• Cole Tracy's kicking heroics have made him the toast of three coasts: The west, where he grew up; the east, where he starred at tiny Assumption College in Massachusetts; and the Gulf, where his clutch field goal lifted LSU into the top 10.
By Ross Dellenger
September 19, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. — Section 25BX. Row 1. Seats 1–16.

Cole Tracy’s thinking place is in Tiger Stadium, on the field-level metal bleachers to the right of the tunnel from which the LSU football team spills onto the field. You can find the Tigers placekicker here around lunchtime nearly every day in a moment of reflection and meditation, surrounded by 102,320 empty seats in this college football cathedral. He is here today, a blisteringly hot September Monday, with a school-issued box meal tucked under one arm, a backpack slung over his shoulder and a red notebook (we’ll get to that later) in his hand.

Tracy says he sits here in silence, sometimes muttering to “the man above,” other times visualizing a 50-yard game-winner splitting the uprights. Every other second is spent ruminating over his situation—the journey from southern California to a tiny Division II school in Massachusetts and now to Tiger Stadium. “You’re in here and it’s like, ‘Holy s---,’” he says, and you’ll have to excuse his vocabulary, because after all, a reporter isn’t usually around. “I’m the D-II small-ass kid that is making a dream become a reality.”

Ross Dellenger

One particular donation caught Tim Stanton’s attention. Why would someone donate $42.36? The exactness left him puzzled, until he remembered the length of Cole Tracy’s game-winning kick against Auburn, 42, and Tracy’s new jersey number at LSU, 36. “It’s amazing,” Stanton says laughing.

As of Tuesday night, Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., had received 116 gifts totaling nearly $6,000, says Stanton, the school’s vice president for advancement who oversees fundraising. Tracy broke multiple school records in three seasons kicking at the Division II school before he arrived at LSU this summer as a graduate transfer. He won the Tigers’ starting job in camp, then got off to a 7-for-8 start on field goals, then knocked in an eighth with a game-winner at Auburn, the first regulation walk-off field goal in program history that moved LSU to 3–0, No. 6 in the AP Poll and the center of the SEC West race.

At the center of the chatter: its kicker, whom LSU fans are so excited about that they’re giving to his previous college. “It’s absolutely insane seeing this,” says Brendan Tobey, Tracy’s holder for three years at Assumption. “He’s blown up in three weeks. The LSU fan base in Massachusetts has grown a lot. He’s putting little Assumption College on the map.” People more than 1,500 miles from Tiger Stadium and at opposite reaches of the mainland United States are celebrating Tracy, throwing watch parties in his hometown of Camarillo, Calif., and gathering in bars around Boston. “We’re all rooting for the Tigers,” says Drew Canan, Tracy’s former special teams coordinator at Assumption. One of Tracy’s friends Monday received a phone call from a reporter at The Boston Globe, his dad got air time Tuesday on a south Louisiana radio show that broadcasts to New Orleans and local newspapers, like The Advocate in Baton Rouge, are plastering catchy headlines on their front pages. “Cole as Ice”, the latest read.

Tracy is debunking the #CollegeKickers hashtag, an oft-used crack on social media at the inconsistency of his contemporaries, and he’s been doing it since his redshirt freshman year at Assumption in 2015. Over three seasons in Worcester, he made 68 of 84 attempts, became the only Division II kicker ever to make six field goals in a single game (he did it twice) and earned the 2017 Fred Mitchell Award, given to the best kicker across the FCS, Division II, Division III and NJCAA levels. He has gone entire months without missing a kick, like last October (eight for eight), and he had two separate stretches of 13 consecutive made kicks. “It’s great that the rest of the world gets to experience what we’ve all known for some time,” says Bob Chesney, Tracy’s head coach at Assumption.

Some of Tracy’s makes came through the bitter cold of New England, in games attended by 800 people in rickety bleachers surrounding a snowy field, while playing in something called the Northeast-10 Conference. He once made an extra point despite a botched hold, booting the ball through the uprights as it lay on the ground. There was his 47-yarder through a freezing wind-driven rain, the first record-setting six-make performance in his second career game and a 50-yarder in a chilly playoff duel last year.

