Feature: Kicker Armando Cuko Gaining Distance
Aug. 27, 2009
By Julian Benbow
Looking back, Armando Cuko can see every up and down of his rollercoaster football career at the University of Massachusetts. But what's more important now, as he prepares for his final season, is that he can see how each peak and valley helped him in the long run.
The initial high came before he even stepped foot on a field.
The Minutemen courted him at Beverly High, where he was a captain and a three-year all-conference player, to be their starting kicker as a freshman. He thought it was a spot he deserved, though he had no idea how different the college game was from the high school game he dominated.
"You do feel entitled,'' Cuko said. "Every Division 1-AA football player feels entitled to being a starter. We all come from a small pond and you're the big fish. We're the all-star on the team and you automatically assume that you're going to be a starter.''
The 100-foot drop came almost immediately into his first season in Amherst. The kickoffs were longer (launched from the 30-yard line, not the 40). The uprights are not as wide (18 feet, 6 inches vs. 23-4). The game was faster than he expected, to the point that he felt he never got a clean look at a kick.
"Everything seemed like it was going 800 miles an hour,'' said the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Cuko.
Cuko missed more field goals (7) than he made (6) as a freshman, and that was the start of a reality check that spanned two seasons. In training camp his sophomore year, he had a pulled groin and then aggravated the injury in the opener vs. Villanova. He took a medical redshirt.
The next year, he sat on the bench as replacement Chris Koepplin repeated as an all-conference selection. But instead of sulking, he reflected, knowing his time would come and deciding to be prepared.
He kicked as much as his leg allowed. He worked on height and distance. He switched from a three-step approach to a two-step routine, increasing his accuracy and speed. Though he couldn't play, he traveled with the team and, before games, would go on the field for practice kicks and to imagine he was in a game, simulating the pressure he had become used to feeling on Saturdays. Time to think gave him a chance to learn about himself as a kicker.
"I thought of myself as being a great kicker and looking back, I wasn't as good as I thought I was,'' said Cuko, a native of Albania who emigrated at age 14 from Italy. "I was a good kicker, but I wasn't college good. I feel like those two years of me sitting down and watching and working it really, really made me appreciate and understand what college football was all about. It made me appreciate what I have right now, and it made me work even harder to not lose it and want to keep my spot.''
He reclaimed the starting spot last season. He connected on six of eight kicks and 45 of 46 extra points attempts. The biggest moment came Sept. 6 at Holy Cross when he found himself in the spot he had imagined for two years.
It was the first kick in three years, and the situation - a 42-42 tie - added to the pressure. Cuko told teammates, "I'm going to kick a game-winning field goal today.''
He got his chance on the final play. Holy Cross burned its timeouts trying to ice Cuko, but it only relaxed him. He drilled the 42-yard kick, the longest of his career, giving the Minutemen the win and at the same time giving himself new confidence.
"At that moment you don't think anything of it, but a couple of days later when I really started thinking about it, it felt good,'' he said. "It felt like those two years of me working in practice every day kind of started working out for me.''
As senior season approaches, Cuko has made his goals clear. He wants to play in the postseason, because if the Minutemen played well enough to get there it means he kicked well enough to get them there. Also, he doesn't want to miss a kick.
"Being a starter right away, you don't really fully understand or really fully appreciate what you've got until you lose it,'' he said.
"I'm not taking it for granted anymore. This is an opportunity that you don't get every day,'' he said. "It will come to an end at some point and that's why I worked so hard this summer to be able to kick the way I'm kicking right now, to be able to help my team and to be able to have great memories from my senior year.''
Julian Benbow can be e-mailed at jbenbow@ globe.com
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