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Ka’imi Fairbairn goes from kicking at trees to UCLA starting kicker

Senior kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn went from kicking at trees in Hawaii to kicking on college-regulation field goal posts at UCLA every day in practice. His success helped spark a recruiting pipeline for kickers in the state of Hawaii. (Owen Emerson/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Matt Joye

Oct. 2, 2015 2:09 a.m.

Ka’imi Fairbairn had one chance at a Division I college football scholarship.

It came in 2011, during his junior year of high school. The young placekicker asked his parents if they could help him pay for a trip to Las Vegas, so he could attend the prestigious Chris Sailer Kicking camps.

That national camp was all Fairbairn had. Coming from the small town of Kailua, Hawaii – where no high school kicker had ever before earned a Power Five college scholarship – Fairbairn flew under the radar.

It didn’t matter what he did as the kicker at Punahou High School, because no college recruiters were around to watch him.

“He knew that he had to perform well at these camps – because it was his ticket,” said Eric Hannum, Fairbairn’s kicking coach at Punahou. “It was his way to be able to get to a UCLA or something like that.”

But that ticket came at a high price. It was a price that Fairbairn knew would put a burden on his parents, only adding to the pressure of the situation.

“It was a really big investment,” Fairbairn said. “My parents had to work really hard for me to get there. They really busted their butts.”

Once Fairbairn got the necessary funds to attend the camp, he immediately felt the pressure. He knew his parents were banking on him; he just wanted to pay them back by earning a college scholarship.

“I showed up to the camp (thinking) like, ‘I have to do well at this because of how much we were putting into it,'” he said.

Pitted against several national prospects for the first time in his life, Fairbairn outshined almost all of them. He earned an invitation to Sailer’s Elite Top 12 kicking camp, and from there earned a full-ride scholarship to UCLA.

Fairbairn had done so much – for his family, his town and his coaches – by earning the scholarship. But the pressure was just beginning.

From one world to another

Fairbairn grew up kicking footballs at trees in Hawaii – not between uprights.

“Sometimes, we would aim at a tree, you know – that’s all you gotta do,” he said.

So when Fairbairn was kicking before 23,105 fans at Rice Stadium in UCLA’s 2012 season opener, it was a bit of a shock.

“You could just kind of see through his eyes and see that deer-in-the-headlights look – which I (also) had when I first came to UCLA,” said then-senior punter Jeff Locke, who now punts for the Minnesota Vikings.

Fairbairn’s first two kick attempts as a Bruin – both extra points – were blocked. It was a learning experience for the then-freshman, who ended up bouncing back in that game by nailing a 27-yard field goal.

“That was a really big wake-up call,” Fairbairn said. “I got serious about it, I looked at the film and I was really critical of myself and I got it together.”

Specifically, Fairbairn would sit down and talk with Locke, the veteran punter and holder on the team. They’d talk more about the mental side of kicking than the physical side, with Locke giving pointers on how to approach big kicks during critical moments.

Those conversations came in handy on Oct. 27, 2012, when Fairbairn had the weight of the team – and the season – on his shoulders.

Facing Arizona State on the road, before 55,672 fans, Fairbairn had to make a 33-yard field goal with two seconds left. If he didn’t, the Bruins would lose the game and fall out of contention in the Pac-12 South.

Fairbairn treated the moment as if he was back kicking at trees in Hawaii. He kept his head down, kicked it straight and didn’t show much emotion afterward, even though his teammates were mobbing him in celebration.

Then-freshman kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn watches his game-winning field goal sail through the uprights in the 2012 matchup between UCLA and Arizona State. (Daily Bruin file photo)

“I was probably more excited than he was,” said Locke, who jumped atop Fairbairn to start the dog pile. “I was just so happy for him after the year – him being a true freshman, not making all the kicks he was supposed to make, whatever it was.”

Fairbairn would go on to miss a potential game-tying kick in the Pac-12 championship game that year – from 51 yards away – but said that experience helped him as much as his game-winning kick at Arizona State.

“It hurts. You want to do well obviously for your teammates and your fans,” Fairbairn said. “But you know it’s always good to persevere. You can’t let those things bother you that much.”

Becoming a veteran

Now, Fairbairn is a senior and a four-year starter. He’s been through every moment of the Jim Mora era. He’s just 47 points away from becoming the Bruins’ all-time scoring leader in football.

In his four years, he’s also developed one thing: poise. The pressure still mounts – as it does on any kicker at a high level – but Fairbairn has learned how to process it.

“He’s a lot more comfortable this year than he was last year,” said redshirt junior quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, who has been Fairbairn’s holder for the past three years. “No kick seems to be too big anymore.”

Fairbairn has yet to have his defining kick of 2015, but he’s waiting eagerly for it. He doesn’t want to shy away from the challenge.

“My first goal is to do well this season, especially for my teammates,” Fairbairn said. “I want to have a good year not just for personal benefits, but for team goals.”

No matter how well Fairbairn does for the Bruins this year, he will always have one key accomplishment to be proud of. And it has nothing to do with a game-winning kick.

Hometown hero

Fairbairn is a trailblazer for high school kicking prospects back in Hawaii.

Before his success at the Chris Sailer Kicking camp – and his further success at UCLA – no college recruiters went out there to look for kickers. Sailer had never hosted one of his camps there.

But in 2014, Sailer finally traveled out to Hawaii to host his first camp there. The success of the that camp led to another one at Punahou High School just two months ago.

Hannum, who is still the kicking coach at Punahou, credits Fairbairn for the changing of the guard.

“Ka’imi set the bar at Punahou to the extent where … I used to have to go try to and find guys that want to kick – that’s no longer the case,” Hannum said. “He kind of set that (precedent) where there were freshman kids and they wanted to be like him.”

Now, Punahou High School has one of the top kicking and punting prospects in the 2016 recruiting class – Jet Toner – and some other Division I-level prospects, Hannum said.

So in many ways Fairbairn’s trip to Las Vegas in the summer of 2011 paid off.

It paid off for Fairbairn’s parents, who were relieved of paying for Fairbairn’s college education.

It paid off for the other parents in Hawaii, who no longer need to send their kids to Las Vegas for a kicking camp.

Most importantly, it paid off for Fairbairn.

“It’s meant the world to me honestly, having a place like UCLA to call home,” Fairbairn said. “The community, the campus – it’s just everything you want in a college.”

“It’s honestly as close as it’s gonna get to home, to me.”

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Matt Joye | Alumnus
Joye joined the Bruin as a sophomore transfer in 2013 and contributed until after he graduated in 2016. He was an assistant Sports editor for the 2014-2015 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, baseball, softball, men's soccer, women's tennis, track and field and cross country beats.
Joye joined the Bruin as a sophomore transfer in 2013 and contributed until after he graduated in 2016. He was an assistant Sports editor for the 2014-2015 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, baseball, softball, men's soccer, women's tennis, track and field and cross country beats.
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