Ten months later, the heat index in Baton Rouge is nearly 100º in mid-September, the humidity is 95% and Tracy, standing near the field, is asking politely to move toward the shade. Tracy’s acquisition is one of many moves that coach Ed Orgeron made this offseason to bolster a program that became the first in over 40 years this month to beat two top-10 opponents in the first three weeks of a season. The frustration of an offseason of slights—the Tigers were barely in the preseason top-25 and were picked to finish fifth in the SEC West—erupted in a locker room celebration last weekend. “Now,” Orgeron says, “we can’t believe them talking good about us and get overinflated.”

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Orgeron faced criticism in the spring—“I didn’t listen to it,” he says—for using one of his precious 25 allotted scholarships on a kicker, and a Division II transfer at that. And now? That kicker is one of the faces of the 2018 Tigers, a team that he did not expect to be kicking for less than a year ago. This place is much different than his last stop. “At Assumption, you got to bring your own cleats,” Tracy smiles. The 2,000-student liberal arts college has a budget of $70 million for its entire university, roughly half of LSU’s budget for athletics alone. The Greyhounds allocated only 36 full athletic scholarships, says Chesney, now in his first year as coach of Holy Cross, an FCS program across town from Assumption.

The finances are such that each football player was compelled to sell $20 raffle tickets or else run penalty sprints. The school needed to raise money to buy championship rings when the Greyhounds claimed their first-ever conference title in 2015, part of Chesney’s revival of a historic cellar-dweller. “We’re very tuition-driven,” Stanton says. “We live and die every year with our freshman class.”

That’s why the donations from LSU fans through the school’s online system are so exciting. They began pouring in from locations in south Louisiana after Tracy made four field goals in the season-opening win over Miami. Several of the gifts were made in the amount of the length of his school record-tying kick against the Hurricanes: $54. Assumption is a special place for Tracy. In fact, Stanton says the kicker is periodically checking in with him for an update on the donations. The money will go toward the football program, as Tracy wishes, and some of it might even go to a ceremony the school plans upon Tracy’s return during LSU’s bye week Oct. 26, which is also Assumption’s Homecoming game. “Who knows,” Stanton says, “we could make it Cole Tracy Field.”

Tracy spent plenty of time on that field, even with it covered in snow. He’d grab a bag of footballs from the facility and a snow shovel, dig out a square patch until the artificial turf showed and begin kicking. The coldest weather he kicked in was –5°. Assumption ended each practice with Tracy needing to make five consecutive field goals or else the team would run. “We didn’t run much,” Tobey says.

As NFL scouts cycled through Assumption to watch other players, Chesney told them about his kicker. “He hasn’t kicked in front of people,” they’d tell the coach. “Not going to take a chance on that.” Tracy never kicked in front of more than 6,200 people in his three seasons at the school, and Assumption’s home stadium only held 1,500. So he decided to leave as a graduate transfer in hopes of improving his NFL stock. Iowa State special teams coordinator Joe Houston connected Tigers special teams coordinator Greg McMahon with Tracy after McMahon reached out to him searching for a kicker. Houston kicked for USC when Orgeron served as an assistant on Lane Kiffin’s staff.

“So I called the kid,” McMahon says. “I talked to him on the phone. When you have the guy, you can just tell. He was the guy.” McMahon, a longtime special teams coordinator with the Saints, is fascinated by Tracy’s attention to detail and his daily routine. He compares it to guys like quarterback Drew Brees and All-Pro kicker John Kasay. “Meticulous in what he does,” McMahon says.

The little red notebook is a good example of this. Tracy opens the notebook, carefully flips through its pages and explains its purpose: Each day of his life is allotted a page, on which each line is allotted a kick. He documents all of his kicks, the ones in practice, in a game, wherever, and he includes comments with each attempt. He jots the comments on the corresponding line of the kick—“good, good response, down the middle,” he wrote about a 45-yard field goal during a practice in mid-August. Earlier that day, he had missed a 22-yarder and his scribbled comments exude anger, “missed, pushed right, Lazy.”

