When Stefan Grossekathoefer arrived from West Germany as an exchange student at Carson High School, he never figured he would be playing American football.
But there he is, a reserve kicker on a football team that is rated second in the nation by USA Today.
Even if his contributions to Carson's 11-0 record are relatively modest (four points) on the football field, Grossekathoefer is definitely a young man of letters. Try these on for size:
Speilvereinigung Bemerode/Wulfel-- that's the name of the Hanover-based soccer team that the exchange student played for before coming to Carson.
Or how about Telkampfschule-- that's the school Grossekathoefer attended in the north German city.
And then, of course, there's that infamous last name that has forced his teammates at Carson to refer to him as "Stefan" or "the German kid."
"When Stefan was first introduced to me, I said, 'Wait a minute, write this thing down,' " said Carson Coach Gene Vollnogle. "I'm from German stock and I can't pronounce it. It's a real adventure."
That adventure began when Grossekathoefer was watching an American football game on television at the home of his host family, Paul and Naomi Letcher of Carson. He innocently asked what position he could play if he tried football.
Naomi Letcher tried to warn him about football's roughness. "She was watching the game on TV and she asked me 'You want to do that?' " Grossekathoefer recalled.
Obviously he did. So he introduced himself to Vollnogle, who at first wasn't thrilled because Carson already had an excellent kicker in Louis Perez. But Vollnogle went ahead and referred the young German to the Colts' kicking coach, Ismael Ordonez.
"Ordonez was really happy because he likes guys that played soccer," Vollnogle said. "Pretty soon he came back to me and said, 'That kid has a great leg. I think I can have him kicking off into the end zone."'
So Vollnogle put Grossekathoefer on the varsity team and gave him a practice jersey with his name across the back--in a very big arc. And in the second week of the season, in Carson's 50-0 rout of Bishop Montgomery, the big German (6 feet, 4 inches and 203 pounds) got into his first football game.
Bryon Reeves, the Colts' high-scoring flanker, had just caught a touchdown pass with 15 seconds left in the third quarter. And Ordonez motioned Grossekathoefer onto the field to kick the extra point.
"I was so nervous when he told me to warm up," Grossekathoefer said. "I knew I would have to go onto the field."
Grossekathoefer made that extra point, and then booted the next kickoff into the end zone. Since then, he's played sparingly, occasionally spelling the incumbent Perez (who has made eight of 10 field goals this year). He has kicked four extra points, including two in Carson's 48-0 win over Fremont, but his specialty is his towering, skyscraper kickoff.
And of course, the endless anecdotes he's bred in between kicks.
- Like the time he saddled Carson with a delay-of-the-game penalty by kicking off before the official blew his whistle. "We neglected to tell the German kid about that rule," Vollnogle said apologetically.
- Or the time he kicked off against Kennedy and a special teams player tried to block him. "I was watching my kick and I felt this bump," Grossekathoefer said. "And it was this player only about this (chest) high. So I just threw him away. I was hoping the officials wouldn't see it because I didn't know what is forbidden and what is not."
- Or the bizarre Mexican accent that sometimes creeps into Grossekathoefer's English. Vollnogle explained: "Ordonez is Mexican and speaks very broken English. So here's this German kid, who is just learning English, that ends up with a Mexican accent. So now he runs around saying stuff like 'Deep keeck! "
- Or the time the young German boarded the wrong plane when he was first coming to Los Angeles. He landed in Portland, Ore., expecting to see a "view of Malibu Beach, like scenes in a movie" and asked the baggage porter, "Is this L.A.?"
"I'm not that naive anymore, I hope," Grossekathoefer said, displaying some California savvy in black high-tops and shorts marked "Surfer's Alliance."
It's also a savvy that makes him frustrated if he misses a kick, such as on an extra point in the rainy quarterfinal game against El Camino Real.
"He was sort of on the ground, pounding the mud," Vollnogle said. "At first I thought he was hurt.
"But no one works harder than that guy. He comes after school to practice and is usually the last one to leave. I leave the door open where we keep the footballs. When I get in the car and drive off, I can hear the thump of the ball--it's the German kid practicing."
So far, Grossekathoefer has made a 51-yard field goal in practice. That's not bad for a guy who, three months ago, didn't know what a quarterback was. But after seeing ambidextrous teammate George Malauulu in action, he'll have a good definition when he shows his Carson letterman's jacket to his friends back home.
"My friends will say, 'Oooh, you played football, you must have arms like steel,' " Grossekathoefer said. Still, he shudders when he thinks of his hard-hitting teammates. He says he feels sorry for Carson's opponents, noting that "probably the best German club team would lose against Carson."
Mescala, the club soccer team Grossekathoefer plays left wing for in Carson, is not as invincible. In soccer, he tries to model himself after French halfback Michel Platini.
Now, however, New Orleans Saints' kicker Morten Andersen has joined Platini on Grossekathoefer's list of sports heroes. The young German tries to emulate Andersen's coolness under pressure when he goes into a game.
He remembered that when German basketball star Detlef Schrempf was playing in college, opposing fans would taunt him with shouts of " Fehlwurf! " That's German for "air ball." And what if someone tried to do something like that to Grossekathoefer?
"I would probably just laugh at him now," he said.