Early hardships have prepared Will Reichard for success at Alabama
Hoover High School football coach Josh Niblett nearly did a double-take the first time he saw Will Reichard. At that time, the current Alabama kicker was no older than 9 or 10 years old, participating in his local pee-wee football league.
Even then, you could tell he was different.
“I look over, and I see this kid kicking into a net on the sidelines with his dad,” Niblett recalled. “I’m like, ‘How many times do you see a kid kicking into a kicking net in pee-wee football?’ Then, a few minutes later, the joker goes out there and kicks the game-winning field goal to win it. I just remember at that point, I’m like ‘Man, how awesome is that?’”
Nicknamed the Baby-Faced Assassin for his boyish facial features, Reichard has long been revered as a prodigy in the kicking world.
Beginning as a fifth-grader, Reichard left his first few camps in tears, frustrated that he couldn’t match the older players’ leg strength. By his freshman season of high school, he’d be leaving them as a champion, outperforming seniors with Division-I scholarship offers.
The former pee-wee placekicker went on to earn No. 1 rankings from both Chris Sailer Kicking and Kohl’s Kicking, two of the most prestigious kicking camps in the nation. That acclaim also helped earn him an offer to his dream school, Alabama, despite the Crimson Tide already having a scholarship kicker on campus.
“I called him my best kicker of all time when I talked to Nick Saban about him,” Sailer recalled. “Through what we knew about him and what he showed to Saban and other coaches in camps, it was kind of like, ‘We just can’t pass on this kid. He’s an in-state kid who’s a difference-maker, and he’s going to make this team better.’
“He’s the one kid that I said I had zero doubt about coming into a school like Alabama because he’s the whole package.”
Reichard spent the majority of his childhood traveling across the nation with his father Gary to various sporting events. It began with soccer as the two packed into the car for travel-league games. Later, those road trips revolved around kicking as Will’s talent began to emerge.
At first, Gary didn’t know much about kicking, but that didn’t stop him from setting his son up for success. He studied up on technique and connected Will with the best coaches in the nation, traveling from Nashville to Las Vegas to various camps and training sessions.
“They were just always together,” said Dana Reichard, Will’s mother. “They loved to train. A lot of times, they just had fun on those road trips. They’d stop at unique places to eat, play music loud. If time allowed, they’d try to visit all the things unique to the area.”
In February of 2016, Gary was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed away the following month at the age of 53. Will, who was wrapping up his freshman year at Hoover High School, took the news hard.
“It was an unexpected diagnosis and we knew it wasn’t curable, but we really thought he’d undergo treatments and we’d have him maybe at least two more years,” Dana said. “I remember when we sat down with both our kids and told them. It was hard on all of us.
“We really just relied on our faith in God, and we knew that we couldn’t really lean on our understanding, but we had to lean on His understanding. We had such a circle of family, friends, coaches, our church family that encouraged us and gave us support.”
Before his passing, Gary reached out to several of Will’s coaches and trainers to break the news. His dream of watching Will kick in college and possibly the NFL wouldn’t be possible, but he wanted to make sure his son had the guidance he needed to attain those goals.
The kicking community has a way of looking out for its own. Will received routine phone calls from trainers, coaches and fellow kickers across the nation, all offering their support and encouragement for him to continue on the journey he and his father began years before.
The support was comforting, but oftentimes Will’s biggest sense of refuge came alone on the football field.
“I went over to his house shortly after his dad’s passing to check up on him and his family,” Niblett recalled. “His mom was like, ‘Hey, he’s down at the school field kicking.’
“That was his opportunity to kind of touch base with his dad. They had done so much kicking stuff together that he needed to get away. I think him and his dad maybe talked a little bit out there. That’s what they liked to do. I think he tries to reunite with his dad through his kicking.”
Will’s troubles worsened in the months following his father’s death. While playing in a local soccer tournament that summer, he tore his ACL, forcing him to miss the entirety of his sophomore season of high school.
During his time away from football, Will leaned heavily on his family and his faith. His mother reminded him of one of their favorite bible verses, Deuteronomy 31:6, which states “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Will’s faith was again tested last year as a hip flexor injury cut his freshman season at Alabama short after five games. While frustrated, he was determined not to let the setback keep him down, drawing on his past experiences to help guide him through the rehab process.