This is his bible, a kicking bible, something he adopted upon arriving in Baton Rouge over the summer, ditching an Excel spreadsheet he previously used to track kicks. Also in the notebook is a diagram he sketched of Tiger Stadium with markings for the swirling winds. His mother Pam learned of the notebook a couple of weeks ago. She’s not surprised about it—this is the same sports trivia buff who can name the distance of his fourth field goal attempt in the third game of his sophomore season.

“But he couldn’t remember to clean his room!” Pam Tracy laughs. The Tracys live on a fault line in the mountains about an hour north of Los Angeles, and they’re “California cool,” says Tobey. “The saying is true.” They hosted a bunch of Cole’s Assumption teammates over spring break one year, so Tobey and the boys got to see the family’s pride and joy: a saloon-style mahogany bar in what used to be Pam’s family room. The bar has made a splash in south Louisiana because it is in plain view in a viral video the Tracys filmed of their celebratory watch party in the final seconds of the Auburn game.

Cooler than that bar is its backstory: Kent Tracy, Cole’s dad, had it built as a tribute to his late great uncle Raymond Hatton, an accomplished actor who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The saloon is in honor of his most famous works, westerns, and the bar is stocked with his old movie posters, film props and even a few gun holsters and cowboy chaps. The doors of the saloon were salvaged from a Belgian barn house built in the 1800s. “It’s probably the most expensive room in the house,” Kent says. “It’s Uncle Ray’s bar. Irony is, he didn’t drink.”

The bar leads outside to Cole’s first kicking ground. A childhood soccer player, as an eighth grader, Cole began to kick field goals in the family’s backyard, using two pool cleaning nets as uprights and a rope tied between them as a crossbar. The space only allowed him to extend his range to 38 yards, and he had to maneuver his kicks around an awning, over a pool and away from mom’s decorations. He broke quite a few, and he also booted balls over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, the same neighbors who watched Cole beat Auburn. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, we remember digging his kicks out of our yard,’” Pam says.

The Tracys are originally from the Seattle area, but Cole had a Louisiana connection before arriving. He met former Saints kicker Morten Andersen at a function in New England in February. The two exchanged numbers after an hours-long conversation, and Cole has already leaned on the man who kicked more field goals than anyone else in NFL history. “In camp, I kept going 4-for-5 every day. I texted him,” Cole says. “He wrote back, ‘4-for-5 isn’t bad. Chill out.’”

Pam Tracy grew up on an apple farm, and Kent now operates a prosthetic orthotic center in California. Pam’s father and Cole had a special bond, somewhat built around football. Stan Sali passed nine years ago, but Cole keeps a reminder of his grandfather’s motto—“You can do it”—on his wrist tape each game in the form of four letters: YCDI. Few ever thought he could. He received no Division I offers out of high school, mostly because of his leg strength, according to Jason Klein, an assistant at Newbury Park High when Tracy played and now the head coach there. In fact, Cole returned to the high school over the summer and spoke to Klein’s team about “not giving up on your dream,” the coach says.

Anthony Barese is the man mostly responsible for getting Cole to Assumption. He was his area recruiter, and he just so happened to receive an email one day from a recruiting service. “I pursued it, watched the kid’s video and said, ‘Holy s---. This kid can kick.’” Some others, such as Washington State, thought the same then changed their mind. Cole visited there while in high school having never kicked off the ground before the tryouts. “It didn’t go well,” he says, and he turned down a host of preferred walk-on positions on the west coast. “I wanted someone who wanted me.”

That’s part of what drew LSU to Cole. “He came in with a chip on his shoulder,” McMahon says.

“The guy sits in the stadium and visualizes the kicks,” Orgeron says. “He’ll actually sit in Tiger Stadium. The guy is something special.”

Back at Tiger Stadium, Tracy returns to flipping through that notebook and he lands on Sept. 11, LSU’s first full practice of Auburn week. Tracy went 3-for-3 that day, booting field goals of 35, 41 and 49 yards. His notation next to each of the first two kicks is “good, middle.” His notation on the last is a foreshadowing of what happened four days later, the latest chapter in a dream that’s been realized. “Good,” he wrote, “best hit you’ve had since you’ve been here.”

The party never stops at LSU, home of America’s greatest tailgate. Sign up for a seven-day free trial of SI TV to watch Andy Staples’s journey to the heart of the ultimate Tigers fan’s pregame.

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