In the second quarter of Saturday's game between Michigan State and visiting Notre Dame, the Spartans led 3-0 and the Fighting Irish were facing a fourth-and-three on State's 14-yard line when Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz began looking around for his eraser—not the one at the end of his pencil, but Reginald Thomas Ho, his field goal kicker.
Ho is so diminutive that he's nearly hidden inside the giant hollow of his helmet. At 5'5" and 135 pounds he is one of the smallest players in a major college football program. Nonetheless, he's Holtz's designated eraser, which, by the way, is what Holtz calls all field goal kickers. "He goes in there to erase somebody else's mistakes by trying to get three points on the board," he says. And so far the Irish had made mistakes aplenty against the Spartans. On third-and-three, tailback Mark Green had taken a pitch from quarterback Tony Rice, attempted to sweep around the right side and was tackled for no gain.
So Holtz called for Ho to even the score. As the young man trotted out onto the field with his kicking tee, an already-familiar chant welled up from the Notre Dame cheering section: "Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE!" At the line of scrimmage, Ho went into his curious routine, one as unvarying as the box step. With his back to the line of scrimmage, he pressed the tee firmly in the turf, took two giant steps away from it, then two more off to the right. Turning about, he faced his holder, Pete Graham, stared down at the tee, took one visibly deep breath and nodded. As Graham turned to call for the snap, Ho swept his arms to his right, looking like a bullfighter holding an invisible cape, and began waving his fingers, strumming the air with them, as though he were playing castanets.
At the snap, Ho swept forward, low and hard, and drove the ball high through the uprights 31 yards away. He didn't look up until the ball was well on its way. "Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE!" The chant continued as the players on the field celebrated the three points. Seven minutes later, the chant rose again from the Irish partisans in Spartan Stadium. Notre Dame had blocked a Michigan State punt and recovered the ball on the Spartan seven. On the ensuing three downs the Irish had advanced just two yards, bringing about a fourth-and-five. "Obviously, our goal-line offense leaves a lot to be desired," Holtz said later. So the call went out for the eraser, who kicked a second field goal from 22 yards out to put Notre Dame ahead 6-3. As it turned out, that was all the Irish would need as they went on to whip Michigan State 20-3. For the second week in a row, Ho had stolen the show.
September 25, 1988
In the Irish season opener the Saturday before, Ho had kicked four field goals—of 31 and 38 yards and two of 26 yards—in Notre Dame's 19-17 victory over Michigan in South Bend. The last of the four, one of the 26-yarders, came with 1:13 left and won the game. That performance in a nationally televised game earned Ho, a 20-year-old senior from the Honolulu suburb of Kaneohe, very sudden celebrity, and fellow students began waving and hollering to him, much to his discomfort. Ho is painfully shy. "Anybody else would have been sitting on top of the dome," Graham said, referring to the Golden Dome, the most recognizable landmark on the Notre Dame campus. "He walks around now with his head down, so people don't say anything to him."
What has happened to Ho over the past couple of weekends would have seemed every bit as unlikely two years ago as sitting on the Golden Dome. Ho had played soccer and lettered twice in football as a placekicker for St. Louis High, but "I never thought I'd play football for a college team," he says. "I didn't think I was good enough."
Then, as a sophomore immersed in premed studies, he began thinking, "Why not?" He decided that living the life of "a geek" was not for him. "You know, a geek is a nerd who studies too much," he says. "I wanted to be more well-rounded. Academics are important, but they're not everything."
Ho walked on at a varsity practice one autumn day in 1986 and informed the coaches that he wanted to kick for the Irish. They told him to come back in the spring. "That's how smart we were," says assistant coach George Stewart, who works with the kickers. When Ho returned in the spring, he kicked well enough to get Holtz's attention, and a year ago he made the Irish roster. He kicked one PAT in 1987, against Navy, but otherwise he spent the season as the standby for starting kicker Ted Gradel, practicing field goals. And practicing. And practicing. Holtz sat down with Gradel last spring before he graduated and said, "You've worked with the other kickers. Tell me about them."
Gradel went down the list. At last he told Holtz, "Reggie Ho works harder than anybody I've seen. He kicks in the rain. He kicks in the snow. Don't sell him short."
