Introductions had been made, pleasantries exchanged. Now Chuck Amato wanted to get inside Scott Bentley's head. Bentley, the best schoolboy kicker in the country, was on his official visit to Florida State last January when Amato, the assistant head coach, tossed him this hypothetical: "It's August 28, we're in Giants Stadium for the Kickoff Classic against Kansas. Right before kickoff, we call a timeout, and the other 10 guys on the kickoff team are pulled off the field. Think you can kick it out of the end zone?"
The idea, Amato explained later, was to see how the kid handled pressure. But Bentley, then 18, was becoming impervious to pressure. After he had said thanks but no thanks to Nebraska, Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne flew out to Colorado to meet him anyway. Come here, Miami had told Bentley, and you can kick and play receiver. In all, more than 90 schools had offered him scholarships. By January he had narrowed his choices down to Florida State and Notre Dame. The Seminoles had greeted him as if he were a soccer-style kicking messiah, the missing link to the national championship that has so long eluded them. Fighting Irish head coach Lou Holtz, meanwhile, had promised Bentley the starting kicker's and punter's jobs for four years. Bentley's father, Bob—Notre Dame, class of '67—had told him to listen to Holtz.
Well, did he think he could kick it out of the end zone?
Bentley's response to Amato has become part of his growing legend: "Probably. But if I don't, I'll make the tackle."
Meet football's equivalent of cartoonist Roz Chast's Poodle with a Mohawk: Kicker with an Attitude. At Colorado's North-South All-State Game in June, Bentley, a 6'1", 175-pound Parade All-America who played defensive back and quarterback in high school, was forbidden to do anything but kick and punt. So he sprinted upheld after each of the punts. "I couldn't help it," said Bentley. "I just wanted to hit somebody."
Ray Pelfrey, who runs kicking camps all over the country (page 38), has called Bentley "possibly the best kicker in the history of high school football." Pelfrey feels that Bentley's gift resides in his fast-twitch muscle fibers. "The kid runs the 40 in 4.4," Pelfrey says. "You combine that leg speed with his technical soundness, and good things are gonna happen."
They already have. In four years of high school—one at Regis High in Boulder and three at Overland High in Aurora—Bentley nailed 35 field goals. His longest, a 58-yarder, was one of seven he kicked from 50 or more yards out. (He consistently makes 65-yarders in practice and has connected from 70.) At Overland he converted 115 of 117 extra-point attempts and put 34 kickoffs between the uprights. His 41.8-yard net punting average last season would have ranked him first in Division I-A.
Don't call him a kicking specialist, though. Last season Bentley punted, kicked, kicked off, returned punts and started at quarterback in a veer-option offense that required him to absorb, on average, 20 hard shots per game. In the spring he started at shortstop on the Overland baseball team; next spring he will play centerfield for Florida State. For the scores of college football recruiters who courted Bentley, Overland coach Tony Manfredi had this advice: "Don't treat him like a kicker. Treat him like a football player, or you'll lose him."
Seminole coach Bobby Bowden grasped that. Holtz did not. "You'll only have to practice for a half hour," Holtz told Bentley. "Then you can go and play golf."
"I don't want to play golf," says Bentley. "I want to run 40's with [Seminole wide receiver] Tamarick Vanover."
When Bentley called a press conference in late January to announce that he was Tallahassee-bound, a desperate Tony Yelovich phoned Bentley's school to try to stop it. "The kid's confused," said Yelovich, a Notre Dame assistant who had spent three years cultivating Bentley.
The kid was, in fact, thinking more clearly than he had in years. Ever since Scott was a fourth-grader booting 35-yard field goals, his father, who had lettered in baseball and basketball at Notre Dame, had been steering him toward South Bend. Finally, two days before the press conference, Bob had told Scott to follow his heart. "If my dad hadn't gone to Notre Dame," says Scott, "I would have committed two weeks earlier."
Who can blame Bob for trying? As a six-year-old soccer player in a youth league in Tulsa, Scott sent so many balls rocketing into the faces of other boys that their parents suspected him of doing it on purpose. When Scott was 12 and his brother, Chris, was 14, the Bentleys moved to Denver, where Scott tried out for a local youth soccer team. He got into his first game with three minutes left in the first half, scored three goals and kicked another ball so hard that it knocked the goalie unconscious.
As a ninth-grader at Regis, Scott beat out a senior for placekicker on the football team. But the team went 0-10, and the next year Scott transferred to Overland, a perennial powerhouse. In the second game of his sophomore season he kicked field goals of 50 and 52 yards. But he did more than just kick; Scott also platooned at cornerback as a sophomore, played free safety as a junior and quarterbacked the team as a senior.
Bentley began to be courted by college coaches in his sophomore year. Yelovich was among the earliest to work on him. "When I was a sophomore, I told him, 'I'm your kicker,' " says Bentley. By the time he was a senior, Bentley had backed away from that promise. He told Yelovich that "it looks good" and that he was "leaning toward" Notre Dame—which, until he visited South Bend and Tallahassee, he was.
The Notre Dame visit, in early December, got off on the wrong foot. Craig Hentrich, who had kicked for the Irish the previous four seasons, told Bentley of the easy time in store for him. "He told me he and the other kickers would sometimes bring a barbecue down to the lower field and make food," says Bentley.
