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KICKSTARTER: Hickory High graduate Ryan Succop excels in the NFL
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KICKSTARTER: Hickory High graduate Ryan Succop excels in the NFL

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HICKORY –  THUD.

It’s a sound that screams power, a sound of pure force, a sound that, in its most special of moments, can electrify a crowd already brimming with energy.

THUD.

It’s a sound that resonates with football aficionados. This was the sound that grabbed the attention of Hickory High School’s football coaches. This was the sound of a ninth-grader’s right foot making contact with a football for the first time.

THUD.

Immediately, then-Hickory High assistant football coach John Worley knew what the team had on its hands.

“The coaching staff all knew we had something special,” said Worley, standing near the concession stand overlooking Frank Barger Stadium, where this story begins, in August 2001. 

It’s where Ryan Succop kicked off a career that has taken him out of Hickory and into the grueling competition of SEC football. From there, Succop made it to the peak of the game and presently kicks for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sundays.

He was athletic and played soccer, golf, basketball and baseball growing up. But football? No, football was a sport Succop didn’t intend on trying his luck at, until Hickory High’s football coach was tipped off about the freshman with a thunderous right leg.

One day in August

Steve Morgan already knew about the freshman.

Hickory High School’s soccer coach lost two central midfielders in the month leading up to the season, but he had an idea of whom he could slot into one of those roles.

“It wasn’t a question of if he was going to start,” Morgan said. “It was, where is he going to start?”

Morgan’s team was preparing for what would be a state championship-winning season. He had seen Succop play in recreational leagues and at a practice earlier this summer. He knew about the talent this freshman possessed.

He was also well aware of the strength of Succop’s leg.

At a preseason scrimmage, Morgan had the central midfielder take a goal kick. Midfielders don’t normally take goal kicks, but the coach was curious.

“In that one situation, I wanted to see how far he could kick it,” Morgan said. The result of this trial was a kick that sent the ball “almost 80 yards in the air.”

Morgan had recommended soccer players to Hickory’s assistant football coach, Dave Elder, in the past as possible kickers. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to play both soccer and football.

“In high school, I don’t think kids should put all their eggs in one basket,” Morgan said.

That August, Morgan approached Elder with his freshman at the front of his mind.

Elder started coaching at Hickory High School as an assistant football coach in 1979 and took over the team in 1994. He coached the Red Tornadoes to a state championship in 1996, with Morgan’s son, Cory, as his kicker.

It was five years after that title, and preseason had already started. Hickory had a bye week on the first Friday of the season, so their veteran football coach had some extra time to prepare his team.

“I told coach Elder, ‘I’ve got this kid at 6-foot-2, 175 pounds as a freshman, who can kick the ball 70 yards off the ground,’” Morgan said.

A time was soon scheduled for Succop to meet with the football coach.

Succop’s tryout was on a Tuesday, when Elder’s team practiced all phases of its kicking game.

The freshman arrived and chatted with the coaches for a few minutes. Then, they put the ball on a tee and had him try a kickoff.

“He was a little bit awkward in what to do,” Elder said of Succop, who had never kicked a football before. “We had to explain to him some little fundamental things. After a few tries, he was able to get it down pretty good. When he kicked it, you could sort of tell he had the leg, that strength and power.”

Like his assistant, Worley, the head coach recognized this diamond in the rough by the sound and sight of Succop’s foot striking pigskin.

“It’s something you sense when you see the ball kicked,” Elder said. “You can hear it, and when you see it, you know it was tremendous power. He hit it 60 yards or so in the air pretty consistently, and that year kicking off, at least 50 percent of his kickoffs went into the end zone. He started out booming it, and he’s still doing it of course.”

Before he left, the coaches told Succop he was suiting up. What exactly he was suiting up for, he didn’t know.

“I figured it was for the JV game,” Succop said, “but no, it was the varsity team. We played East Burke, and I had never put on football pads in my life till about an hour before kickoff.”

“After he left I gathered the coaches together and said, ‘You guys take the rest of the team now and I’m the kicking coach,’ Elder chuckled.

Succop didn’t let football take anything away from his success on the soccer field throughout high school. The Red Tornadoes won the state championship his freshman year, and he graduated as a three-time all-state player with 104 career goals to his name.

It wasn’t the sport that would offer him the most opportunity, though.

Noticed on the gridiron

The letters came first.

They came from North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Oregon. Georgia, Miami, Army, Northwestern, Auburn and South Carolina didn’t miss out on the chance to send an envelope to the Succops’ home either, showing their interest in having Hickory High’s star kicker on their team.

Some coaches wanted him to join the team as a walk-on with the chance to earn a scholarship.

Others already had a kicker but wanted him to be there when the position opened up.

One coach was convinced with what he saw on tape. The coach had been around talented football players before. He was the first to offer Succop a scholarship.

Lou Holtz, then the coach of South Carolina, didn’t travel to Hickory to meet with Succop. But Hickory High’s kicker took a trip to Columbia, and the two spoke on the phone.

“(Holtz) had called and said, ‘Ryan I’ve never given a scholarship to a kicker out of high school, but you’re going to be the first,’” Succop said.

A potential hiccup occurred a few weeks after Succop verbally committed in November to play football for Holtz at South Carolina.

By the end of the month, Holtz retired from college football. Succop didn’t second-guess his decision, though. South Carolina hired Steve Spurrier, who spent 12 seasons as coach of the Florida Gators.

