Arriving in Berkeley as a freshman, Cal punter Nick Harris knew he was starting something special. Stepping onto the grass of Memorial Stadium for the first time, the high school standout from Avondale, Ariz. immediately knew why he turned down scholarship offers from other schools to play for Cal.
"There's no way any place could be better than this," he says. "I walked onto the field, looked out and thought, this is incredible. Then I walked up the bleachers and I could see the whole world."
The small town boy found Berkeley's mild climate and lush, green hills to be a pleasant contrast from the Arizona desert.
"I came here with my eyes wide open," Harris says. "I couldn't believe the stadium, I couldn't believe I was going to play college football here. It was just a great experience and I was in awe."
Fast forward four years, nearly 300 punts and 12,000 punting yards, and it is now players, coaches and fans across the country who are in awe of Cal's extraordinary kicker.
"If I had a Heisman vote right now, I'd vote for Nick Harris," Illinois coach Ron Turner said after witnessing one of college football's single greatest punting performances, where nine of Harris' 12 kicks were downed inside the Illini's 15-yard-line.
Knowing that he's only going to don his helmet a few times throughout the course of a game, Cal's star punter makes certain each kick counts. To do that, he trains just as hard as players who are on the field for the whole game.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Harris says he works out with the team, often taking part in the same exercises as the linemen. As one of the fastest guys on the team-running the 10-yard dash in 1.77 seconds-he runs alongside the wide receivers and it's not unusual for him to be the first player on the practice field and the last one to head into the locker room.
It's generally thought that when a punter takes the field it's because the offense didn't do its job. For Harris, it's an opportunity to make something happen.
"When the offense isn't working and we're not getting first downs, I go out there just to clean it up and set us up for another chance later," Harris says of his job on the field. "I see myself as a team player and my goal is to help these guys win games."
He'll be the last to tell you, but that team player has posted some impressive individual numbers. In 1999, Harris earned All-Pac-10 honors and led the league in punting by over four yards while setting a conference record with 3,795 punting yards. As a freshman he set the Cal record for punts in a season with 77 and broke it in 1998 with 87 kicks. He needs just 72 punts this season and 1,997 yards to break NCAA records.
But what sets Harris apart from average kickers is his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory with his uncanny punting precision. Harris credits the soccer that he played as a kid with giving him the athletic ability and punting technique to kick a football.
Regarded by many as having the strongest leg in college football, Harris understands that a 35-yard punt that forces an opposing offense to start a drive from its own 2-yard-line is infinitely better for Cal than a 60-yard bomb that sails through the end zone.
"We can hurt opponents with punts," Harris says, "but we've got to be smart about it."
A kicker with linebacker instincts, Harris earned all-state honors in high school on the defensive side of the ball and he isn't afraid to take some hits. In the season-opener against Utah, Harris suffered a concussion after being blocked while trying to stop a kick return.
"That's just part of the game," Harris says. "I don't even remember the hit, which might play a role in why I won't mind doing it again, but I did see it on the film. It was a real good hit and I'll definitely be looking out a little bit more."
It's unusual for a punter to play such an important role on a football team, but with a struggling offense, Cal coach Tom Holmoe identified Harris as the Bears' second-best player, behind defensive end Andre Carter.
Harris graduated from Cal last spring-he redshirted his first year-with a degree in American studies and is now enrolled in the Masters program in education where he's learning what it takes to be a high school athletics director.
When his days at Cal are through, Harris knows he's going to have a shot at his dream in the NFL, but for now he just wants to help the Bears win.
"I want to be known as a team player, someone who didn't pad his stats with kicks into the end zone," he says. "I just want to help the team win ball games and be part of the reason why Cal is good."