If you were hiking through the woods just off Palmetto Drive in Mascotte, Florida, at any point between 2003 and 2009, you had to beware of flying footballs.
The footballs in question were launched toward the tree line over and over again, hour after hour, by adolescent kicking sensation Roberto Aguayo and his younger brother, Ricky.
The brothers would take turns kicking and shagging the few balls they owned, aiming between the makeshift field-goal uprights their father, Roberto Sr., had constructed using PVC pipes and a soccer goal at the boundary of the family's Lake County property.
This came before Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule—which posits that it typically requires 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft—had been popularized. But even as a preteen unaware of such a notion, Roberto was a perfectionist. He was intent on mastering the craft of kicking by banking hours in that yard.
When Roberto became a teenager and outgrew that space, he and Ricky would routinely pester Roberto's high school coach, Walter Banks, to unlock the gates at the varsity field so that they could sneak on and practice. If Banks wasn't available, the brothers would jump the fence.
"I'd go into the office on Sunday and I'd see them out there kicking," recalled Banks. "Both of those guys just love football. They're perfectionists and they love what they do."
This Generation's Janikowski?
About a half-dozen years later, Roberto Aguayo is the kicker to watch at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, which gets underway Wednesday, primarily because the 21-year-old is the first placekicker in 16 years to declare early for the draft.
|Highest drafted kickers in modern NFL history|
|Post-1970 AFL-NFL merger|
Leaving school early isn't something specialists do, but Aguayo has proved to be an especially special specialist. The Florida State product won the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the top college football placekicker, in his redshirt freshman season, and he walks away from the Seminoles as the most accurate kicker in NCAA history.
"I felt like I had accomplished everything that I needed to accomplish," Aguayo told Bleacher Report before the combine. "I went to school for four years, got my degree, won a national championship with my team, won a Groza Award, so I felt like it was the right time to take my talents to the next level."
The last kicker to declare early—Sebastian Janikowski, who also played at the kicker factory that is Florida State—was also the last kicker to be picked in the first round. That was in 2000. The world was very different. The Houston Texans didn't exist, you could bring shampoo on an airplane and nobody had heard of Justin Bieber.
Janikowski's NCAA field-goal success rate was 79.5 percent, and he made 126 of 129 extra points.
Aguayo: 88.5 percent, 198 of 198.
"His body of work at the collegiate level might be as good as anybody that's ever played," said Jamie Kohl, a renowned special teams expert and the director of Kohl's Kicking, Punting and Snapping Camps. "That's talking field-goal percentage, pressure kicks, the types of field goals he made, the consistency and height of the field goals—it was all tremendous throughout his whole career."
In fact, Aguayo, who redshirted under now-Washington Redskins kicker Dustin Hopkins during his first year at FSU, might have been good enough to declare when he first became eligible last year. The man missed just four of 52 field-goal attempts during his first two active seasons and was already a permanent captain.
"He did not have a lot to prove after two years of fully competing at the collegiate level," said Kohl. "He couldn't statistically do a lot better."
"I had a lot of people tell me, 'You need to go to the NFL, what else is there to do in college? Go and get your degree later,'" recalled Aguayo, who ultimately opted to stick around and get his criminology degree.
Aguayo said FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher told him last year that he'd benefit from one more year of maturation at school. Of course, Fisher had skin in the game. But Kohl agrees, citing how Aguayo's kickoffs became stronger in 2015.
Born to Kick
His kickoff power is actually what put Aguayo on the scouting and recruitment map, but before he had a chance to dazzle scouts and recruiters in high school and college, the kid had started logging those hours.
A lot of the game's top kickers didn't start establishing themselves at that position until they reached high school, but as a soccer-playing son of a Mexican emigrant (Roberto Sr.) and a Texan with Mexican roots (his mother, Martina, was born to Mexican parents), the young Roberto Aguayo was typecast as a kicker from Day 1.
At Aguayo's first Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee practice, the coach lined up every player on the team to have them attempt kicks. A 9-year-old Roberto volunteered to go first.
"I didn't think anything of it," he recalled. "I thought, 'I play soccer, so I'll just hit it like a soccer ball.' And I was the only one who was consistently making them, so I was the kicker."
"Dad, I'm going to need you to make a goal post outside," Ricky Aguayo remembers his brother telling Roberto Sr. after that practice.
"Ever since when we were young, Roberto had that urge to get better and perfect himself," Ricky added.
So Roberto Sr. added pipes to an old soccer net, with the woods behind his home serving as a backdrop. Six-year-old Ricky would kick from 15 yards out, while Roberto took each of the 35 yards available to him before running out of yard space.
Before long, the boys were losing footballs so deep in the woods that their father raised a net. But it didn't take long before they were drilling field goals above that, too.
"We outgrew that net pretty quick," said Roberto.
That's when they started hopping the fence at South Lake High School. It's also when Banks realized he had a potential star on his hands.
In Pop Warner, Aguayo continued to focus on kicking along with his "real positions," linebacker and tight end. But when he got to South Lake, he was asked to join the varsity team right away and drop everything but special teams.
"I didn't play any other positions," said Aguayo, noting that Banks—among many others—saw something in him as a kicker. "He knew what I was capable of doing and he didn't want me to get hurt."
He reluctantly played soccer that spring, but after suffering a bad bone bruise on his kicking knee in his very first high school soccer match—an injury that would put him out of commission for three months—a 15-year-old Aguayo wasn't taking any more chances.
No more linebacker, no more tight end, no more footy.
