Calera’s Gaines looking to have big senior season

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

The farther backward you travel from any professional sport, the more diluted the product becomes. College football does not have the same speed or power that the NFL has seeping through its rosters, and high school football is not near the product that the college game is. While this is an obvious truth about the overall structure of sports, individual outliers pop up at every level that fight against this narrative. Athletic specimens perform above the normal expectations for their age all the time, and we as a culture always pay attention when they do.

Zach Gaines is not one of these people in the traditional sense. He’s an athlete, for sure; with a listed vertical of 35 inches and a 40-yard dash time of 4.65, Gaines is also a member of the 4×100-meter squad and a javelin thrower for the track team as well as a centerfielder and part-time pitcher for the baseball team. He’s a player. However, a rising Calera senior, no one, including Gaines himself, would describe him as some sort of athletic genius by the standard definition. He does however have one skill that leaps out at spectators, literally.

Gaines is a punter and a kicker. A native of an outer suburb of Atlanta, Gaines moved to Calera prior to his junior season when his father took a new job. While he has not yet assumed full control of all kicking duties for the Eagles, Gaines hopes this season, his last in high school, will be something of a coming out party.

The kid has a rocket launcher protruding from his right hip, and can routinely blast punts more than 70 yards and hit field goals from 50 yards and beyond. Calera head coach Wiley McKeller helped him put a recruiting video together last week, which can be found on YouTube, and the results are video game-esque. Bomb after bomb shoot into the air, hanging suspended for upwards of four seconds via Gaines’ right foot, before falling lazily to the ground three-quarters of the field away. It is the kind of rare, specific skill that can open up doors in the future.

Gaines started kicking when he was in the third grade because no one else was. In Georgia, youth football allows teams the option to punt and kick extra points if they have a player who can do either, and Gaines started doing both in his first year of organized football.

“It was fun because I was the only one who was doing it,” Gaines said. “I played linebacker and fullback too, so I was a part of the game. But freshman year (of high school) I started kicking with the varsity kicker and I was kicking as good as he was.”

His father knew long-time NFL kicker Jason Elam in high school, and Gaines’ own understanding of the position can be traced directly from Elam, to Gaines’ father, to Gaines. Now, he’s just focused on maintaining and honing his talent.

A humble and incredibly polite kid, Gaines doesn’t like to brag about his ability. That doesn’t stop him from being honest when asked if he feels like he can hit a 50-plus yard field goal in a game.

“No doubt,” Gaines said.

If all goes well, Gaines hopes this season will garner him an opportunity to punt and kick in college.

“That would be the life,” Gaines said.