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November 10, 2010

CONTINUING A TREND - A work ethic developed at a young age has enabled Chris Hazley to become the latest in a long line of great Tech kickers

By: Jimmy Robertson

Chris Hazley

Motivation comes in many forms. Money motivates many people. For others, titles serve as the motivating force.

Fear is often a motivator. So, too, is envy. Simple self-betterment often looms as a motivator.

One Tech football player found his motivation from a rather obscure task while working for his dad’s construction company during the sweltering summer months of June and July. He performed many chores, but climbing into attics on hazy July afternoons and spreading insulation motivated him to strive for higher goals in life.

Oh sure, he performed other rigorous assignments. He often cleaned up the job sites, and loading and unloading lumber presented its challenges.

But spreading insulation … that was the ultimate motivator.

“That [spreading insulation] was the worst part about it,” Tech kicker Chris Hazley admitted of his summer job. “But after doing that, you can do anything.”

His success these days is because of those days.

Those days working for the family’s construction company – his parents own it and certain family members help run it – fine-tuned his work ethic. He learned the value of a hard day’s labor, and he realized that jobs needed to be done on time and on budget, but more importantly, the right way.

That’s why he ranks as one of the ACC’s best kickers this season. He’s put in his time, he’s labored hard at his craft and he simply does things the right way.

You’d expect that from a Pennsylvanian. After all, they are a lot that takes pride in whatever they do and they possess a passion for football that is nearly unmatched on a national scale.

Hazley, though, is a tad unique in that sense. He grew up loving football of a different sort.

And no one would have ever guessed he’d be here, at Virginia Tech, kicking an oblong pigskin at Lane Stadium.

Chris Hazley grew up playing soccer in his hometown of West Chester, Pa., but after years of waiting, he has thrived in the role of Tech’s placekicker this season.

A quick Wikipedia search of Henderson High School in West Chester, Pa., proved to be enlightening when trying to gain insight of that community’s love of soccer.

Henderson High’s girls’ team won the national championship in 1997 and state titles in 1995, 1998 and 1999. In the following decade, the boys achieved dominant status, claiming the state crown in 2002 and finishing second in both 2004 and 2005.

Such a tradition can be magnetic, and thus, Hazley grew up playing that sport.

“I liked high school soccer a lot,” Hazley said. “It was a pure sport to me. I grew up playing soccer and watching soccer. I just enjoyed it, especially at the high school level because our whole community gathered around the soccer team. It was a lot of fun. The whole stadium was packed for our games.”

Like most teenagers, though, Hazley was susceptible to peer pressure. A couple of his buddies played on the football team, and essentially, they challenged him.

The summer before his senior season at Henderson, they summoned him out to the football field to see if he could actually kick a football. They knew of his soccer exploits, but expected his football-kicking abilities to be the subject of laughter.

“I remember we went out to one of the middle school fields and started kicking it around,” Hazley said. “I had never really done any of the steps. I didn’t know anything about kicking. I guess I hit it well, and they were impressed.”

The football coaching staff contacted Hazley about coming out for the team that August, even though soccer season went on at the same time. He kept soccer as his first priority, and the football coaching staff understood that, letting him be a part of the team and practice on a part-time basis.

“I went to football practice for about 20-30 minutes on Wednesday after I was done with soccer practice,” Hazley said. “Then I’d show up for the games on Friday.”

Hazley attempted two field goals his senior season. He said he nailed one from roughly 35 yards, but the other one got blocked.

Midway through the football season, his soccer team made the state playoffs. The soccer games started conflicting with football practices and games, so after playing in six football games, he decided to kick that sport to the side and stick with soccer.

“My first commitment was to soccer,” he said. “The coaches understood.”

It appeared at that point that his football days were over.

For the most part, Hazley has been all smiles following his performances this season.

How Hazley came to end up at Virginia Tech isn’t some enthralling, complicated, unbelievable tale. He visited, applied and was accepted.

Not much more to it than that.

“We were at my cousin’s wedding in North Carolina and drove through [Blacksburg] on the way back,” Hazley said. “We stopped, and I really liked it [Tech]. I was impressed with the campus and the facilities and everything. After that, I applied and got in. I went on a whim and said I’d try it and see what happens.”

His first semester went well for the most part. He enjoyed his classes and he decided to join a fraternity, establishing friendships along the way.

Perhaps it could be chalked up to something as simple as boredom or that he missed competition, but he felt compelled to try out for the football team – and not the soccer team, the sport he grew up loving.

“I kinda got burned out from soccer and I wanted to try out something new,” he said. “In the spring, I felt the urge to go out and see what would happen.”

