Ka’imi Fairbairn sized up his 52-yard field goal attempt with 39 seconds left on the clock, his team down three in the Pac-12 championship game.
Splitting the upright meant keeping UCLA’s Rose Bowl hopes alive, a miss meant just a goodie bag and a less-picturesque destination.
Four steps back, three steps left. Low snap. Quick hold. Wide left. Game over. The then-freshman kicker stood on hand to watch Stanford celebrate its first trip to Pasadena since the 1999-2000 season.
That moment pushed Fairbairn through a difficult winter conditioning season, and physically, he said he’s better for it.
“That one, it’s a little special because it’s the last time I kicked in the Pac-12 game, and it was a big game and it was a pretty big kick and I didn’t follow through for my team,” Fairbairn said. “But that’s what motivated me this whole offseason. I’ve been working hard trying to get stronger and trying to keep my flexibility and technique and all of that.”
The final play of UCLA spring practices offers a familiar sight for the whole team – a 52-yard attempt from the left hash. As an added bonus, defensive line coach Angus McClure sprays water on Fairbairn and the special teams unit to try to replicate that soggy evening in Palo Alto and provide a distraction.
On Wednesday, Fairbairn’s right leg punched the symbolic kick between the pipes with plenty of distance to spare. While it’s just one kick of many the kicker will attempt this upcoming season, his coach insists it’s a sign of growing composure.
“This guy’s going to be, in my opinion, someday thought of as one of the great UCLA kickers, and there’s been some really great ones here,” said coach Jim Mora. “I think he’s got the potential to be an All-American, I really do.”
Early on last season, Fairbairn struggled. In his first-ever collegiate game, he had three extra point attempts blocked and went on to miss five of his first 14 field goal attempts. In fourth down situations that would have created long field goal tries, Mora often opted just to go for it.
“We had to be careful with the way we brought him along last year,” Mora said. “I didn’t want to put him in situations where I felt like he was going to fail. We’re trying to create success, and he’s going to be a really good kicker.”
The rising sophomore went on to make six of his final seven kicks, including a career-long 48-yarder in the first game against Stanford.
A confident Fairbairn enters his second season with the Bruins ready to develop a model of consistency.
But first, he’ll have to get used to a new snapper in rising redshirt sophomore Christopher Longo and a new holder in rising redshirt freshman quarterback Jerry Neuheisel.
“We’re working out the kinks … and our snapper is really pinpoint,” Fairbairn said. “You’ve got to start over and tell them what you like and what you don’t like. Overall, the guys work hard and they’re serious about it.”
Mora indicated that the field goal repetition at practice’s end serves as a motivational tool for all of the team’s returning players from last season, not just Fairbairn.
Even after a nine-win season, coming within yards of a Pac-12 title leaves many players wanting for more, whether it’s a Rose Bowl or an NCAA title.
“Nine wins is not enough,” said rising sophomore center Jake Brendel. “We are playing for a national championship – we’re playing for as high as you can get.”