Kicker Jeff Budzien gives Northwestern a leg up on foes
BY NEIL HAYES email@example.com December 28, 2012 9:18PM
Vanderbilt v Northwestern
vs. Mississippi St.
The facts: Jacksonville, Fla.,
11 a.m. Tuesday, ESPN2.
Updated: January 30, 2013 6:10AM
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Junior Jeff Budzien became Northwestern’s first All-Big Ten kicker since 1997 this season. He was a semi-
finalist for the Lou Groza Award and tied a school record with five field goals against Boston College.
But ask him what has been most rewarding about his time in Evanston, and it isn’t football-related.
‘‘The Special Olympics stuff has been my favorite thing I’ve done at Northwestern, and that’s including football,’’ Budzien said after the Wildcats finished their second day of preparations Friday for their
Gator Bowl game against Missis-
sippi State on New Year’s Day. ‘‘Football is great and rewarding, but the best I feel is when I’m playing sports with the Special Olympics athletes or coaching them.’’
The Gator Bowl features seemingly evenly matched teams, which means Budzien might be called on to attempt a field goal that would snap NU’s 64-year bowl drought.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald would take that scenario in a heartbeat. That’s how much confidence he has gained in Budzien during the last year.
‘‘A year ago . . . I think I broke a school record for the number of times I went for it on fourth down,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘I just didn’t want to put him in bad situations in his first year kicking. What he has proven is he’s the best kicker in the country. He has been money. The one he missed was from 53 [yards], and that missed by the width of the football.’’
Budzien was 6-for-10 on field goals last season but is 17-for-18 this season, including 6-for-7 from 40 yards and beyond. His only miss was a potential game-winner against Nebraska.
He routinely booms balls 60 yards or more in the Wildcats’ indoor facility and hasn’t missed during bowl preparation, according to Fitzgerald, who doubles as his kicking coach.
It wouldn’t appear to be a likely specialty for a two-time All-America linebacker, as Fitzgerald was, but he learned the trade while climbing the coaching ladder and continues to oversee NU kickers.
‘‘Coach Fitz lets us be ourselves and kick,’’ Budzien said. ‘‘He knows when we’re doing something wrong or right. He’s a really good mental coach. He helps us with that quite a bit. Otherwise, the kickers are on their own.
‘‘After kicking for eight years, I know what I’m doing right or wrong. I can watch film and diagnose any problem.’’
Budzien served as co-chairman of NU’s Special Olympics Committee last year, assigning coaches to various sites and arranging logistics. He wanted to be more hands-on this year, so he went back to coaching track and field, bocce ball and bowling.
‘‘I don’t know what drew me into it, but I’m really thankful,’’ he said. ‘‘What’s really cool is bringing members of the team with and seeing their passion grow. We’ve had a lot of guys I’ve taken randomly to coach a bowling practice or just hang out, and they love it. They’re the ones who want to get invited back.’’