And that's exactly when he began to make his mark nationally, starting at a local Kohl's Camp in West Palm Beach, where he remembers being awestruck by Jupiter product Cody Parkey, who at the time was the top-ranked high school kicker in the United States.
"Dad, that's the No. 1 kicker in the country," he remembers telling Roberto Sr. "How cool is that?"
Parkey, a 17-year-old soon-to-be senior who had already committed to Auburn, blew Aguayo and the rest of the onlookers away with an 80-yard kickoff.
Then the 15-year-old Aguayo stepped up and drilled one 79 yards. Again blown away and under the impression he must have been older, fellow participants began asking him which schools were recruiting him and whether he'd committed somewhere.
"I was like, 'Honestly, I didn't know I was this good,'" Roberto said.
That performance caused enough buzz to grant him an invite to the Kohl's National Invitational Scholarship Camp in Wisconsin, where he was by far the youngest of several hundred participants, many of whom went on to play Division I and/or in the NFL.
"Roberto beat all of their tails on kickoffs, and you could see that fire," recalled Kohl. "When it was time to compete, he stepped up his game. I'll never forget that he has that natural ability to be able to compete. And that's a special gift. He was very talented obviously, but here's this little guy beating guys who are a year or two years older."
Aguayo obviously has a lot of natural talent, but it always goes back to that ambition, that competitiveness and, by extension, those hours he spent in the yard.
"It was my first time seeing a kicker with that type of drive," said Banks. "He was outworking our running backs and defensive guys."
When Aguayo returned to Florida, he was the the No. 1 kicker in the 2012 class.
In fact, Kohl recalls telling then-FSU special teams coach Eddie Gran that Aguayo was "the best high school sophomore I've ever seen."
How Valuable is Roberto Aguayo?
Now here he is at the combine, trying to put a cherry on top of one of the most promising kicking resumes in NFL draft history.
Few expect Aguayo to become the first Round 1 kicker since Janikowski because that was a highly criticized, aberrational move from the Oakland Raiders. Since the 1970 merger, only one other kicker has been drafted in the first round (Steve Little, 1978).
But Aguayo says he's been told he'll be a second- or third-round pick, which is still quite a big deal considering a kicker hasn't been selected that early since the New York Jets took Mike Nugent in the second round in 2005.
This game is about touchdowns, not field goals, and there's a feeling among some that drafting a steady kicker is a luxury many teams can't afford. Plus, it's arguably easier to pay proven veterans at the position, especially since none make eight figures and some of the best in the game come from nowhere.
Aguayo realizes that. He knows he might slide.
"At the end of the day, it's just projections," he said. "It's up to the teams to decide. I'm not worried about that, I'm worried about being the best version of Roberto Aguayo I can be, and hopefully a team falls in love with me."
In the meantime, he'll continue to train at IMG Academy in Bradenton, where he's adding to those 10,000 hours while working to adjust the trajectory on his kickoffs—Florida State had him skying kicks to the goal line, whereas NFL teams will want him to drill them through the end zone—and bolstering his strength with a weight regimen.
One thing he doesn't have to worry about is the short stuff. The thing about Aguayo is he simply doesn't miss anything resembling a gimme. At FSU, he was a perfect 49-for-49 inside 40 yards. Combine that with his PATs, and he made every single one of the 247 kicks he attempted from that range.
You might be able to chalk that up to the fact he spent his youth pounding kick after kick from about 35 yards, over that net and into those woods, making Roberto Sr. as much of a hero as his oldest son.
And considering that NFL extra points have become at least slightly more challenging now that they're 33 yards instead of 20, it's possible that Aguayo's remarkable steadiness from that distance could boost his stock just a little bit higher.
"Some extra points from the 20 you can mishit and still make," he said, "so you've got to be on your 'A' game now on all extra points. It's no longer a chip shot. You get back to a 33-yard kick and that's a good distance. It's hard, and I think that works out for me."
This Generation's Gramaticas?
"Many of the greats never accomplished that in college," said Aguayo of his field-goal percentage record. "But eventually, one day, someone's going to come in and break it."
In a perfectly awesome and ironic world, that someone would be Ricky Aguayo, who has already enrolled at Florida State and might even accomplish something his big brother failed to do right off the bat by starting as a true freshman in the fall.
|Star kickers from Florida State|
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"If I would have left a year earlier, the coaching staff would have had to bring in a kicker in 2015," said Roberto, listing another reason for his decision to stick around last season. Now, instead, a four-year gap has been fully bridged.
"I think he's going to be just as good as me or even better," big bro added. "He has that potential."
Ricky, who is as big and athletic as his brother, believes he can earn that starting job by the time fall arrives. It doesn't hurt that he's already on campus as the Seminoles prepare for spring football, or that Kohl's has him ranked as the third-best kicker in the 2016 high school class.
Both have heard the comparisons to famous kicking families. The Gogolak brothers made 225 combined field goals in the NFL, the Bahrs made 541 and Martin and Bill Gramatica made 192. Are the Aguayos next?
One thing the rest of those brothers never did is face each other in a Super Bowl, something Roberto says he already imagines. Ricky, meanwhile, would prefer to take on his brother in the Pro Bowl, where it's all celebration and no devastation.
If they do make either scenario happen, they'll defy some major odds, even with help from the 10,000-hour rule, which—eerily/coincidentally—draws inspiration from research conducted by Florida State professor and expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson.
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky is classically associated with said rule, mainly because he and his brothers grew up playing hockey endlessly on a frozen ice rink their father had created for them in their backyard, giving them a chance to master their craft.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.