With a steady rain falling Wednesday evening on the artificial turf at Baylor's Heywood Stadium, Henrique Ribeiro's right foot met the waterlogged ball, sending it high into the air with a resounding "boom." Despite the soggy conditions, the ball split the uprights, easily clearing the crossbar with plenty of room to spare.
It wasn't so much the fact that Ribeiro's kick was good from 50 yards, or that he repeatedly sent kicks from the same distance between the uprights, that was most impressive. It was the nonreaction from Red Raiders coaches as they watched the feat repeat itself. The staff has become accustomed to watching Ribeiro make good on such long-distance kicks.
Standing a few feet away, former University of Tennessee All-SEC kicker James Wilhoit's eyes also followed the flight of the ball after each thunderous kick. Known best for making a game-winning 50-yard field goal in the closing seconds to beat Florida in 2004, Wilhoit works with some of the top kickers in the South, and curiosity brought him to Baylor to watch a relative unknown.
"You can just tell when you see him strike it, when it comes off his foot, the height and distance separate him from a lot of other kickers," said Wilhoit, UT's second-leading scorer all time. "For someone who really hasn't been coached in this game, you can just see the natural ability.
"Most kickers get noticed at summer camps, and that's where they get ranked and get offers. I got offered the spring before my senior year because of the camps I attended. He's a guy who is still under the radar. But he can definitely play at the highest level, and once he gets more coaching, he could become a top-10 kicker in the nation."
And as Baylor begins its playoff run tonight hosting Montgomery Bell Academy, not only is Ribeiro an added weapon for an offense that averages better than five touchdowns per game, but his kickoffs routinely sail through the end zone for touchbacks, meaning opponents begin most of their drives from their own 20-yard line.
"I try to visualize every kick as the same, whether it's an extra point or a 50-yard field goal," Ribeiro said. "If I start thinking I have to kick it harder because it's a longer kick, that's when you overkick it and pull it wide.
"I would hope we don't need a game-winning kick, but if it comes to that, I'll be ready."
He is a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, and the first time Ribeiro saw an American football game live, he handled the kickoff duties in Baylor's 2010 season opener. He had practiced only five days.
After working on the technique needed to make the transition from the game he grew up playing, soccer, to American football, Ribeiro has put together one of the most impressive single-season resumes in state history.
The 6-foot, 220-pound senior is 7-of-10 in field-goal attempts, having made kicks of 51, 52 and 57 yards as well as three others from 40-plus yards. He is perfect on extra-point attempts, and 45 of his 47 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. Two of his missed field-goals tries were from beyond 50 yards, including a 54-yard attempt that came up just short at the end of regulation in top-ranked Baylor's only loss at Brentwood Academy.
Those stats helped him earn a spot as one of the state's three finalists for the Mr. Football Kicker of the Year award, joining Tennessee commitment George Bullock of Knoxville West and Kentucky commitment Landon Foster of Independence.
Because he is so new to the sport, Ribeiro does not yet have a scholarship offer. However, coaches from Tennessee, Alabama and Miami have requested video, and Baylor coach Phil Massey said several other programs have hinted they likely will make offers soon.
"I've never seen one like him," Massey said. "The first thing I noticed, and we've had good kickers here, but it just sounded different coming off his foot. There's a definite 'boom' when he kicks it. It's not just the leg strength, but the consistency from the distance he kicks it and his kickoffs. I wouldn't hesitate to send him out there from 60 yards in.
"But it's not just his field goals. The fact that his kickoffs are not returnable are just as big a weapon for us. Our stats show that teams score touchdowns on just 15 percent of their possessions when they have to drive it 80 yards. That makes a pretty big difference for our defense."
Ribeiro came to Baylor as a boarding student whose athletic plans revolved around soccer, which he had played since he was a toddler. He was an all-city goalkeeper for Baylor last spring.
The wife of a Baylor football assistant saw Ribeiro kick a ball with some friends and asked if he would be interested in giving American football a try.
"I was curious to watch an American football game, but I never dreamed I would ever play," said Ribeiro, whose English has just a hint of an accent. "I decided to try it just to get into the culture here and make more friends.
"When I went back home to Brazil, I took a couple of footballs with me to work on my technique. I would work out at a soccer field near my house, and I got a lot of strange looks for practicing with something other than a soccer ball. My friends back home see pictures of me on Facebook in my pads and uniform and they think it's really weird.
"It may seem weird, but now that people see how far I can kick it, I believe I have a future in football."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...