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Washington State punter, kicker mingle with celebrity specialist Pat McAfee prior to Cheez-It Bowl

Pat McAfee jokes with former WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf and media before the start of the first half of the Cheez-It Bowl on Friday, December 27, 2019, at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PHOENIX – Pat McAfee lists a Twiter following of more than 1.7 million, so when the popular football/wrestling analyst and podcast host took a lap around Chase Field Friday night wearing a red Cheez-It Bowl-branded cutoff hoodie, a small fraction of his fanbase trailed behind him, hoping to pose for a photo or mingle with the American media celebrity.

A couple of Washington State players even took a break from their pregame routine and found a spot in line. When they got to the front, Blake Mazza and Oscar Draguicevich III made a long-awaited introduction: “We’re the Washington State specialists,” Mazza said.

Before McAfee became a nationally renowned media personality, he was a prominent NFL punter who went to multiple Pro Bowls with the Indianapolis Colts after an All-American career in the Big East with West Virginia.

So, the admiration Mazza and Draguicevich III have for McAfee doesn’t just derive from the fame the 32-year-old has gained as an entertainer.

“He ran some of the (kicking) camps that I’ve gone to,” Mazza said two weeks ago in Pullman. “He’s done some stuff with Kohl’s kicking. He’s one of their guys. Seeing him at those camps, then obviously on TV with the Colts and (Adam) Vinatieri. That operation of Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee back in the day was just ridiculous.”

Mazza, who missed just one field goal during the regular season and was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza, would be thrilled to know the respect is mutual.

WSU’s redshirt sophomore kicker considers McAfee an idol, but Mazza’a on his radar, too.

“He’s an absolute stud,” McAfee said prior to Friday’s game between WSU and Air Force. “And I think with this game – both sides actually have great kickers and punters, which obviously I love.

“I think it’s a very big asset to the game and to a team if you have great kickers and punters. In a game like this, kickers have to be good, because every point is going to matter and both teams are going to score. If you can pin someone deep, which great punters can do and these guys can, it’s a good thing for the defenses.”

McAfee, who was named the “Master of Cheez” at Friday’s game, took in the action from the top of a two-story Cheez-It box situated behind the corner of the west end zone. A small group of contest winners were also invited to watch from the oversized snack box.

“I bet the over, so I think we’re going to score at least 69 points and I think it’s going to be a great game,” McAfee said, as former Washington State quarterback and ESPN color analyst Ryan Leaf crept up to videobomb the interview. “Now obviously Ryan Leaf is on the call, so that means everything is coming up Washington State. I think it’s going to be a great game, and I think a lot of points are going to happen for both teams.”

For all the notoriety McAfee has collected throughout his career as an NFL punter and entertainer, he may have only been the second-most polarizing figure in the building Friday night, behind WSU coach Mike Leach.

The two haven’t met – “I only know him for the Internet phenomenon that he is,” McAfee said – and their teams never crossed paths while Leach was coaching at Texas Tech, with WVU still four years from joining the Big-12 when McAfee played for the Mountaineers.

“A lot of his thoughts about Bigfoot, amongst other things, I’m on board with,” McAfee said. “I love Mike Leach as an incredibly electric individual, but his coaching is something that’s also not talked about enough. The Air Raid offense has captivated the entire country, not just in college, but also in the NFL. Being kind of a founder of that is something that’s very beautiful.

“I hope to meet Mike Leach tonight, and hopefully tonight is that night.”