PDT Sports Writer
With the Kentucky Warriors trailing the Cincinnati Bulldogs 12-6 Saturday night, Mark Dheel lined up to kick an extra point. In front of him were his backup long snapper and backup holder — not exactly ideal conditions for a kicker. Unfazed, he lined up his kick and sent it through the uprights.
Dheel would make three of four extra points on the night. Those three points would be the difference in the Warriors’ 27-24 victory.
“I never thought I would be doing this. Seriously,” he said.
Though it’s been a long, strange journey, he has become an integral part of the Warriors organization, both on and off the field.
Mark Dheel arrived in southern Ohio in 1998 as a high school sophomore. Having attended a large high school in Akron, it took some time for Dheel to adjust to the small-school feel of Minford High School.
“I felt totally out of place. I didn’t know anybody,” he said.
But fall afternoons were a break for the “new kid.” He found comfort in playing his favorite sport for the Falcons: soccer. Dheel played nearly everywhere for the 2000 Regional Semifinalists: right forward, midfield and even goalie.
“I played anywhere where my coach wanted me to play,” he said.
Dheel also wrestled at Minford and would continue wrestling, training even after graduating in 2001. He still holds a powerful fighters’ physique that can be confusing to many fans new to Warriors games.
“A lot of people always tell me ‘You look like a big boy, you look like a linebacker,’” he said. “I wish I knew a lot more positions, but I’m OK with kicking because I’m comfortable with it.”
After graduation, Dheel took a job at Kroger, a job he holds to this day. But soon, he was looking for a new challenge to tackle, a challenge that would present itself when a workout buddy introduced him to the Warriors five years ago. New to the game, Dheel didn’t even know where to begin.
“When I first started playing thee asked me what position I played and I said ‘I have no idea,’” he said. After mentioning to his teammates that he had played soccer in high school his role became apparent: special teams.
As soon as he was appointed the teams kicker, Dheel slowly began teaching himself the subtleties of kicking from scratch: where to line up, where to position his feet and where to aim when he kicked the ball. While his teammates ran through plays and scrimmaged at practices, Dheel could be found at the other side of the field, relentlessly polishing his skills. True to locker room tradition, his loner-style practices are the butt of jokes among his teammates.
“These guys are awesome, even though I get picked on the most,” he said with a smile. “The kickers, they don’t get the credit, but it’s fun.”
Though he may catch flak, Dheel has formed an inseparable bond with his teammates throughout the years. That’s why after a crushing loss in last season’s NFFL Championship, he put his retirement on hold for one more go around with his “family.”
“I tried to hold my tears, because I thought it was my last game,” he said of last season’s championship. “We were so close to playing for the national title. It just ate me alive and really upset me. This year, I always remind myself and the team that we have one goal. That one goal is to make it to play for the National Title Game. That’s what I want to do.”
Warriors coach Jamie Rice thinks that Dheel and the kicking game will be key if Kentucky wants to return to the NFFL Championship. As a full-time kicker, he offers the Warriors a luxury that isn’t available to many semi-pro teams, as evidenced in Saturday’s game against the Bulldogs.
“In semi-pro, it’s hard to get a guy to come out and kick. Mark comes out and does a great job,” he said.
With growing personal commitments at 32 years old, Dheel knows his time in semi-pro football is almost up. But he still has one thing left to accomplish.
“The thing I’ve always wanted to do in my life is make it to the big stage and receive on the big stage,” he said. “That’s why I came back. I’m having a blast, and I’m enjoying it.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 294 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter