COLLEGE PARK - Nick Novak is blushing.
His cheeks, in fact, are as red as his Maryland uniform at this very moment. This is because his teammate, Terps safety Chris Kelley, has spotted Novak talking with two newspaper reporters and decided there couldn't be a better time than right then to try to embarrass him.
"Nick, did you get that rash taken care of?" Kelley shouts from 15 feet away, completely deadpan. "[The trainer] says she's got that cream you wanted for your rash."
Novak tries to ignore him, but Kelley isn't giving up that easily.
"Nick, it's nothing to be ashamed of," Kelley says, trying hard not to laugh. "Besides we're all family here, bro."
The last part makes Novak smile. On a football team, it's a sign of respect when your teammates playfully poke fun at you. It means you're part of the brotherhood. And when you're a kicker, respect isn't always easy to come by.
"Obviously, they respect me for some reason," says Novak, who was one of 12 players selected this season by his teammates to be on the Terps' leadership council. "They respect my job, and they know they wouldn't want to do it. A lot of guys have told me that."
The journey to this point hasn't always been smooth, however. When Novak won the job as Maryland's place-kicker in 2001, plenty of people wondered how a second-year freshman with no big-game experience would handle the pressure. In many ways, they weren't even sure what kind of person he was. Every day, while the rest of the team fought its way through intense practices under the watchful eye of first-year coach Ralph Friedgen, the quiet Novak was off by himself, practicing field goals. The life of a kicker is very often a lonely one.
It didn't help matters when Novak started the season by spraying kicks in every direction but through the uprights. He began the year just two of six, and many were beginning to wonder if Friedgen had made a mistake by anointing Novak before he was ready.
"Back then, I think I doubted myself too much," Novak says. "I was too afraid to miss."
Everything changed, however, for both Novak and the Terps when Maryland traveled to Georgia Tech for a Thursday night game on ESPN. With the Terps trailing 17-14 with just seconds remaining, Novak stepped in and drilled a 46-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime. Minutes later, he hit the game-winner from 26 yards. Suddenly, Maryland had a six-game winning streak as well as a Top 25 ranking.
When the team returned to College Park, Novak and wide receiver Steve Suter were walking into the dining hall on campus, when, to Novak's horror, Suter shouted for everyone's attention.
"This is Nick Novak," Suter yelled, "and he's the best kicker in the country! Show him some love!"
Seconds later, people were standing and clapping.
"I was so proud of him. I knew he could do it, and I felt like he needed a little recognition," Suter says. "A lot of people were down on him because he had missed a couple times early in the season, but I wanted everyone to know who he was so they could give him the props he deserved."
Friedgen says, "without a doubt," those two kicks changed Novak's career. Including those two field goals, Novak has hit 50 of his past 57 attempts (88 percent). Thursday, he's headed back to Atlanta for the first time since that day, but instead of a wide-eyed freshman with shaky confidence, Novak is now an NFL prospect and third on Maryland's career scoring list with 275 points. This season, he's 14 of 17 and 54 of 70 for his career.
"That really gave him the confidence to be kicker he is today," Friedgen says. "It wasn't like he was short on his kicks before [Georgia Tech]. He was just missing them. But when Nick made those two kicks to win the game, it gave him the confidence that he could do it. You put that confidence with his technique, and you've got the result you see now."
His technique is the main reason Friedgen says Novak is going to have a long and successful career in the NFL. A former soccer player, Novak took up place-kicking only at the urging of his high school earth science teacher, who also happened to coach football at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va. But he loved it so much, he quit soccer to focus on football his senior year. These days, the ball doesn't come off his foot. It explodes off his foot.
"With good kickers, you can actually hear it," Friedgen says. "You hear the ball pop. If you don't have a lot of leg strength, it sounds like a marshmallow hitting the ball."
Novak showed just how much pop he has in Maryland's last game against Duke, when he tied a school record with a 54-yarder. He hit four field goals against the Blue Devils, including one in the fourth quarter when he returned from the locker room after getting knocked silly on a kickoff.(Novak was a little woozy, but fine.)