SIGNS OF GREATNESS: Former soccer star’s hard work paying off at UF

  • 6 min to read
Pineiro for Wrap

Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro looks on during the Orange and Blue Debut on April 8, 2016, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

Four years ago at Kendall Soccer Park, Eddy Pineiro did something abnormal.

A whistle sounded from the referee, signaling the start of Miami Sunset Senior High’s second-to-last game of the season against LaSalle.

Pineiro received the opening kick from a teammate and rifled a half-field laser over a stumbling and confused LaSalle goalie and into the upper 90 portion of the net.

It was the fastest goal in Sunset’s history — no small feat considering the program won back-to-back state championships in 2004 and ’05.

Coaches, players and fans were stunned.

“It just exploded off his foot,” then-Sunset coach Jay Flipse said.

“Most kids from that far have to put an arc on it. Well, this ball probably was 7 and a half feet off the damn ground the whole entire way.”

Pineiro’s teammate at the time, Fernando Hernandez, watched it all unfold.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, this guy did it,’” Hernandez said. “We all knew this guy could do that, but then he actually did it.”

Back then, Pineiro’s only focus was soccer.

He was damn good, too.

Before he was Eddy Pineiro, the Florida kicker capable of hitting 70-yard field goals who has already captured the hearts of Gator fans just two games into the season, he was Eddy Pineiro, the All-Dade County soccer player.

He was named the Miami Herald’s 5A-4A Player of the Year in 2014, when he led the county in scoring.

And when the talented kicker finally transitioned to football, his leg carried him to scholarship offers, YouTube fame and a starting job in the Southeastern Conference.

“When he struck a ball, it just sounded so much different than everybody else,” Flipse said. “That was evident even to Stevie Wonder.”

***

Pineiro’s transition to football wasn’t an easy one, mentally or physically.

After his junior soccer season, Flipse encouraged Pineiro’s father to introduce him to the game.

Pineiro was good enough to earn a soccer scholarship — he later signed to play for Florida Atlantic University before being deemed academically ineligible by the NCAA and settling for a year at ASA College in Miami — but Flipse thought he had a better shot booting balls on the gridiron.

And after that summer when he returned to school, Sunset’s football coach asked Flipse who had the strongest leg. The team needed a kicker.

“That’s easy,” Flipse told the coach before dropping Pineiro’s name.

But it wasn’t easy.

Pineiro had to turn away from soccer, the sport he grew up playing.

Hernandez, who played with Pineiro all four years at Sunset, said Pineiro sometimes had to skip soccer practice for football practice because the two often overlapped.

And although Pineiro’s decision paid off, there were rough patches along the way.

Flipse showed him the footwork: Lead with the left foot, take a hop-step, then two steps and strike it.

But Pineiro wanted to do it his way — by starting with his right foot.

“I said, ‘Eddy, you’re gonna find out I’m gonna be right,’” Flipse said.

Sure enough, Pineiro changed his ways when he met Brandon Kornblue.

Based out of South Florida, Kornblue hosts camps for kickers, punters and snappers all around the country to help them earn college exposure.

A former kicker and punter for Michigan’s 1997 National Championship team, he also provides personal instruction to athletes like Pineiro.

Pineiro was introduced last February to Kornblue, who immediately saw the young kicker’s potential.

But Kornblue also knew he was incredibly raw.

“He had no idea where the ball was going,” Kornblue said. “One ball way left, one ball way right. He had never really been coached before.”

The two trained together for the next few months. Kornblue helped correct Pineiro’s technique, steps and leg swing.

After about three months, Pineiro had his coming out party in late April 2015.

He nailed a 71-yard field goal that bounced off the crossbar and sailed an 86-yard kickoff in one of Kornblue’s camps. The field-goal video circulated on YouTube and now has more than 100,000 views.

“That’s kind of what got everything rolling,” Kornblue said.

What separated Pineiro from other kickers was his leg.

It’s what everyone who’s ever seen him kick a ball says.

It’s what Florida coach Jim McElwain and Alabama coach Nick Saban saw when they were recruiting Pineiro.

Kornblue, who’s worked with notable kickers like the Vikings’ Blair Walsh, admitted Pineiro’s leg strength was second to none.