Tech’s coaching staff holds tryouts regularly, and at this particular tryout, head coach Frank Beamer was looking for potential kickers and snappers. Hazley got wind of the date and decided to test his kicking skills in front of the “Big Whistle.”

“It was pretty nerve-wracking kicking in front of Coach Beamer,” Hazley said. “I don’t think he said much. He just seemed to like what I could offer and thought it was worth it to keep me out there a little bit. I don’t think I got into pads until the following spring.”

At that time, Tech’s kicking duties were handled by the ever steady Judson Dunlevy, and a couple of other older guys named Dustin Keys and Matt Waldron were in the hopper awaiting their turns. So, though Hazley got invited back, he realized his chances of ever getting into an actual game were quite slim.

Still, he took his job seriously – much like he did with his summer tasks at the family construction company – and put his work ethic to use. Beamer liked Hazley’s strong leg. He just wanted to see a little more consistency.

Whatever Hazley learned about the fundamentals of kicking, he learned by asking and watching Tech’s other kickers. Unlike most kickers, he didn’t receive instruction from a personal kicking coach. In fact, most kickers often spent large quantities of time with – and money on – their personal kicking coaches.

Hazley didn’t have that luxury. One of seven children – five boys and two girls (Hazley’s the third-youngest) – he refused to ask his parents, Michael and Christine Hazley, for more cash than they already were shelling out on him for out-of-state tuition. Plus, his wonderful parents had already helped put his two older brothers and two older sisters through college as well and planned on helping one of his younger brothers, who just started college this semester.

So Hazley took a thrifty approach.

“I saw one [a kicking coach] going into my junior year. It helped a lot, but I felt he had so much to say about my technique,” Hazley said. “I’m sure it could have made me better, but I really couldn’t afford to pay him weekly or however often he wanted to work with me.

“I just learned from the guys around me and learned what works and what doesn’t work. I’m sure there is a part of my kicking that could be improved.”

He worked and he watched them all. He watched Dunlevy (2007), then Keys (2008) and then Waldron (last year).

He got better. But never good enough to unseat those guys – so never good enough to get in a game.

“It’s tough, but then, there are benefits,” he said. “You get benefits that you wouldn’t get from belonging to any other club, whether it be getting the sweats or going to the bowl game or being around guys who are going to the NFL some day. I felt it was worth it.

“I always said that even if I didn’t get to play here, it’d be like a gym membership and it was free. I feel like it was good to have that structure in my life, too. It helped me with academics. The more I had going on, the better I did.”

After four years of practice and repetition and kicking competitions in all kinds of weather, after four years of watching and not playing, after four years of work and patience, Hazley earned the starting nod at kicker heading into this season.

But in spring practice, he wondered if he would be able to kick this fall even if he won the job. Hazley graduated from Tech in May with a degree in marketing management, and he simply couldn’t afford to pay tuition for an extra fall of fun as Tech’s kicker.

He let Beamer know his financial situation back in the spring, and Beamer ultimately came through with the scholarship.

“I told him that I wanted to be here and I wanted to play, but unless I was on scholarship, I couldn’t do it,” Hazley said. “I couldn’t afford it.

“I don’t know what I’d be doing without it [the scholarship]. I’d be living at home. Hopefully, I’d have a job. I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it. I kinda put all my eggs in this basket, so I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t playing football.”

He delivered the big news to his grateful parents right after he received his scholarship offer.

Their response?

“They wish I had done it a year earlier,” Hazley laughed. “Nah, they were happy for me. If I hadn’t gotten it, then I wouldn’t have been able to stay here, and they knew how much I wanted to be here and play. It wasn’t an option. If I didn’t get it, then I wasn’t going to be here. It was either all or nothing.”

So far, he’s been everything for the Hokies. He pushed one right against Boise State in the season opener, but he hasn’t missed one since (heading into the Georgia Tech game).

He’s become the latest in a great line of senior walk-on kickers.

“We have a lot of competition within the program,” Beamer said. “I think being around and competing with other good kickers makes them better. In the end, the one who is the most consistent and who has the most consistent ball flight is the one who is going to kick. If you’re that guy, then you’re pretty good.”

Hazley isn’t sure what his future holds for him. He understands the odds of making it as a kicker in the NFL. Commercial real estate remains an option – he got a minor in real estate. He also mentioned coaching.

He admitted he’ll probably work several jobs before finding out what he wants to do. He knows there are always greater things out there.

If he forgets, well, he needs only to remember his days of spreading insulation.

For him, that’s the ultimate motivator.