Matt Gay was a legit youth soccer prospect – legit enough on a national level to be the first Utah native invited to U.S. Soccer’s residency program in Florida. And he proved himself to be one of the better set piece-takers in that incubator, which included future US Men’s National Team and LAFC free kick ace Kellyn Acosta.
So Gay always envisioned a career as a professional soccer player. Gay led Utah Valley University with seven goals as a freshman in 2014, but after returning from his LDS mission in Houston in 2015, he didn’t feel like his future in soccer was playing out the way he hoped.
After the 2016 season, Gay decided to pivot. He traded football for American football.
But it wasn’t an impromptu switch. He didn’t make it so he continue as a collegiate athlete – he could’ve just kept playing soccer. Instead, Gay transferred his ultimate soccer goal to football.
“If I’m going to do this, if I’m going to try and go kick,” Gay said, “I’m going to do this to go to the NFL.”
Gay attended a specialist camp at the University of Utah in the summer of 2017 and impressed Utes coaches, but they didn’t have an immediate roster spot for him. He was told to sit tight and wait for one to open up during fall camp. When one did, Gay walked on and entered a competition with three other kickers, one of whom had the advantage of being on scholarship.
Eventually, it came down to Gay and the freshman kicker on scholarship. The kid with the scholarship – Chayden Johnston – ultimately won out and got the first opportunity to kick for Utah in the 2017 regular season.
But when Johnston missed his first field goal attempt – a 45-yarder that went wide left – a coach found Gay on the sideline and told him: You’re up.
Gay was taken a back a bit – he didn’t tell his family to come to the game, since he was behind Johnston on the depth chart – but took a moment, said a prayer and went out to kick a football instead of a soccer ball in a game for the first time as a college athlete.
“That’s kind of where the process started,” Gay said.
Gay made two PATs, then a 33-yarder, then another PAT, then a 32-yarder, then a 49-yarder and one final PAT in his collegiate debut (he had so many opportunities thanks to an offense powered by current Colts teammate and running back Zack Moss). He didn’t miss any of his kicks.
Gay went on to make 30 of 34 field goals, including an FBS-leading five from 50 or more yards, in 2017. At one point during the season, Utah’s punter – Mitch Wishnowsky, now of the San Francisco 49ers – told Gay he was in the running for the Lou Groza Award.
“What’s the Lou Groza Award?” Gay asked.
Wishnowsky explained: It’s the award given annually to college football’s best kicker. A few weeks later, Gay won it; he was named a consensus All-American and led the nation with 30 made field goals.
What Gay did in 2017 – transitioning from soccer to football and being named college football’s top kicker – is remarkable. You don’t just see a soccer player decide to become a football kicker and thrive the way Gay did. Even Harry Kane would have a hard time replicating Gay’s immediate success.
“I was like, holy cow, I could win this thing and ended up winning it,” Gay said. “And after that year I was like, okay, this is what I want to do and set out to do is go to the NFL, but I got a shot here. I can actually do this.”
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