But he added Pineiro’s personality also set him apart.

He thrives in pressure-packed situations, and he feeds off the limelight.

Kornblue saw it in his camps during the summer of 2015, when he was kicking in front of coaches with scholarship opportunities on the line.

“Some guys will show signs of greatness then wilt in competition at camps because they don’t have the mental capacity,” Kornblue said. “He stepped up big time.”

Nearly a week after the first YouTube video went viral and word spread, Florida offered Pineiro a scholarship in early June of 2015.

McElwain’s pursuit of the much-needed kicker was relentless.

However, the first-year coach was tasked with prying Pineiro from Saban’s tight grasp after the kicker committed early to the Crimson Tide.

A day after Alabama defeated Florida in the SEC Championship game on Dec. 5, McElwain was eating Cuban food with Pineiro in his Miami home.

McElwain’s personality, paired with the fact that Gainesville is much closer to Miami than Tuscaloosa, did the trick.

Pineiro decommitted from Alabama and signed with the Gators.

***

The rest of Pineiro’s time at Florida has been a whirlwind.

He worked with former standout UF kickers Caleb Sturgis and Judd Davis in the spring, along with Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos.

Their advice was invaluable, Pineiro said.

“Stay calm when you’re going to kick and don’t worry about the crowd,” Pineiro said they told him. “Don’t worry about the cameras and just know what you know how to do.”

Sturgis, who now kicks for the Philadelphia Eagles in his fourth year in the NFL, has taken a special interest in Florida’s newest kicker.

He flew in to Gainesville about five times just to work out with Pineiro and taught him how to have a kicker’s mindset.

“You can’t be weak-minded,” Pineiro said. “If you miss a kick, you move on.”

Two games into Pineiro’s career, he’s already leaning on that mindset.

In the team’s season opener against Massachusetts, he hit all three of his field goals — each longer than 40 yards. Fans bellowed his name throughout Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

“He was clutch. Clutch Eddy,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “He did some really good things tonight … he took care of business and after that one, the way he kicked it, I knew everything else was going in after that.”

Even quarterback Luke Del Rio was glad to have Pineiro waiting on the sidelines.

“I think, ‘Ah man, we have to punt,’ and then I see him run out,” Del Rio said. “And he drills it.”

Kentucky was a different story, however.

Pineiro made a 54-yard field goal but missed a 42-yarder and a 48-yarder. The latter was so off the mark, it was reminiscent of a missed penalty kick in soccer.

But McElwain said the 1-for-3 game was beneficial for Pineiro.

“In a game like this, I thought he grew up a little bit,” McElwain said.

***

Immediately after his first collegiate game, Pineiro found his father in the stands.

Eddy Pineiro Sr. was wearing an orange Gators jersey with his son’s number — 15 — and his name etched across the back of it.

The two hugged and cried tears of joy.

“It was awesome,” Pineiro said. “Hard work pays off.”

Pineiro Sr. has been right by his son’s side throughout the journey.

He would wake his son up at 5 a.m. to kick field goals. After junior college practice he would take him to practice more field goals in the afternoon, and he did so all while providing for their family by installing kitchens.

One time, the two went out to practice field goals when they came across grass too thick to set the ball down on.

So Pineiro Sr. used his foot to hold the ball in place, a costly mistake.

When Pineiro swung his leg, he blasted the ball but also clipped his father’s foot.

“I think his father was walking with a limp for about three months,” Flipse said.

Pineiro said he’s grateful for his father and family’s sacrifices for him.

It’s what makes seeing the ball sail through the uprights on Saturdays all worth it.

It’s also why Pineiro hopes to one day do the same on Sundays in the NFL.

For his family.

For his father.

“They say pressure’s on kickers. You want to know pressure?” Pineiro said. “Pressure is my dad going to work every single day and he’s the only one that brings money into my house, so that’s pressure.”

That mindset has helped turn a soccer player from Miami into one of Florida’s most recognizable players.

But more importantly, it helped his dream come to fruition.

“I’ve worked my butt off for two years and you know, came in here early as an early enrollee and worked hard for this moment,” Pineiro said. “I’m just thanking God for it.”

Contact Patrick Pinak at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @pinakk12.