He's back: Unlikely saga of "Ponch" continues...

When Abtin Iranmanesh collected his sheepskin last May, the punter nicknamed "Ponch" was fairly positive his football career was over. Now, thanks to some last-minute scholarship shuffling by head coach Bobby Johnson, Iranmanesh is back as a graduate school student and a fifth-year senior on the football team. For sure, his already-unlikely story has taken yet another bizarre twist.

Last season punter/kicker Abtin Iranmanesh's story was one of the best on the Vanderbilt football squad. After the sudden departure of punter/kicker Greg Johnson in the spring of 2003, the Tehran, Iran native with the unlikely nickname of "Ponch" stepped in to win both the placekicking and kickoff jobs, and even etched his name into the record books with an 80-yard punt against Georgia.

When he collected his sheepskin in ceremonies last May, Ponch was certain his unlikely football career was over. Now, thanks to some last-minute scholarship shuffling by head coach Bobby Johnson, Iranmanesh is back as a graduate school student and a fifth-year senior on the football team.

As they say in the movies, "The saga continues."

"I'll tell you exactly how it happened," he says.

OK, Ponch, we're all ears.

Shortly after his graduation last May, Iranmanesh received an Email from Director of Sports Operations Brian Reese. The Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, it turns out, had seen his college films and were interested in taking a look at him as a punter.

"So I had come back here to do some practicing, and ran into Robert Dinwiddie in the locker room," Iranmanesh said. "He asked me if I had another year of eligibility, which I did.

"Robert got the ball rolling, and brought it up to Coach Johnson. Two days later I got a call from Coach Johnson, who wanted to meet with me."

Johnson told Iranmanesh he'd like to see him return for one more season, and that if a scholarship opened up, he'd make it available. Fortunately, Iranmanesh had already applied for graduate school at the school of Organizational Leadership at Peabody, but his plans were very much up in the air.

The scholarship offer didn't materialize until the week before fall camp, but once it came, Ponch was all over it.

"It panned out, and it was mine," he said. "So here I am for one more round."

Living the life of a full-scholarship player is a new, unfamiliar experience for Iranmanesh, who paid his way for four years to obtain his undergraduate degree.

"My parents were probably a lot more excited than I was," he says drily.

By now, the story of how Abtin obtained his nickname should be a familiar one to fans. It was hung on him in junior high by a friend who observed his resemblance to the Erik Estrada character on the old CHiPS TV series.

Never mind that Estrada was Hispanic, and Iranmanesh is of Iranian descent. Nothing about the Iranmanesh story has ever made much logical sense.

So adeptly did the walk-on handle the punting last season that many may have forgotten he had never punted in a college game until last year's Ole Miss opener. When Greg Johnson left unexpectedly skipped town after spring practice in 2003, Bobby Johnson wondered all summer if he had anyone on the roster who could punt. That fall, Ponch beat out Kyle Keown and won both the punting and kickoff jobs.

His 80-yarder against Georgia, a boomer from the 6-yard-line which sailed over the returner's head and rolled all the way into the opposite end zone, registered as the second-longest in school history. (Ricky Anderson holds the record with an 82-yarder.)

Last spring, with no thoughts given to returning, Ponch completely missed out on spring practice and reported to fall camp a bit rusty. This time around, he'll have to beat out the redshirt freshman Keown once again, and that's anything but a lock. But Vandy fans hopefully have learned by now not to put anything past Ponch, who has already exceeded every expectation most may have had of him.

"Every walk-on comes in dreaming every year that this would happen, to play well enough to be awarded a scholarship," he says now, still a little bit incredulous. "Last year when I graduated, I had every expectation of moving on. A lot of opportunities have just opened up for me.

"Last year Greg Johnson decided to transfer, and who would have expected that? That opened up a chance for me to perform. I guess I did it well enough to come back and get myself into grad school."

There's still an outside shot that he could play professionally, perhaps with a Canadian League team like the Stampeders. Had it not been from that call from the Stampeders, it's unlikely he would be part of the Vandy roster today. After his graduate school year, professional ball may be one of several options open to Ponch.

"I would love to play football. I love competing, and have always been a competitor. If I get a chance, I would definitely look into that."

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