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RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE KICK : Rob Houghtlin and Iowa Revisit the Holiday Bowl

December 23, 1987|CHRIS ELLO

SAN DIEGO — Rob Houghtlin remembers arriving here one year ago, checking into his hotel room and seeing a note taped to his television set to call home immediately.

He called his father, Bob, in Glenview, Ill., who informed Rob that his grandfather had just died.

That night, Houghtlin got down on his knees and prayed for his grandfather. He prays a lot.

A week passed, during which Houghtlin and his Iowa Hawkeye teammates took part in all of the hoopla leading up to the Holiday Bowl football game.

Iowa played San Diego State that night, and Houghtlin was feeling even worse than he did the night he received that note.

He had missed two field goals and an extra point and San Diego State had just taken a two-point lead in the final moments.

"I dedicated the game to my grandfather and here I was, having the worst night of my career," he said. "Talk about letting someone down."

But, as you may remember, Houghtlin's story has a happy ending.

Kevin Harmon returned a kickoff to the SDSU 37-yard line, and three plays moved it to the Aztec 24 with four seconds left.

Houghtlin jogged onto the field and then, when SDSU called timeout, jogged back off to talk to his coach, Hayden Fry.

"That timeout gave me a chance to get my thoughts together," Houghtlin said. "I told Coach Fry about my grandfather, and he said that I'd already had enough bad fortune for one night. He said that he knew I was going to make it."

Houghtlin, too, was feeling pretty good about it. But that's the way he always feels before a kick.

"A lot of people think I'm, cocky," Houghtlin said. "But I don't look at it that way. I have a lot of confidence in myself. And I think you've got to believe in yourself before anybody else will believe in you."

Houghtlin started impressing people with his kicking ability when he was in the eighth grade.

He played in a youth league that awarded one point for a conversion that was run or passed in, and two points for a conversion that was kicked.

In that league, a good kick simply made good sense.

"I remember Rob going up to the coach and telling him that he could kick it through," Bob Houghtlin remembered. "Somehow, he was able to convince the guy because before that, he had never kicked a football in his life."

Since then, he has done a quite a bit of kicking. And he's been pretty good at it.

In three years at Iowa, the senior has established school records for career scoring (288 points), season scoring (105 his sophomore year), and field goals in one season (21 this year, breaking his own record of 19). The list goes on to include most consecutive field goals (10) and most consecutive extra points (40, the last one he missed was in last year's Holiday Bowl).

Furthermore, he was named first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore and again this season. As a junior, in 1986, he was selected to the second team. In the 1986 Rose Bowl, he made a 52-yard field goal against UCLA to set the Rose Bowl record.

"Basically, I found out a long time ago that I had been blessed with the ability to kick," Houghtlin said. "And I dedicated myself to be the best I could be."

Houghtlin, the third of six children, is also religious and leads a team Bible study once a week.

His father makes every trip, but since father and player don't stay in the same hotel room, they pick a time before each game to pray, so they'll both be praying at the same time.

Fry, who made Houghtlin his kicker as a walk-on in 1985, once said: "Our guys really believe in Rob Houghtlin. Just think back to how many games he's pulled out for us."

There have been four, the first of which was the biggest.

It was 1985, and No. 1-ranked Iowa was meeting No. 2-ranked Michigan in Iowa City. As time ran out, Houghtlin made his fourth field goal of the game, a 29-yarder, to give the Hawkeyes a 12-10 victory.

"That's the kick I remember the most because it was national television, No. 1 vs. No. 2, and it was Michigan," Houghtlin said.

Later that season, he made a 25-yard field goal as time ran out to beat Purdue, 27-24.

In the final regular-season game of his junior season, Houghtlin's 37-yard kick, again with no time remaining, gave Iowa a 30-27 victory over Minnesota.

"He's always had the attitude that he wanted games to come down to him having a kick to win it," his father said.

Last year's Holiday Bowl was such a game.

The favored Hawkeyes trailed, 21-13, at halftime and were still behind, 35-21, with eight minutes remaining. Two Mark Vlasic touchdown passes and a two-point conversion put Iowa ahead, 36-35, before Kevin Rahill kicked a 21-yard field goal for San Diego State with 47 seconds left.

Then came Harmon's kickoff return to the Aztec 37.

"I remember how happy all of their fans were when they took the lead," Houghtlin said. "But after that kick return, I knew we were going to win it."

Still, Houghtlin almost didn't get a chance to kick.

The snap was high and Houghtlin's holder, Chuck Hartlieb, nearly had to come off the ground to catch the ball.

The Aztec rush, led by Alfred Jackson who was flying in from the left side, was closing fast. One of the radio announcers even yelled, "The kick is blocked!"

But Hartlieb got the ball down, the kick wasn't blocked, and Iowa won, 39-38.

"People always think of me as the hero in that game, but it wasn't a good game for me," Houghtlin said. "I just have to think that I was lucky to get a chance to win it."

Now, Houghtlin and his teammates return to San Diego for a second-straight Holiday Bowl appearance, this time against Wyoming.

But please, don't think about giving Houghtlin a hero's welcome.

"The thing I've enjoyed about playing at Iowa is that it's such a team thing here," he said. "We were all responsible for that game last year, whether we had won or not. The team has to get in position and in that game, it did. I'm just the kicker."

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