Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Any concerns that James Stefanou might have had about fitting in with his younger teammates at Colorado last season disappeared quickly.
“I think it was the second or third training session in the summer, (tight end) Eddy Lopez came up to me and he said, ‘Hey, you’re going to hang out with us today,'” said Stefanou, 30, who was a true freshman kicker on the CU football team this past season. “They’ve been awesome. It didn’t really take too long to transition into that at all.”
In fact, camaraderie with his teammates may have been the easiest part of Stefanou’s first season in Boulder.
“The guys are fantastic and I like to see myself as one of them, because I’m not the most mature guy you’ll meet,” he joked.
Everything else about his first year at CU can be summed up in one word.
“Adjustment is the key word,” he said.
A native of Australia who graduated from high school 13 years ago, Stefanou has adjusted to an entirely new life over the past year as he chases a dream of playing in the National Football League.
In Australia, Stefanou played professional soccer for about a decade, while also working for various companies to make a living. Leaving the consistent paycheck to get back into school for the first time in over a decade “has been difficult,” he said.
“I haven’t really mastered it yet, but I’m getting there,” said Stefanou, who hopes to work in journalism after his playing days.
Personally, he’s adjusting to married life, as well. He and his wife, Laura, were married on May 19 and they’ve spent some of that time apart. Having her in Boulder, however, has been a blessing for Stefanou.
“Since she got here, she’s been the best support I could ask for,” he said. “I found someone I want to spend my life with and she’s fantastic and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
The other adjustment, of course, has come on the football field — a place that was foreign to Stefanou until this past season.
Despite being new to the sport, Stefanou excelled, bringing much-needed consistency to the Buffs’ kicking game by hitting 17 of 22 field goals and all 35 extra points. He was named a freshman All-American by ESPN and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, presented to the nation’s top kicker.
“As I look back, I’m pretty happy with it,” Stefanou said. “As long as I build on it and learn from the mistakes I did make this year, I’m happy with it.”
Although he had years of experience playing on a professional level in front of fans, Stefanou said football provided a unique challenge for him. He was surprised, in fact, when nerves set in before some of his early-season kicks.
“It was funny because I had played soccer and I thought, ‘This shouldn’t be happening,'” he said, “but I think it’s the individual part of kicking where you’re out there by yourself in front of 50,000-70,000 people and all eyes are on you. Once you zone in and think of the ball and you, that’s all you really have to think about and the nerves do go away.”
Prior to this season, his only experience in kicking had come in practice over the past few years.
“That’s why I had a few celebrations this year that felt like game winners, because I was just really pumped to get them in,” he said.
Stefanou made 10 of his first 11 field goal attempts and for much of the season, he looked poised and he performed that way. Still, he came away from the season with a bitter taste about how he finished.
In the penultimate game of the season, at Folsom Field against Southern California, he had two kicks blocked in a row. Then, in the finale at Utah, he missed his only attempt, from 51 yards out. Missing three of his last four didn’t sit well with him.
“I hate missing, I hate losing,” he said. “I just don’t want to miss because I hate it so much. But, you do learn to get over it. When you run back to the sideline, you analyze with your coach what went wrong and what you think went wrong, but you can’t dwell on it too long.”
Looking ahead, Stefanou hopes to be even better as a sophomore, and he would like to prove to NFL scouts that he can handle kickoff duties, as well. Davis Price, who will be a junior, excelled in that area this year, but Stefanou said, “I’d like to definitely challenge for that spot.”
Because of his age, Stefanou has his eyes on the NFL earlier than most true freshmen, but he said he’s not in a rush to get out of CU.
“I think it’s on everybody’s mind, even though we don’t talk about it all the time,” he said. “The next level is why you play; you want to get too the ultimate level in anything you do.
“I never had plans to declare at the end of this year, because I think you need more than one year to prepare for that kind of level.”
Besides, he’s got something to prove at the college level, as he watches several fellow Aussies excel. College football is filled with Australian punters, including several in the Pac-12. Aussies have won the Ray Guy Award – presented to the top punter – the last five years.
“I’m getting a bit of heat about that,” he said.
Stefanou is a bit of a trendsetter among the Aussies as a place kicker, and he’s thrilled with the path he’s on.
“I can’t punt. They don’t want me to punt and bring their name down,” he joked. “I’ll just place kick.”