“It was a terrible way to start senior year,” Caleb Hart says. He had been a soccer player most of his life – beginning with the American Youth Soccer Organization when he was 5, then moving to club soccer when he turned 8 and, he expected, to the high school team for the four years till graduation.
In his last year at Evanston Township High School, he says, “I didn’t expect to be a starter, but I didn’t expect to be cut” from the team.
But at the end of August tryouts, he found himself terminated – shut out of his final soccer season.
Caleb had known many of the soccer players his “whole life,” he says, and had two good friends on the football team, which was having a great season. But the suggestion that would get Caleb back on the field came from someone else.
The week before the Barrington game, when ETHS would boost its record to 4-0, Caleb’s father, Chris, suggested Caleb think about switching sports – finding a niche as a football kicker.
Caleb did not respond at first, but once he took a closer look, he says he noticed “there wasn’t a game [this season] where all the kicks were made.” He began considering his father’s proposal.
Though football kicking is different from soccer, Caleb says, “For some reason, I knew the technique.” His father ordered a quick-ship football and tee, and the Sunday before the fifth game, Caleb put that technique to work. He kicked, his dad videotaped him and Caleb sent the videos to ETHS Head Coach Mike “Buzz” Burzawa.
The coach told Caleb to come to practice the next day. “I was scared,” Caleb says.
Late as he was to join the team, Caleb cannot say enough about the reception he found. “The whole team was super supportive,” he says. “They treated me like any member of the team. It helped my confidence.” The coaches went out of their way for him, too, Caleb says. Besides the head coach, there was Coach Gessert, who was “so patient” while teaching him football calls and other intricacies of the sport, and Coach Schwabe, who was always on hand “to motivate.”
Caleb debuted against Niles West and was faced with a challenge beyond the kick. He went out for the extra point after the first touchdown. “But the snapper did a bad job, and I had to get down on the ball. It was not the result I was expecting,” he says.
In the following game, against Glenbrook South, Caleb kicked four extra points and made them all. But he saved his best for the last regular-season game, against Niles North. He scored seven times, making seven extra points, and he made a 42-yard field goal from the right hash, “my weak side,” he says. That game sent the Wildkits to the Illinois High School Association state football playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
The Kits played downstate Edwardsville at Lazier Field on Oct. 26 and lost 44-27. Interviewed the next day, Caleb admitted to being really down about the loss. He talked about the kick he missed at the end of the first half – his first missed kick of the season, and one from his favorite left hash.
“We were making a comeback,” he says, wondering aloud whether the missed kick affected the team’s morale. “The team was so great,” he says. “They have a brotherhood. They’re great guys. People work really hard in school just to play.”
Steve Newman, a former ETHS teacher and friend of the Hart family, stopped during the interview with a smile and a story. He reminded Caleb of the professional football player who came to football in high school after years of playing soccer.
Whether or not pro football is in his future, Caleb’s brief but spectacular season as a kicker has refocused his college search. He is now applying to small, Division III liberal arts schools, he says, where he might have a chance to refine his newfound talents. Not the least of them is resilience.