He and Hentrich went to a bar. Though Bentley does not drink, he doesn't judge those who do, and he expects that courtesy to be returned. It wasn't. Though Bentley admired the beer-downing capacity of some Irish linemen—"These guys would just drink right out of the pitcher," he says—some of those players ridiculed him for his refusal to imbibe. Bentley asked himself, Do I need this for four years?
After a training-table breakfast that included the renowned ND-monogrammed waffles, Bentley got a tour of the campus during a driving rainstorm. He opted not to go out Saturday night and was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by the retching of another recruit, who was in the bathroom retasting the evening's lager.
Late that afternoon Bentley had met with Holtz, who was distracted by the Army-Navy game on the TV in his office. Holtz told Bentley not to worry about his punting average; a "pooch punter" would take short punts. ("Can you believe that?" says Bob Bentley. "He's telling a placekicker with 50-plus-yard range that he'd rather pooch-punt than kick field goals!")
When Scott didn't commit on the spot, Holtz pressed him. "What do you want out of college, son?" Holtz asked. Bentley said he wanted a healthy social environment, strong academics and the starting kicker's job. "Then we're all set with you, right?" said Holtz. "We've got everything you're looking for." Bentley knew a hard sell when he heard one—his old man once owned 40% of a car dealership. Scott dug his heels in, telling Holtz, "I've still got four visits to make."
Now Bob Bentley was nervous. When Scott first evinced interest in Florida State, Bob had asked, "Why go to the Bermuda Triangle of kickers?" When Bowden visited the Bentleys before Scott's trip to Tallahassee, Bob was downright hostile. "You're taking a Notre Dame degree away from my kid," he said.
Scott's Florida State visit began more auspiciously than the Notre Dame trip. He had dinner the first night with Jamey Shouppe, the Seminole baseball recruiting coordinator. Afterward Shouppe took him to Dick Howser Stadium. The lights had been turned on. "The field just sparkled," says Bentley, a Coloradan who had not seen his own lawn since October. "I almost committed on the spot." Later Bentley and freshman backup quarterback Danny Kanell—who was one of his Florida State escorts and is now his roommate and holder—went to a bar. "The pressure to drink wasn't there," says Bentley. "And I wasn't treated like a kicker, I was treated like just another player."
For Bentley's benefit Seminole offensive coordinator Brad Scott had charted the number of field goals a Seminole kicker was likely to attempt per season. "We went back four or five seasons, and it came out close to 30 a season," recalls Scott. "We suggested [Bentley] compare that to what he was likely to get at another school"—namely, Notre Dame, where Holtz prefers short punts to field goals. "If you're going to be an All-America," Scott told Bentley, "you need to get your at bats."
It was also Scott's idea to prepare Bentley's locker. In the Notre Dame locker room, Bentley had noted with dismay that the stalls of the kickers were separated from those of the other players. At Florida State they are not. Bentley's locker was next to Deion Sanders's old stall, which is now a glass-encased shrine.
By the end of his visit Bentley was ready to sign. But he was afraid it would crush his father. "Normally Scott is the loosest, most relaxed person," says his mother, Kathy. "But he was so anxious that he started getting up early"—unheard-of for Scott, who hits the snooze button a minimum of twice per morning.
Finally, as signing day approached, Scott leveled with his father. "I'm scared that if I don't pick Notre Dame, I'll be letting you down," he said. At last Bob released his dream. "It was as if a weight had been lifted," says Kathy. "Scott started hitting the snooze button again."
The day of Bentley's press conference, Holtz got on the horn with Brian Ford, a punter-placekicker from Cathedral High in Indianapolis, and talked Ford into breaking a verbal commitment to Vanderbilt. The Commodore coaches were furious.
Then Holtz phoned the Bentleys. Scott was asleep, and Holtz left his number. "What do you think he wants?" Scott asked his father when he awoke. "He probably wants to congratulate you and wish you luck," Bob guessed. "He's class."
The classy coach chewed the boy's head off. Bentley says Holtz accused him of lying. "Did you tell Coach Yelovich you were coming here?" Holtz reportedly demanded. Says Bentley, "I said that there had been times Coach Yelovich put so much pressure on me that I told him what he wanted to hear."
Holtz's pontificating about the sanctity of a recruit's promise to a coach would have been more convincing had he not just finished persuading Ford to screw Vanderbilt. And Holtz wasn't finished with Bentley. "Son, you didn't just make a four-year mistake," he reportedly said, "you made a 40-year mistake. You let me down, and you let your father down."
The call might have been Holtz's last stab at changing Bentley's mind. Or it might have been purely spiteful—Holtz has never pretended to be a gracious loser. The coach isn't saying: He refused to discuss Bentley with SI.
There is also the possibility that Holtz was doing a bit of preseason coaching. The Nov. 13 game between Notre Dame and Florida State could easily come down to a field goal. Perhaps Holtz wanted to give Bentley something to think about. "If that's what he was trying to do, it was a mistake," says Bentley. "Anybody who knows me knows that kind of stuff just pumps me up."
Holtz never did figure Bentley out. A game-winning field goal may be what it takes for Holtz to see the light.