“I figured it wasn’t a bad tradeoff to get to play for coach Spurrier,” Succop quipped.

He mainly handled kickoff duties during his freshman year with the Gamecocks. It wasn’t until Succop’s sophomore season that he really started to shoulder the load, when he took over the kickoff, field goal and punting responsibilities.

When the curtain closed on his college career in 2008, he had racked up 251 career points – good for 10th best all-time in the program’s history. One trait Succop possesses has played an integral role in his success at a position that requires mental strength. Pro kickers, like Succop, need to be able to handle something extra that can drop on the shoulders of players whose success is measured in a moment, not a 10-play drive down the field.

Pressure is a weight that can make or break success for kickers.

Pressure is kicking in front of more than 80,000 football-crazed human beings at Williams-Brice Stadium all holding their breath as your right foot sends a football toward the uprights.

Pressure is taking three steps back, two steps to the left, and locking your eyes on the holder as he waits for the snap at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., as 80,000 Tigers fans wearing orange do everything humanly possible to disrupt your focus.

“Pressure is something that never bothered Ryan Succop,” Worley said. “At least athletic pressure never did.”

Succop’s calm demeanor is something that he’s carried with him from Hickory, to South Carolina and now uses to his advantage in the pro ranks. It’s a trait that Worley said has contributed greatly to the kicker’s success.

“He is so level that you can see why he’s stayed there as long as he has,” Worley said. “You’re on an island as a kicker in the pros. You either do good or you do bad. There’s no in between. To me, to be able to handle that pressure, where you can’t blame anybody on that team, to kick, is unbelievable in the pros.

“I think you’re born with the fact of being able to calm down and being able to handle pressure as it comes. Some people are born with that. Some people handle it better than others.”

“He’s steady-Eddie,” said Kansas City Chiefs long snapper and one of Succop’s close friends on the team, Thomas Gafford.

“His highs aren’t too high, his lows aren’t too low. It’s hard to get him excited. It’s hard to ruffle him, and I try hard. I try to get under his skin, and much to my demise, it’s not very easy.”

Succop isn’t an emotional guy, Worley said. The 27-year-old did admit to getting excited when he read the text messages that kept setting off his phone on the golf course this spring, though.

A special game

The Kansas City Chiefs traveled to Charlotte last weekend for a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. More than 100 of Succop’s family and friends also traveled to Bank of America Stadium for the game. It was the six-year pro’s first game in his home state since South Carolina played at North Carolina in 2007.

Hickory’s kicker didn’t disappoint.

He nailed a 54-yard field goal early in the first quarter and knocked a 25-yard attempt through at the start of the second half. After the game, Succop hurried to get outside to where his friends and family were waiting by the team bus.

“I grew up coming to a lot of Panthers games here, and you always dream of playing on that field but you never actually think it will happen,” Succop said after the game.

“For it to come to fruition tonight is pretty special. It’s kind of a surreal feeling to get an opportunity to come home and play in front of what I consider the hometown fans, for me at least. A lot of my friends and family are from this area, so it was really neat to be out there.”

After the game, his family and friends returned to various locations in the Carolinas. His mother, Kathy, drove back to Hickory while other family went back to their home in Charlotte. His wife’s family returned to South Carolina after the game. Succop flew back to the Midwest with the team, back to his home in Kansas City.

He doesn’t live in Hickory anymore, aside from when he visits family here. Succop has left Hickory. Hickory hasn’t left Succop, though.

His Southern twang remains the same, something that reminds Succop’s Chiefs teammates of where he’s from. He keeps in touch with high school friends and remains dedicated to his faith. Some of his Chiefs teammates will hold a bible study once a week. Succop’s mother works at a Catholic church in town.

He also remains in the not-too-distant memories of coaches and teachers at Hickory High.

Ellen Campbell, a Latin teacher at Hickory High School, sits at a desk in her classroom a week after seeing Succop play in Charlotte. She had been to Succop’s games at South Carolina before, she said, but this was her first NFL game.

Campbell excitedly recites stories about Succop. A picture of herself with Succop at his wedding is on the wall by her computer. His college poster – something students of hers make – sits on the wall at the back of her classroom. Next to his name are the letters USC in red glitter.

Liz Corine, a French teacher at the school, joins Campbell, and more stories about Succop come up. Campbell has a thick scrapbook with “RYAN” emblazoned on the front of the black book in red varsity-style lettering on one of the desks. She thumbs through pages full of newspaper clippings and photographs she started collecting during his Hickory High days.

His legacy hasn’t left the school. Once he left for South Carolina, it didn’t leave the football field either. Succop changed the way athletes at the school view the kicking position. He isn’t the last Hickory High kicker to play college football.

“It’s funny,” Worley said. “After the fact, when Ryan left, we had two more kickers to play college football, back-to-back. He seemed to make it important in our school. They could see what he could do. He made the kicking position a whole lot more important at Hickory High.”

San San Te, a 2007 graduate of Hickory High, kicked at Rutgers for four years. Patrick Smith, who graduated two years later, is listed as a punter and place kicker on Division II Wingate’s roster.

Worley, like Succop’s other coaches and teachers, is excited to talk about his former kicker. Yes, he’s in the pros and is making millions of dollars. He calls Arrowhead Stadium home now – the days of hearing the thud of Succop’s foot crushing footballs at Frank Barger Stadium are over.

Times have changed, but the feelings of those close to Succop haven’t. Worley beams.

“He is something that Hickory High and Hickory, N.C., is and should be proud of.”

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