When Will was able to resume kicking activities this spring, he turned to a familiar face in James Wilhoit. The renowned kicking coach has been training with Will since he was in the seventh grade. Since then, the kicker has made multiple trips a year from Hoover to Wilhoit’s home base in Nashville, Tenn. to perfect his craft.
This offseason was no different as the two focused on maintaining Will’s mechanics while helping him with the mental adjustment of trusting his body coming back from injury.
Will originally suffered his hip injury during a kickoff against Southern Miss in Week 4. While he was able to return four weeks later against Tennessee, he later reaggravated his hip on a punt, ending his season for good. The back-to-back setbacks led to some uncertainties as Will began to question some of his movements.
Overcoming such a mental block is no small task. It’s something Tennessee Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski struggled with when he missed his first three field-goal attempts and an extra point in his first game back from hip surgery earlier this season.
Fortunately, Will’s return from injury came without any hiccups as he connected on all five of his extra-point tries as well as a 34-yard field goal during last week’s opener at Missouri.
“That wasn’t a big pressure for anybody else, but it could have been big for him,” Wilhoit said of Will’s field goal. “It’s one thing to hit a couple of chippy extra points, and it’s nice to get those out of the way. But you know that you’ve got to make that kick. Those kicks inside of 40 are kicks all SEC kickers have to make. Being able to put that through the pipes should give him some extra confidence.”
Wilhoit has first-hand knowledge of the pressure SEC kickers face. The former Tennessee kicker led the conference in scoring with 96 points in 2006 and ranks third on the Volunteers all-time made field goals list with 59.
Although even he says the Alabama jersey seems to carry an extra amount of weight on the backs of Crimson Tide kickers.
“Kicking for Alabama is different than anywhere else in my opinion because the pressure and expectations from that fan base is intense every week. I think it’s almost as difficult or more difficult than kicking in the NFL.”
Despite its recent kicking woes, Alabama hasn’t had a problem bringing in top talent. Cade Foster (Class of 2010), Adam Griffith (2012) and Joseph Bulovas (2017), the Tide’s three previous kicker signees before Will, were all rated in the top 10 of their respective classes. However, each member of the trio is perhaps best remembered for his failings during a high-pressure kick.
“In my opinion it comes from not looking at the mental makeup of kids,” Wilhoit said. “You’re taking the biggest and the strongest. All those things are great, but when it comes to the pressure you’re dealing with at Alabama, you just need a guy who’s going to put it through the pipes.”
Wilhoit believes Will is that guy.
As Wilhoit puts it, “Will Reichard doesn’t have bad days.” Sure, he might miss a few kicks in practice, but his near-flawless mechanics ensure consistency always prevails.
“To me, that’s the sign of a consistent kicker,” Wilhoit said. “The guys that make me nervous are the guys who have good days and bad days. If that’s the case, what does that say about your mental make up? Are you going to have a bad day during a game? For Will, he has the ability to have a laser-like focus, dial in and really be at his best when it matters.”
It’s hard to replicate the pressure of in-game kicking situations. During his camps, Sailer has tried it all from placing nets in front of his kickers to simulate blockers to yelling in their ear with a megaphone. Perhaps the thing that works best is placing his campers alongside elite competition.
Sailer currently has 24 former campers kicking in the NFL. Plenty of times, those players return to make guest appearances at his camps. During his time working with Sailer, Will has kicked alongside several notable stars, including former Pro Bowlers Justin Tucker and Nick Folk.
“We always put Will next to players like that in competition who made him better,” Sailer said. “As he grew and got through it, he realized, ‘Hey, I’m as good as these guys are. I can handle any situation.’”
Plenty of times the NFL players agreed
“I remember very specifically a couple of our pros watching him out at our Vegas events,” Sailer said. “They told me, ‘If this guy was in my camp, I think I’d lose. I remember them coming up to me and saying ‘If this kid was in our NFL camp, I believe he’d beat me.’ That was one of the highest praises I’ve ever heard.”
Will’s next test comes Saturday as No. 2 Alabama takes on No. 13 Texas A&M for its home opener inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Dana, as well as Will’s sister Taylor, will be there cheering him on in the stands. While Gary won’t be in attendance, the Reichards believe he’ll be there in spirit, guiding his son through every kick.