and awards stacked in front of the fire place,” laughs Ken Blankenship. “I want him to get his man cave so he can take some of this out of here!”
Blankenship was a minor celebrity at Saturday’s media day, fielding questions that fit broadly into two categories: 1. His glasses, and 2. The fact that kickers often find themselves standing on the field, alone, with the game on the line.
The glasses are hard plastic rec specs, because metal isn’t allowed on the field during football games, and contact lenses mess with Blankenship’s depth perception. As for that other, far more important question?
“You have to go into any game thinking it could be decided by a kick,” he says, “whether by a field goal, or a kick that flips [field] position for the rest of the quarter.”
He gives the outward appearance of calm. His parents don’t even pretend to share that, turning instead to a higher power for comfort.
“Every time he goes onto the field, we both say a prayer for him,” Ken Blankenship says. “And our prayers are answered on a regular basis.”
Rodrigo Blankenship has already kicked Georgia past Notre Dame and Oklahoma this season. Don’t be too surprised if he ends up doing the same against the biggest boss of them all. Rodrigo won’t.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.