A ball sailed through the uprights during practice at the Rogers High School football field one day, drawing the kind of cheers from players that normally would be reserved for a game-winning field goal.
The kicker, a tall, blond Danish exchange student, lined up in a different spot on the field and did it again. Then again. And again.
The winless Rogers football players looked on with newfound hope.
Their newest teammate, Mads Tranberg, is a 16-year-old avid soccer player who until last month had never touched an American football. But the kid sure can kick, a specialty skill that the Rogers football team had lacked for so long that head coach Matt Miethe had largely stopped attempting field goals and point-after kicks.
After six games, Rogers remains winless on the season, which is painfully familiar territory for a school where many students struggle daily with poverty and other family crises.
But Tranberg (whose first name is pronounced in a way that sounds kind of like “mess”) has given the team something it hasn’t had in three years – a consistent kicker. He’s made four of five point-after attempts and has considerably improved the team’s kickoffs.
Kickers are often unheralded in the sport. So to understand the excitement generated by Tranberg’s first kicks on the Rogers practice field, flash back to Sept. 4, two days before Rogers’ first game: Miethe still didn’t know who would attempt extra points or if he’d always opt for two-point conversions as he did last season for lack of a kicker. But he accepted volunteers for a final tryout.
The first time the defense ran at the kicker candidates, the display was sorry. One kick was short. Another short and wide left. Then short, short and wide left, another hit the upright and finally, so low the ball slammed into a lineman. Twice.
Senior Jordan Holzer eventually got two in a row – enough to earn him the role of point-after kicker. And in the second game of the season Holzer kicked the school’s first point-after since 2011, but he was happy to step aside when Tranberg joined the team at a school counselor’s suggestion.
Tranberg, who is from Horsholm, a town north of Copenhagen, arrived in Spokane in August and enrolled at Rogers. When a school counselor asked if he was interested in joining school activities, he said he wanted to try football, since soccer is a spring sport. Tranberg showed up at coach Miethe’s office and returned the next day with the necessary paperwork.
After a team meeting to start practice, Miethe described the variety of kicks in American football to Tranberg – the punts that signal a change of possession and the field goals and point-after kicks to score points.
He told Tranberg that he’s got the leg.
“But you have to do it with guys running at you,” he told the exchange student.
On the sidelines, players asked Tranberg, whose father is a pilot for Scandinavian Airlines, about his homeland. Yes, Denmark has Wal-Mart and McDonald’s and similar popular music, he told his teammates, most of whom have lived in Spokane their whole lives.
Miethe told Tranberg that with some work he could be a great kicker in the league.
“Every time you kick a PAT (point after touchdown), you get your name in the paper. If you kick five, it goes in five times,” he explained.
It’s the same incentive defensive coordinator Ben Cochrane used when the team was searching for a kicker earlier. “The more you get your name in the paper, the cuter your girlfriend gets,” he said.
The more Tranberg practiced, the more Miethe began to feel that he may just be the imaginary player he has joked about with other coaches for years when they dreamed of recruiting a foreign exchange student to enroll at Rogers and solve the school’s longtime kicking woes.
Miethe chatted toward the end of Tranberg’s first practice with Dave Casteal, the special teams coach and Cooper Elementary School teacher who started working with Tranberg the next day.
“He might be the one.”
When practice ended, Miethe gathered the team at the 50-yard line for the tradition of selecting “Real Pirates,” or players who stood out at practice.
“I had a guy come up to me and say, ‘I want to play football,’ ” the coach said in a mock Danish accent, drawing a laugh.
He praised Tranberg not so much for his kicking, but for taking a risk to play a sport he’d never played before. He also praised him for being responsible enough to turn in his paperwork quickly, in time to make him eligible for the third game of the season.
The team chanted: “Real Pirate.”
They clapped twice and finished: “Real man.”
Two more claps.
Tranberg isn’t a dominant kicker in the Greater Spokane League; nervousness caused him to miss his first two field goal attempts and the third was blocked. He’s buoyed his team nonetheless.
He’s continued to impress coaches and players with his kicks in practice, as shown by several attempts to coin a nickname.
Miethe tried Captain America. Casteal once called him Sweet Danish.
During practice a few weeks ago Casteal worked with Tranberg on kickoffs as Miethe painted lines on the Rogers field. He looked up to watch a kickoff sail into the end zone.
“If you do that during a game, I will hug you,” Miethe told him.
Then he called Tranberg The Great Dane.