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November 16, 2011

Nothing Left But the Holes in His Shoes ... And a Big Game Win



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BERKELEY -- It's hard to make Giorgio Tavecchio sad. He's climbed the goalposts for a photo shoot, risking almost certain death or, OK, maybe just a nasty fall at the very least a serious boo-boo. He's traveled around campus on a one-pedaled bike. He's both made -- and missed -- crucial field goals. Through it all, he's smiled. This week, though, he was a bit forlorn -- well, about as forlorn as Tavecchio can be.

He lost an old and dependable friend: his left kicking shoe. After a season of work, a hole has worn through the insole, just in time for Big Game.

"I just really like to break them in," he says, holding the worn-in and worn-out cleat. "It's just the routine. I mean, these are the ones I've been wearing, they're comfy and they're broken in. I think it may be time for a new one. That's my kicking foot.

He sighs. His face says just one thing: "And I finally got it the way I like it." Kickers and left-handed pitchers: brothers in feet.

At least the damage in question is closer to the toe, and not where Tavecchio actually strikes the ball.

"Hopefully I'm not hitting it there anyway," he says, always finding the silver lining. "I'll figure something out.

That shoe has kicked Tavecchio to his best season at Cal, hitting 81.2 percent of his field goals, including 6-of-6 from 30-39 yards and a career long of 54.

With his last field goal -- a 32-yarder last week against Oregon State -- Tavecchio passed legendary Chuck Muncie -- the 1975 Heisman Trophy runner-up -- for eighth place on the Bears' all-time scoring list."

He's come a long way from head coach Jeff Tedford not even knowing his name his first week on the team.

"It's incredible," says Tavecchio. "I always harp on how much this place has been great to me, and it's just a blessing to be able to go to school here and be on the football team. Looking back, I guess that would be my legacy, but I want my legacy to be more than being ninth, or whatever I am. Someone asked me about this last week, and I said that I want to be remembered as someone who served others -- on the field, in the classroom -- whatever people needed, that I was there to help them out."

Tavecchio has done plenty of that. He participates in Athletes in Action, including going on "PB&J giveaways," where the group makes sandwiches and hands them out to Berkeley's homeless population.

He took part in a COPWATCH DECal class, in which homeless individuals were educated about their rights and Berkeley civic law. Any other Italian athlete at Cal can count on Tavecchio if they need any one-on-one tutoring, and he takes part in the SAGE mentorship program, which provides Cal students as mentors for elementary school children in local public schools in mostly one-on-one settings. He's sponsoring a poor child in Honduras through Compassion International. He volunteers at a local Catholic church to help with confirmation proceedings.

"It's great to have those accolades, the stuff about being a point-scorer, but that's my job," Tavecchio says. "I'm here to score points."

More than scoring points, more than wanting to win the William V. Campbell Trophy - the so-called Academic Heisman - Tavecchio wants desperately to win his final Big Game.

In last year's contest, Tavecchio did not get an opportunity to hit a field goal, but he did nail two extra points and averaged 56.7 yards on three kickoffs.

In 2009, Tavecchio did not handle field goal duties, and was relegated to solely handling kickoffs, averaging 53.4 yards while his understudy -- Vince D'Amato -- hit both tries from 21 and 28 yards.

As a freshman in 2008, Tavecchio hit all three point-after attempts and a 28-yard field goal, while average 55.4 yards on seven kickoffs.

This year, he wants to be in the spotlight. He wants the game to be on the line. He wants the ball.

"I'm secretly hoping," he says. "I'm praying for that moment, because that's when I really want to be there for my teammates."

More than anything, he wants The Axe.

"I want it pretty bad," he says. "We don't get that many chances against Stanford. As a player, you only get four. I'm really excited to get my last shot at them and just to be a part of the Big Game for the last time."

Cal is bowl-eligible, having wrapped up its sixth win against the Beavers. The Bears are 20-point underdogs. The Cardinal, on the other hand, are the prohibitive favorites, with their BCS destiny hinging on a win in the rivalry game which dates back to 1892.

"We're just here to do our best and play a game," Tavecchio says. "It's going to be a fun game to watch."

This week, Cal won't have to think about the future. While the Bears' exact bowl destination has yet to be determined, at least they know they'll be going somewhere. Tavecchio, like his teammates, has nothing to lose.

"I think it was huge, especially for us seniors, the emotion just before the last game was very, very intense," says Tavecchio. "Being the last real home game, being bowl-eligible, not having beaten Oregon State, that was huge. Now, I can say, 'OK, we're relaxed. You know what? Let's just play. Win or lose, really, it doesn't make that much of a difference for us. In the back of our minds, obviously, we want to win. It's the Big Game, no one wants to lose to Stanford. But, we're not motivated by the fact that, oh, we might lose. It's just about, 'You know what? Game on. Let's do our best against these guys.'"

Tavecchio's career field goal percentage coming into this season was 70.9. This season, it's 81.25.

"I want to talk about that after the season," he smiles. "We still have a couple games to finish off, and I know sooner or later, for me, this year hasn't been so much the results, but more about my execution. I hope to continue just focusing on my fundamentals, in all situations, in the future. Then, we can talk about what the percentage was, after the season."

Tavecchio is 4-for-5 from 20 to 29 yards, 2-for-4 from 40 to 49 yards and 1-for-1 from 50 yards or more -- his 54-yard career-best in the rain at Autzen Stadium. So, does he want that potential game-changer -- or game-winner -- to be an easy chip shot, or a long bomb?

"No, no, no, I want it to be a challenge," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. "I want to say that I've faced that challenge and was able to stick to my fundamentals. That's when you grow as a person. That's what I feel, because my time here, it's been more than just football. When I'm put in those situations, when I'm really tested, when it's really a challenge, I want to be in that situation because then, I can really focus on what I do."

Listed at a generous 5-foot-10 -- and a more-or-less accurate 178 pounds -- Tavecchio has more than a little -- pun firmly intended -- in common with 5-foot-8, 190-pound tailback Isi Sofele: He loves being the underdog.

"It's great," says Tavecchio. "Then, when we beat them, it's going to be a huge upset."

And then, not even a bit of frayed footwear could put a damper on the Irascible Italian.


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