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The Ballad of The Big Toe

Penn State’s Joey Julius is teaching us a lesson: Kickers are people, too

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

A robot would be the best placekicker of all time. A human kicker learns a few motions — one for kickoffs, one for field goals, one for onside kicks, one for pooches — and then tries to repeat those motions the same way every time. We call the good kickers “automatic,” praising them for becoming as robotic as humanly possible.

Human kickers sometimes crack under the pressure of big moments, messing up their mechanics when asked to make clutch kicks — or even near-meaningless ones. But not KickerBot 3000. Its shiny metal leg would never fail, hitting the ball with the perfect velocity and the perfect trajectory every single time. But until the NCAA stretches its definition of amateurism to include machines, special teams coaches are stuck with humans.

Tiny humans, at that. Not because being tiny makes you good at kicking; it’s just that if you’re big, you’re put into positions and sports where being big is a boon. Instead, kickers look like soccer players in pads and helmets, skinnier and smaller than their teammates.

That used to be the case with Penn State’s Joey Julius, a former soccer player. In 2010, Julius was called into camp for the United States U-15 boys’ national team. In 2013, Julius accepted a scholarship to play soccer at SIU-Edwardsville. In 2014, Julius decided he’d rather play football.

By the time Julius competed for the Penn State kicking job in 2015, he’d gained enough weight to acquire the nickname “The Big Toe.” He now weighs more than most of the team’s linebackers, and it’s hard to imagine him ever having played a sport that required 90 minutes of constant running.

Like many others, I came to love Penn State’s large kicker. While the traditional kicking motion is a fluid display of coordinated power, Julius’s approach is about as ungraceful as possible. In my eyes, he was a gleeful rebuke of what kickers are supposed to be. He didn’t need to be big, but he was anyway, and he still got the job done.

When he first suited up for the Nittany Lions last season, Julius’s weight made him into an Object of Internet Curiosity, a fun thing to tweet and giggle about. But offline, he experienced depression and physical discomfort. Over the past few weeks, Julius opened up about his binge-eating disorder, which caused him to miss spring practice as he sought treatment. In secret, he would eat until he was full and then continue eating until his body hurt. If his eating disorder had not been treated, Julius speculated, he might have died.

In 2015 Julius served as Penn State’s placekicker, connecting on 10 of 12 field goals and 20 of 24 extra points. This season, he’s handling only kickoffs, but he’s achieved another degree of virality. At the beginning of last month, he took down Kent State’s Kavious Price by hurling his big body into a wide receiver who was 100 pounds lighter. The tackle wasn’t exactly good form, but Julius’s sheer mass sent Price teetering backward and to the ground.

Then he got Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis, who’s one of the best players in football. Kicker or not, this hit would’ve been a highlight for anyone:

After the game, Lewis went on to describe Julius as “a nose tackle who can kick,” which sounds like the next frontier of positional flexibility. But the subtext of Lewis’s words is clear: Julius is so different from every other kicker that he can’t even be defined as one.

Of course, football does not celebrate things that are different. Apparently, opponents are upset that they have to block 11 players instead of blocking 10 while ignoring the frightened kicker. Maryland and Minnesota players went out of their way to demolish Julius, blowing him up with blindside hits that both led to ejections. These were contract killings with no football significance whatsoever. In the instance of the Maryland hit, the play was already dead.

Look at Julius — prone, limp, seemingly deceased:

Taking down an oblivious kicker is not impressive; it just makes me think you’re a jerk.

Oddly enough, a portion of the internet commentariat suggested that Julius brought this upon himself. If you’re going to try to make tackles, they said, people are going to hit back. Look at the comment section — a beautiful Petri dish spawning the worst takes possible — from the YouTube video of Julius’s hit on Lewis.

When defensive ends make big hits, opponents don’t demolish them after the whistle to get even. The problem is that Julius is a kicker: He’s not supposed to try, and now he’s being punished for doing so.

It is easy to make fun of kickers for being different from the average football player. But now that Julius has proven that he’s nearly as athletic and as strong as his teammates and opponents, he’s finding out that’s not allowed, either. He finally brought a knife to a knife fight, and his opponents went and got bazookas.

At a position that calls for automatons, Julius is exceptionally human. Sure, KickerBot 3000 would be a better kicker than Julius, drilling every field goal and blasting the ball out of the end zone for a touchback on every kickoff. But Julius makes football more interesting. He makes us think about things that we never think about with the scores of skinny kickers who scurry to the sideline after their duty is done. That deserves celebration, but sometimes, being a robot doesn’t sound too bad.