Few athletes understand the lasting impact of victory over defeat more than former University of Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit.
Because Wilhoit’s 50-yard field goal at the close of the 2004 game against Florida inside Neyland Stadium made the Volunteers 30-28 winners — instead of the 28-27 losers they might have been due to his missed extra-point attempt a few minutes earlier — the Hendersonville native will go down in Tennessee history as a hero instead of a goat.
“If I miss that kick, my life might have been completely different,” Wilhoit said this week. “I probably wouldn’t be doing this interview. I probably wouldn’t have my kicking camps. I don’t think anybody would want to learn kicking from a guy who missed a field goal to beat Florida.”
But Wilhoit didn’t miss. With the weight of the world on his shoulders after that botched extra point, with Neyland in full throat under the lights that Sept. 18 night, he nailed as big a field goal as the Vols have ever made to knock off the dastardly Gators on their way to that year’s Southeastern Conference title game.
And next Wednesday and Thursday at Chattanooga Christian School, young kickers and punters throughout the region have a chance to learn that skill from one of the best as Wilhoit conducts a clinic for a cost of $325 per student. If this seems high, understand it’s aimed at polished kickers, especially seventh- and eighth-graders who have already shown proficiency in soccer.
Wilhoit, who left Mt. Juliet High a few months ago where he was the kicking coach, was asked why he sees and has coached so many college-level kickers from the Chattanooga area — such as Oklahoma State’s Jake McClure (East Hamilton), former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga kicker Henrique Ribeiro (Baylor School) and Tennessee’s Laszlo Toser (Ooltewah), to name but three.
“You have elite-level soccer in Chattanooga, especially at the top levels,” Wilhoit said. “All you need is for those guys to start (kicking footballs) earlier.”
To be sure, natural talent is involved. When Wilhoit kicked for the Vols, he remembers Fulmer sometimes watching him practice and commenting how his field goals sounded as if “a gun was going off.”
But practice also helps. McClure believes his work with Wilhoit over the years is why he has a full ride with the Cowboys.
“I owe him everything,” the freshman said Friday from the Stillwater campus. “I’ve worked with James since the seventh grade. He knows me so well that all I have to do is send him a video of my workouts — which I do regularly — and he can tell me what I’m doing wrong.
“It’s kind of crazy. I talk to him almost every single day, and he often talks to my special teams coach here at Oklahoma State, Steve Hauser.”
Wilhoit said getting them young helps on two levels.
“One, as they get older, they create bad habits that are hard to break,” he said.
“Also, while I don’t fight soccer, I embrace it, these kids have a chance to get a full-ride scholarship in football if they’re good enough. Most soccer players, even if they get a college scholarship, it’s usually limited and you’re fighting really good international players for those partial rides.”
Wilhoit was clearly good enough from a young age. Once good enough to play soccer with a traveling team, he could hit 40-yard field goals in the seventh grade. He kicked a 58-yarder in a game at Hendersonville and a 72-yarder in practice. A self-professed “lifelong Vols fan,” he was the nation’s No. 1 kicking prospect coming out of high school.
And Fulmer treated Wilhoit as such once he arrived in Knoxville.
“Coach Fulmer and I had a good relationship,” said the current Brentwood Academy kicking coach and history teacher. “We were playing Florida in the Swamp my freshman season in 2003, and I had a chance to kick a 51-yard field goal. He asked me if I could make it and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And I made it.”
Yet Wilhoit also knew his limitations.
At the close of the 2004 regular season, while facing Kentucky in Knoxville, the wind was blowing so hard it basically knocked down an early Wilhoit PAT once it had safely cleared the crossbar. So when the Vols were faced with a 43-yard field goal on a short fourth down, the kicker told his coach, “I can’t get it that far. I’d go for it.” Fulmer took his advice, with the Vols making a first down on their way to a touchdown.
“You can never think you’re bigger than the team,” he said.
A college scholarship is a big thing for any kid, though. And Wilhoit has had pretty good success beyond merely getting young folks into Division I programs.
Ribeiro graduated as UTC’s all-time leading scorer. Before he was hurt early in his junior season at Wisconsin last September, another Baylor School graduate and Wilhoit pupil, Rafael Gaglainone, had hit seven of eight field-goal attempts for the Badgers and all 10 of his extra-point attempts. And though he hasn’t signed yet, Bledsoe County senior Gabe Boring is currently rated by one recruiting service as the nation’s No. 6 punter.
Does that mean your kid will be the next Tennessee native to help the Vols knock off Florida with a last-second field goal if you plunk down $325 to attend Wilhoit’s camp at Chattanooga Christian? Not necessarily. But anyone interested can register at jameswilhoitkickingcoach.com.
Whether you sign up your kid, McClure said one thing seems certain after six years of working with Wilhoit.
“James,” he said, “has an eye for kicking.”
By Mark Wiedmer
Chattanooga Times Free Press
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.