ANDOVER — As Andover kicker Ryan Payne walked onto the field with more than 2,000 sets of eyes resting on him Friday, his holder Cam Keenan tapped him on the shoulder, but did not say a word.
“He was in the zone,” said Keenan. “I didn’t want to say anything.”
Moments later, Payne became the most unlikely of Andover football heroes when he booted the extra point — his fifth made kick in five tries including the game-tying point — that was the winning margin in the Golden Warriors’ overtime victory over North Andover.
It was the culmination of an unusual journey for a senior who had never appeared in a varsity game, did not even play football as a junior, and did not solidify his spot as varsity kicker until late in camp.
“I never could have imagined that this would happen to me,” said Payne. “I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity and made it count. I never thought I would have the chance to win a game for the team.”
A soccer player as a youngster in San Diego, Payne made the transition to football when he moved to Andover in the third grade. Immediately, he was drawn to kicking.
“After playing soccer, I thought I could kick,” he said. “I kicked a football once and I just loved it.”
In his first high school season, he kicked for the Andover freshman team, and as a sophomore he kicked for the JV team. But he soon began to lose his passion for the game.
“I had a bad year sophomore year,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time and decided not to play my junior season.”
Payne regretted that decision last fall when he found himself in the stands at Eugene V. Lovely field as a fan, watching the Golden Warriors surge to a 10-2 record, the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 title and a trip to the playoffs.
“It was really tough,” he said. “I was on the sidelines watching my friends have this success and wanted to be out there. I wanted to come back.”
Making matters worse, the Warriors played most of the 2012 season without a placekicker after star Mark Zavrl tore his ACL and was lost for the season in Week 3. Andover ended up sending six different players to try extra points.
“After we lost Zav we really never settled on a kicker,” said Keenan. “We tried out a bunch of different guys. It’s important to have a reliable kicker.”
In the offseason, Payne began focusing on giving football and kicking another shot, and word made its way to the coaching staff that the kicker may be back in the mix.
“Ryan is good friends with the son of (special teams coach) Peter Reilly,” said Andover coach E.J. Perry. “Peter had talked to Ryan during the summer and asked him if he wanted to come out for football again. He regretted not playing last year. He worked a lot during the summer and Peter gave him the first shot at the kicking job.”
Once camp opened, the Warriors began to realize they may have solved their kicking situation as Payne beat out standout linebacker Brian Duffy for the job.
“Payne was definitely a little rusty at first,” said Keenan. “But the more he worked, the better and more confident he got and we started to feel really good.”
But an impressive showing in camp is quite different from kicking in the pressure of a big game, and Payne was quickly called upon on Andover’s first drive of the season to kick a 23-yard field goal.
“Going out for the first one, I was very nervous,” said Payne. “Then the snap was a little high and I got really nervous. But Cam, who is a great holder, put it down and I got it though. I just wanted to kick another one.”
The make calmed Payne, and it calmed the coaching staff.
“After taking a year off, you wonder if he is ready in the first game,” said Perry. “The first one was the biggest. It was a tough kick and he put it right through the uprights.”
In the second quarter, he then kicked his first extra point and then he booted his second field goal, an 18-yarder right before halftime.
But that pressure was nothing compared to his next task.
With 1:53 left in regulation, Andover scored to make the score 26-25, North Andover. Payne was then asked to tie the contest.
“The tying kick was even scarier than the winner,” he said. “If I missed it, then we lost the game. On the winner, if I missed we just kept playing. I have never been more nervous trying a kick.”
But it sailed through the uprights, leading to overtime and more Payne heroics with the winning extra point after North Andover scored but failed on a two-point conversion.
“The nervous level was really high but everyone told me I could do it,” he said. “I just focused on the ball. Once Keenan put his hand up, I just watched the ball and zoned out the crowd. Watching it go through was amazing, and then I just celebrated with the team. I’m sure happy I came back.”
And his teammates are pretty glad as well.
“Having him back is a huge plus for the team,” said Keenan. “It’s tough to have the game resting on one kick, but he came through.”
Three for one
Payne may have made the kicks, but the operation was a three-part deal including snapper Dylan Ring and holder Keenan.
“Cam and I had been snapping on the JV team last year,” said Ring, who also plays defensive line. “So we felt like we would be the group this season. But we knew we would have a new kicker and we had to develop a routine with him. We worked a lot during games as well.”
For Keenan, a senior who is listed at (a generous) 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, the opportunity to play a key role is a dream come true.
“A lot of people joke about the PAT,” he said. “But being on the field for the last play to win the game was amazing. I took over the job from C.J. (Scarpa). Every day we practice together a lot.”
Payne could not be more confident in the duo he works with.
“No one compares to Cam as a holder,” he said. “He catches everything. And Ring is so consistent.”
Football video spotlight
For a video interview with Andover kicker Ryan Payne, his holder and snapper and highlights of him kicking, visit eagletribune.com/sports.
Follow David Willis on Twitter at @DWillisET. He will be live tweeting Andover vs. BC High tonight, Pinkerton hosting Manchester Central tomorrow and Plymouth hosting Windham on Saturday afternoon.
Deja vu all over
Andover’s come-from-behind victory over North Andover, won by an extra point, brought back quite a few memories for Andover special teams coach Peter Reilly, who kicked the PAT that won the 1974 Super Bowl for the Golden Warriors.
“It was eerily similar,’ said Reilly. “We were trailing Salem late in the fourth. We recovered a fumble and I made the extra point to tie the game with 11 seconds left to send it to overtime.
“Salem, like North Andover, scored first in overtime but didn’t even try to kick an extra point. They went for the two-point conversion and Brian Flannery made the tackle to stop it.
“We scored a touchdown on fourth down with our backup quarterback in. Glenn Verrette caught the touchdown pass. Then I kicked the PAT to win the game. But I didn’t kick two field goals in the game.”