Ziifle trades in soccer ball for American football

Michael Ziifle does not love football; soccer is his first love. <br><br>But the former Newnan, Georgia soccer star, was confirmed as starting placekicker for the MTSU game on Wednesday by Tide head coach Dennis Franchione.

Ziifle battled it out with two other place kickers, fellow sophomore Brian Bostick and redshirt freshman Mike McLaughlin, for the starting spot this summer and emerged from the group early in fall camp as the leader.

"If Ziifle does exactly what he's done in two-a-days and this summer, he'll do a fine job," Franchione said at Tuesday's press conference. "He'll be fine. Mike's got a great temperament, a good attitude to play and he's hitting the ball very well."

A former soccer star in high school, Ziifle will be Bama's primary placekicker this Saturday versus MTSU.

Actually, until his senior year of high school, Ziifle cared nothing for football.

He spent the majority of his youth playing goal keeper for both Newnan High School and his soccer club team the Lightning. But heading into his senior year, the football coach was desperately looking for somebody--anybody, to kick extra points and field goals. Hearing about this big kid with a bigger leg playing soccer, the coach convinced Ziifle to help out.

That year he was a soccer goalie five days a week, but on Fridays and Saturday's he donned shoulder pads and helmets to kick field goals. A goalie at heart, Ziifle had committed to play soccer at Clemson University. But when he changed his mind and decided to go with football, he was pursued by South Carolina, LSU and Alabama.

Ziifle's elevation to a starting role will challenge sports editors (and radio announcers) alike. His is an unusual last name, but he's philosophical about the problem. "I'm not too worried about it being misspelled," he told reporters Wednesday. "So far it hasn't been written enough to bother with."

For the record, the name is pronounced "Zeee-full" (long "e"), and don't bother telling him any "Arnold the pig" jokes from Green Acres, because Michael's heard them all. "When I was in elementary school I heard kids joking about Arnold Ziffle," he related. "But I had actually never seen the TV show. My dad had to sit me down and have that father-to-son ‘Green Acre' talk."

Ziifle was recruited by the previous Alabama staff as a backup to Neal Thomas. A solid place kicker for the Tide and now volunteer special teams assistant coach, Thomas kept a firm hold on the starting position from the day that Ziifle arrived campus until Thomas' tenure with the Tide ended.

Versatile with his kicking skills, Ziifle will also be the backup punter and kickoff man.

"I really liked the school from the first time I visited," Ziifle said. "One of the coaches recruiting me told me to look at all of my choices and take football out and see which school I liked best. My decision was Alabama. I though I would have a chance to some kickoffs.

"Last year was hard sitting on the bench passing time. It felt good to be in the running for the starting position finally. To work for something that hard and achieve it is unbelievable."

Ziifle no longer has to be worried about sitting on the bench when it comes to the place kicker position. A 49-yard field goal in high school was the longest of his career to date, but he hopes to remedy that and break Alabama's longest field goal record currently held by Van Tiffin with a 57-yard field goal against Texas A&M in 1985. Ryan Pflugner holds the record for longest field goal without a kicking tee, nailing a 55-yard attempt against Arkansas in 1998.

"I think I can do it," Ziifle said. "That's my goal for the season is to break that record."

Franchione has almost as much confidence in Ziifle as he has in himself.

"He's got a strong leg," Franchione said. "Mike could probably kick a 55- to 57-yard field goal. He's got that kind of leg. And right now the ball is popping off his foot pretty good so I think he'll be well-prepared. He should go in with some confidence because he right now has survived the test of time which means he's been consistent.

"You always hope he makes the first one. It's like my first three-foot putt on Saturday afternoon. If it goes in I'm probably going to feel a lot better about my second one. And you hope that he gets off to a good start, too."

Ziifle has made great progress physically, since first arriving on campus.

Ziifle doesn't think the coach should be worried.

"I know I'll make it," Ziifle said when asked about that first field goal attempt on Saturday. "I probably have the easiest job on the team. I just swing my leg and kick the ball, which I've been doing for the past three years. I am more scared of messing up not for me, but for my teammates."

Ziifle's main source of inspiration is 27-year-old Brian. His brother, "the biggest Atlanta Braves fan on the earth," has Downs Syndrome and is Ziifle's biggest fan. Alabama was Brian's favorite college recruiting his younger brother for a number of reasons: the Alabama ‘A' insignia is the same one used by the Atlanta Braves and he read former coach Gene Stallings' book about his some John Mark who also has Downs Syndrome.

"Coaches (Ronnie) Cottrell and (Mike) DuBose talked to my brother like a person," Ziifle explained. "Most people shy away from him and don't know how to talk to him for some reason. No one is happier in this world or more enjoyable to be around.

"If you ever ask my brother how he's feeling he always says, ‘Wonderful.' He could have broken his leg and he would answer the same. He lives and loves life the way that I would like to."

EDITOR'S NOTE: To avoid confusion with linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who is expected to play extensively this season on special teams, Ziifle will change jersey numbers from 35 to 40. His backup, sophomore Brian Bostick, will also change numbers from 1 to 22.


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