SAN DIEGO — Ralf Mojsiejenko will forever be grateful to his parents for moving the family from West Germany to the United States when he was 9 months old.
"I'm thankful," he said. "Otherwise, I'd probably be playing soccer in Germany now."
Mojsiejenko would most like to be the punter, placekicker or both for the San Diego Chargers this season. He unlikely to unseat placekicker Rolf Benirschke, but he has a good shot at taking punter Maury Buford's job.
If Mojsiejenko, 22, does makes the roster, it will culminate his longtime dream of becoming a professional athlete.
Mojsiejenko's family moved in 1963 from West Germany to the heavily German populated town of Bridgman, Mich. Mojsiejenko's father, who is still a tool and diemaker in Bridgman, introduced his son to football by entering him in punt, pass and kick competitions when he was still a child.
However, football was not his only love. He earned varsity letters for three seasons in baseball, basketball and football at Bridgman High School. He went on to pitch as a sophomore and junior at Michigan State, compiling a 4-7 record.
"I was not that bad of a pitcher, but I never had the luck of a pitcher," he said. "I gave it up my last year of college because of the fact (pro) football teams were calling me and I was pitching baseball. I had to make a quick decision where my livelihood would be.
"My baseball talents weren't coached as well as they could have been. In a town of 2,000, you didn't get coaching. Basically, I was a self-taught pitcher. Kicking is also basically self-taught."
At Bridgman High, Mojsiejenko learned a lot about different football positions. He was the starting split end on offense, played some linebacker and cornerback on defense and, of course, handled the punting, placekicking and kickoffs.
Bridgman High is a very small school. Mojsiejenko said his graduating class was 76 students, a school record-high at the time. Mojsiejenko became versatile by demand.
"Our football team had 18 players on it," Mojsiejenko said. "When a couple of guys got hurt one game, we had to go with 16 players. Almost everybody had to play both ways. I didn't play defense all of the time because our coach saw my kicking potential. He didn't want me to break a leg."
Mojsiejenko did make it through high school in one piece. He earned all-state honors as a placekicker as a junior and was all-state as a punter as a senior.
When he got to Michigan State, the team had a placekicker and 13 others, including Mojsiejenko, trying out for punter. Mojsiejenko won the job.
As a sophomore, Mojsiejenko also won the Spartans' placekicking job. His first collegiate field-goal attempt was a successful 61-yarder against Illinois.
"It hit the crossbar and bounced over," he said. "I had a 10 m.p.h. wind at my back. I didn't hit the ball that well, so I guess it was adrenaline. I had kicked them longer than that in practice."
The 61-yarder proved to be Mojsiejenko's longest field goal. However, his most satisfying field goal was a 59-yarder on the last play of the game to tie Purdue his junior season.
Mojsiejenko was 44 of 53 on extra points and 35 of 53 on field goals in college. He averaged 43.8 yards a punt, including 63 of more than 50 yards and four of more than 70 yards.
Perhaps what he liked most about living in Michigan was the surroundings. He plans to return to Michigan when football season is over.
"I like California life a little bit," he said. "It's not Michigan to me. I sort of like the way Michigan is more open. It's like a desert here, and everything else is buildings. In Michigan, everybody has a lawn. We have four acres there. We can take our dogs out for a walk, and we have a garden."
In the next three weeks of exhibition play, Mojsiejenko would like to cultivate his chances of making the Charger roster. He had good reviews in his debut as a punter last week, averaging 44.6 yards on five attempts against Cleveland in San Diego's exhibition opener. He will share the punting with Buford on Saturday night against Dallas while continuing to be the kickoff man.
Since NFL rosters have been trimmed from 49 to 45 players this year, the Chargers could create an extra opening by letting Mojsiejenko do all of the kicking. However, Benirschke all but secured his placekicking job by going 4-for-4 on field goals against Cleveland.
"If you put everything into one guy, it does give you a roster spot for another player," said Marv Braden, the Chargers special teams coach. "You're also in a situation where if something happens to him, you lose all three (punting, place kicking and kickoffs). The only other way is to say there are enough kickers around who are adequate enough to grab if something happens. Having one kicker would give you another roster player. When the rosters have been cut to 45, that's important."
Though retired players such as former Cleveland star Don Cockroft handled both punting and place kicking, it seems to be a thing of the past in the NFL.