By Todd Burlage
Ask University of Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza what he remembers most about his childhood and it's not playing football with his buddies or kicking a soccer ball around the schoolyard. Not hardly.
"I was always at Shriner's Hospital, always having surgery, being pushed around in a stroller by my mother," Brindza says. "That's what I most remember about growing up."
Brindza was born with clubfoot, a birth defect that causes a baby's foot or feet to be twisted out of shape or position. In Brindza's case, his right foot -- eventually his kicking foot -- was twisted inward so badly he underwent several surgeries between the time he was six months old and sixth grade to correct the abnormality. So many surgeries, in fact, Brindza lost count. "I think it was seven or eight," he says.
Brindza's mother, Tiffany, said her son's deformity was so bad Kyle essentially had no heel on his right foot and it appeared as if the side of his foot was attached directly to the bottom of his calf.
"I was worried about Kyle just being able to walk and to think of where he is now," Tiffany says. "It's truly amazing with everything he has been through."
Hard casts, walking boots, corrective shoes, connective bars, hospital stays -- this was everyday life for Kyle during his formative years. Ignorance was bliss.
"I thought a cast was just normal. I thought I was just a normal kid," Kyle says. "I pretty much learned how to walk and crawl in a cast, let alone run. But I wouldn't have it any other way because having those odds against you is kind of special because it makes you stronger."
The surgery scars on Brindza's right foot and ankle look more like battle scars. The tendons had to be cut and repositioned. Even as an infant, Brindza's legs were put in casts to keep his feet aligned properly as they straightened. The casts had to be changed about once a month to keep up with growth spurts.
It was an exhausting process for the entire Brindza family, especially given that Tiffany was a single mother raising Kyle and her twin daughters, Kayla and Kynna. Kyle's frequent hospital trips and surgeries lasted through much of his childhood, right up to his final procedure when he was in sixth grade, one that was supposed to keep him off the soccer field for the season, and maybe longer.
"He had surgery around Thanksgiving, and by Christmas he was back playing goalie again," Tiffany says. "If there is one thing about Kyle, if you tell him he can't do something, he's going to prove you wrong."
Brindza's foot improved as steadily as his athleticism, and shortly after he started kicking a football for Plymouth (Mich.) High School, he was already gaining attention and picking up scholarship offers.
As a shot put and discus standout on the track team and a goalie on the soccer team, Brindza was a three-sport athlete in high school. He actually believed Division I soccer would be his best option in college, but the attention he was drawing as a placekicker changed those future plans.
Former Michigan head coach football Rich Rodriquez along with the Wolverine kicking coach were the first to take notice, watching Brindza kick at a camp and telling Tiffany afterward that her son was extraordinarily talented and great things were coming his way.
"I thought they were just being nice," Tiffany says. "Kyle was only a freshman in high school so I didn't think too much about it."
The Michigan scholarship offer eventually came and Kyle accepted, becoming a Wolverine verbal commitment through most of his high school kicking career, even though his heart belonged to another Midwestern university about three hours southwest of Ann Arbor.
Kyle's grandfather is a Notre Dame graduate and those two had spent many football Saturdays together in South Bend. But with the Irish program in transition after the dismissal of former head coach Charlie Weis, Brindza figured his homestate school was the best option.
"Notre Dame had stopped recruiting me," Brindza says, "I hadn't heard anything from them."
While coaching at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly tried to recruit Brindza to become a Bearcat and play there. The offer wasn't enough to lure Brindza from home, but a bond was forged between the player and coach during the recruiting process. So when Kelly moved to Notre Dame and extended a scholarship offer, "I couldn't go anywhere else," Brindza says. "I've grown up a Notre Dame fan. This has been my dream. This is what I worked for."
A Defining Moment
The highlight of Brindza's kicking career isn't the game-winner against Purdue as a sophomore in 2012, or his five field goals that same season in a win over USC that secured a place in the national title game. Nor was it his 37-yard field goal that won a three-overtime 2012 thriller against Pittsburgh, or when he tied an NCAA bowl record with five field goals in the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Nope, his most vivid memory is a moment on the sideline, not on the field.
Brindza's first full season as the Irish placekicker in 2012 started well enough with 10 made field goals in his first 12 attempts, and a 6-0 record for his Irish. But two missed field goals in a narrow 17-14 escape over BYU another important miss against Oklahoma rattled Brindza's confidence, but not Kelly's.
While leaving the field with his head down after his miss against Oklahoma -- Brindza's third miss in five attempts -- Kelly confronted and comforted his young kicker.
"Coach looked me in the eye and said he had confidence in me and he wasn't going with anyone else," Brindza says. "He said, `If you believe in yourself, you'll be fine.' That's my career highlight. I've never had anyone have more confidence in me than my family and Coach Kelly."
Brindza rebounded and converted his final two attempts in the critical win over Oklahoma. And since Kelly's vote of confidence, Brindza has converted 31 of his last 40 field goals (78 percent), including 12 of his last 14 (86 percent), making a strong case to qualify as the most reliable place kicker in the country. Last year, Brindza also became the only kicker in Notre Dame history to convert three 50-plus-yard field goals in one season.
"Clutch would be the first thing that comes to mind, a lot of clutch kicks," Kelly says of Brindza. "He's not afraid of the moment."
One could argue Brindza doesn't have time to be afraid. As one of only about a half- dozen kickers in the country who handles all three duties -- field goals, kickoffs, punts -- Brindza is one of the most versatile and important players on the Irish roster.
"At this level, that is very difficult to do," Kelly says of Brindza's multi-tasking. "It takes a special kid, one who is ultimately confident in his own ability to do that."
Brindza's confidence has never been higher.
"I don't see any kicker in the country that has the pressure you have at Notre Dame," he says. "But I like the pressure and I like the feeling that you can count on me."
Brindza says his hopes for an NFL career were part of the reason he chose Notre Dame. Climate changes, swirling stadium winds, sell-out crowds, legendary venues and a national television following are just few of the weekly challenges Brindza faces. No worries.
Heading into his final year, Brindza already holds Notre Dame records for the most points in a single season by a place kicker (98 in 2013) and career field-goal percentage (.754). His 43 career field goals rank third all-time, only eight shy of the Irish record held by John Carney.
"Going to Notre Dame is the best fit for any kicker because you have been through every type of climate and pressure situation," Brindza says. "I feel like I am the best kicker in the NCAA because of everything I go through. I feel like I'm the best and I'm set for the next level."
Brindza's skill and versatility provide an excellent chance for a long and prosperous NFL career. But if those dreams don't work out or when his football career ends, a graphic design degree and aspirations to become a kicking coach will serve Brindza well, not unlike a childhood full of challenges and impossible odds did.
"Everything I went through, more than my leg, I think all of it made me stronger mentally," Brindza says. "It's kind of nice to have the odds against you and be able to prove everyone wrong. Don't put extra pressure on yourself, you've already been through so much. It's just a game."