The improbable odyssey of Tolga Ertugrul

That Tolga Ertugrul has won Vanderbilt's placekicking job as a walk-on-- and that he is doing so well with it-- is in itself a fascinating story; upon hearing about his background, his story becomes even more unlikely.

Once upon a time, the Miami Dolphins had a diminutive place-kicker from the Mediterranean isle of Cyprus by the unlikely name of Garo Yepremian. Through a distinguished 12-year NFL career, Yepremian gained fame as Miami's all-time leading scorer, and helped the Dolphins to a perfect season in 1972. (He once tried to throw a feeble pass in the Super Bowl, but that's another story.)

Newspapers fawned over the 5-foot-7, 145-pound Yepremian, because his story was so unusual. Upon coming to America, he didn't speak a word of English. The first football game Yepremian ever saw was also the first game he ever played in, as a member of the Detroit Lions in 1966.

History has a way of repeating itself. Through an improbable series of circumstances, the Vanderbilt football team entered 2003 with another diminutive Cypriot kicking its field goals and extra points. That Tolga Ertugrul has won Vanderbilt's placekicking job as a walk-on-- and that he is doing so well with it-- is in itself a fascinating story; upon hearing about his background, his story becomes nearly as unlikely as Yepremian's.

Don't bother looking for background information on Ertugrul in the 2003 media guide-- you won't find it. He ain't in there. He doesn't even appear on the online roster on vucommodores.com. Vandy's media relations staff didn't find out Ertugrul would be trying out for the team until the first week of August.

More recent versions of the roster list him at 5-foot-8, 160-- and even that may be a stretch.

"This is all a little bit new to me," says the pint-sized Ertugrul (prounounced ER-ta-grool). "I've never really played in front of all these people, and I haven't worked with a holder or a snapper for a year. I'm slowly getting used to everything, I think."

Commodore fans watched nervously as Ertugrul's first-ever college field goal attempt, vs. Ole Miss on August 30, went low and was blocked. Since then, however, he's a perfect 12-of-12 on extra points, and 1-of-2 on field goals. (His miss against TCU, from 36 yards out, was plenty long, but narrowly wide.)

"After Ole Miss, [the emphasis] has just getting more height on the ball, and kicking the ball like I do in practice," said Ertugrul. "The main thing I work on is height and distance. I've been kicking it very consistently in practice."

Most college football players, at Vanderbilt or anywhere else, have lengthy high school resumes filled with accomplishments taking up space in the media guides. Mainly due to a long series of discouraging hip injuries, Ertugrul's high school football career is almost non-existent.

"I started place-kicking in sixth, seventh and eighth grades," he recalls. "In ninth grade I had the starting job going into the summer, and I fractured my hip. So I kicked, but I kicked left-footed for the freshman team.

"Then I fractured my hip again going into my sophomore year, and I didn't get my release to play again until my senior year. I played on a team [Holland Hall High School, Bixby, Okla.] that went 1-10. I had, like, five field goal opportunities, with a long of 38 or something.

"So I really didn't have [a high school career], in all honesty. That's why this is all a little new.

"I mean, I had 60 people in my high school class! We had 300 people in our whole high school, and maybe 350 went to games. I mean, all this is different!" (Just wait until he sees Gainesville and Knoxville in a few weeks.)

Ertugrul's parents, natives of the Turkish republic of Cyprus, are the living embodiment of the American Dream. Looking for opportunity, his father crossed the ocean in 1968 to attend the University of Toronto and later Johns Hopkins. He obtained a graduate degree in Civil Engineering, brought his family over and started his own firm in Tulsa.

Tolga grew up in Bixby, just outside Tulsa. He chose Vanderbilt not for its football program, but as a place to get a great education. But the Commodores' place-kicking position just happened to be wide open in the fall of 2002, and something inside Ertugrul urged him to give kicking another try.

Once again injuries sidelined him, this time almost permanently.

"Last fall I came out here, and I thought I competed well," Ertugrul said. "Unfortunately I hurt my hip-- for the third time. They told me I wouldn't be able to play. I felt like I had had a decent chance. I was kicking well."

Ertugrul ended up leaving the team completely in 2002, and sat out the following spring. Another true freshman, Greg Johnson, ended up winning the job. But when Johnson abruptly decided to transfer after spring practice, the job was up for grabs again. Head coach Bobby Johnson needed immediate help.

"I just decided to see what it was like this year, see what I could do."

Because Vanderbilt has not attempted a long-distance field goal yet this year, some fans think Ertugrul must not have the leg strength that Greg Johnson had. But Ertugrul insists he hits regularly from 50 yards and up in practice.

"With a two-inch tee, off the ground, with no wind, I'd say I could regularly hit it 57 to 59 yards," he says. "Not that they would all go in..."

Off the field, Ertugrul is following in his father's footsteps and pursuing a degree in Civil Engineering. (And let's not forget, paying his own way.) Now in his second year at Vanderbilt, he will have three more years of eligibility after this one.

"I'm not nervous like I was to begin with," Ertugrul said. "I'm really happy, actually. I'm proud of what I've accomplished so far. I think I've kicked well overall.

"I'm just happy Coach Johnson has given me the opportunities he has, and believed in me."

With only three college field goal attempts under his belt, Ertugrul unquestionably has a long way to go before matching fellow Cypriot Garo Yepremian. (To his credit, however, he hasn't thrown any ill-advised passes yet.)

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Photo of Tolga Ertugrul copyright 2003 by Brent Wiseman for VandyMania.

Contact Brent at brent@vandymania.com



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