Such work habits were nothing new for Ho; he had kicked for hours at a time when he was a high school player. "I remember him kicking outside my window at midnight," says his sister, Gianna. "He'd turn the lights on over the patio and kick into a tarp. Very intense and disciplined." Last spring, during Easter break, Stewart says that he came upon Ho at three o'clock one afternoon kicking balls by himself into a net.
"How long have you been here?" Stewart asked him.
"Since nine," Ho said.
Says Stewart, "He was there for six hours every day." By then, he had worked out his routine: the steps, the focus, the deep breath, the holding out of the arms and the waving of the fingers, the ritual his teammates call "the voodoo stuff." Because he is of Chinese descent, many people who saw his gestures assumed that the inscrutable strumming had something to do with martial arts. Ho laughs. "No. It's to relieve stress," he says. "My fingers wiggle because I get so nervous. My arms go off to the right out of habit, I guess. I'd rather have them out there than in front of me, because otherwise they'd distract me."
The crowd, though, is no distraction at all. "I use the crowd to get all the adrenaline I can," says Ho. "It gets me confident. It would be easy to be intimidated by all those people, but I try to use them to my advantage, and not be abused by them."
Ho's prekick routine has been designed, from its beginning to its end, to groove the stroke. "It's my own way of making sure I get to the right spot, so I kick the same each time," he says. "I line my tee up, take aim—I hit the tee with my hand to make sure it's in the ground—then I take my steps back and make a little hook. My dad [who's a doctor] showed me the science of it, the arcs and the tangents."
Ho arrived at preseason practice this summer as a polished kicker with the best arcs and tangents around. Sophomore Billy Hackett was slated for the starting role, but Ho won it in the end. "Hackett did a nice job," says Holtz, "but every time I charted Reggie, he was 24 for 25, or 34 for 34. He was unbelievably accurate."
To put pressure on Ho, Holtz set the ball down on the 48-yard line during one summer drill and dared him to score from nearly midfield.
"I can make that," said Ho.
"No, Reggie," said Holtz, "that's not your distance."
Ho went into his dance and swung his foot, and the ball hit the crossbar and barely dribbled over.
"See," said Holtz, the coach who is never wrong. "I told you it wasn't your distance."
Ho's maximum effective range is around 45 yards, so Holtz has assigned him to kick inside that distance. Hackett will handle the boomers beyond that.
That's just fine with Ho. He remains a nonscholarship player, a student-athlete in the purest sense, and says he prefers it that way. "I don't want to be on a scholarship," he says. "I do this for Notre Dame. It's a privilege being here and playing. When I walked on, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Not surprisingly, considering how refreshing his presence has been, Ho's teammates have warmed to his polite, self-effacing manner—and have gotten a kick of their own out of his newfound celebrity. What's more, he's so darned easy to lift up and pass around after he kicks a field goal. "I kind of like going over and picking him up and hugging him," says 6'3", 279-pound guard Tim Grunhard, who snaps the ball on field goals. "He's like a little brother."
What most strikes his Irish mates, as they watch Ho practice and play, is the clockwork precision he brings to kicking and the extraordinary energy he musters as he explodes through the ball. "It's amazing how a guy that small can put so much into it," says Graham. "It's just great follow-through and extension." That, and an ethereal, otherworldly quality that makes Ho seem here one minute, gone the next.
"Sometimes when you look at him, you think he's not even in this world," says Hackett. "We can be sitting there talking and I'll say, 'Reggie, what do you think?' But he's not listening. He's someplace else. It's like he hovers over the earth in his own world."
When Ho finally walks off at the end of this season, as easily as he once walked on, he will get on with the things he came to South Bend to do in the first place. He has a 3.77 grade point average, and he hopes one day to practice rheumatology. Medicine runs in the family. His father, Reginald, is an oncologist who made his hospital rounds at 6 a.m. last Saturday, listening to the Michigan State game through radio earphones. His mother, Sharilyn, was a registered nurse before she started raising her four children, including Gianna, 19, who is studying preveterinary medicine at Notre Dame and is a student-trainer in the athletic department. Two brothers, one three years older, the other two years younger, were both kickers at St. Louis High.
Ho has one more year of eligibility, but Holtz will have to find someone else to create those fanciful arcs and tangents in 1989. Ho intends to graduate with his class and attend medical school. And he has other things on his agenda. "I'd like to go abroad and help a Third World country, hopefully after medical school," he says. "I am thinking of joining the Peace Corps."