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September 29, 2011
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BERKELEY -- The day that Giorgio Tavecchio won the starting kickoff job as a walk-on freshman, head coach Jeff Tedford saw him pedaling his bike away from California Memorial Stadium, and shouted after him.
"Hey, so, Giovanni, are you ready for Saturday?"
"He called me Giovanni; I remember," Tavecchio laughs. "I was riding my bike out of the stadium. It was the second day. Giorgio, Giovanni, I guess it's similar. But, I ride my bike out of the stadium, going off to class -- at that point, it still had two pedals, a couple of days later is when the incident happened -- but I remember riding out, and he goes, 'Hey, so, Giovani, are you ready for Saturday?' and I go, 'Uh, yeah.' I wasn't going to correct him. That's the head coach."
How long did it take Tedford to learn his kicker's name?
"Probably week four," Tavecchio smiles.
For better or worse, now, everyone knows Tavecchio's name, and his story: The Italian kid who walked on two days before the start of the football season and became Cal's active career points leader three years later. He has earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2008 and 2009. He is 33-of-46 on field goals, 93-of-98 on PATs (94.9 percent) and is now 18 points shy of reaching the top 10 in career scoring at Cal. He's averaged 59.9 yards per kickoff and has recorded 12 touchbacks.
On Thursday, Tavecchio's story became one chapter longer, as the senior out of Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo was named a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, and a candidate for the 2011 National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete Awards. Former teammates Mike Mohamed (2010) and Alex Mack (2008) - both currently playing in the NFL for the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns - were finalists for the award, with Mack winning the then-Draddy Award at the Waldorff Astoria in New York.
"It's just an honor, really," Tavecchio said." It's an incredible blessing just to have my name in the same sentence with those two guys, and I think it speaks to the character of this program and the character of this school to have those successes in the past."
Tavecchio has a 3.71 cumulative grade point average, and will graduate this May with a degree in his Political Economy major. The Campbell Trophy is given to the "best overall student-athlete," with considerations for not only academics and athletic achievement, but work in the community, as well.
Tavecchio is more friendly and outgoing than even the most affable cocker spaniel, sharing his good fortune and his big heart with just about anyone who can stand it.
His career 71.1 percent field goal record gives him plenty of clout with young kickers in the area, who he tutors.
He participates in Athletes in Action, including going on "PB&J giveaways," where the group makes sandwiches and hands them out to Berkeley's homeless population.
His involvement with the portion of the Berkeley population that most students come to ignore by the time their time at Cal is over, however, doesn't just stop with some slices of Wonder Bread and a jar of Smuckers.
Tavecchio took part in a COPWATCH DECal class, in which homeless individuals were educated about their rights and Berkeley civic law.
The kid is just too good to be true. Any normal person who misses three PATs, with the laundry list of big missed field goals that Tavecchio racked up last season, would have gone into hiding, and probably would have been forgiven a surly attitude from time to time. Not Tavecchio. There is only one time when he's not smiling, talking or both: when he's sleeping. And that hasn't even been independently confirmed.
"It's always motivation," Tavecchio says of his missed opportunities last season against Arizona and Oregon. "I just feel like my personality, I'm a very motivated guy, but I'm not motivated by failure. I'm motivated by success, and the possibility of helping my team to victory, so although that did motivate me in the sense that I really used that as a way and as a trigger for me to focus a little bit more the next week, it wasn't like it motivated me to not do that again; it motivated me to continue on executing and really going back to my fundamentals."
Much of that extroversion comes naturally; Giorgio is Italian, after all, and when he goes home this weekend as the Bears take a two-day break to end the bye week, Mama is going to make sure her bambino eats right.
"Well, I'm going to go home for lunch -- that's for sure," Tavecchio says. "My mom wants to see me, so I'll have a nice lunch. She's going to make a big lunch."
Tavecchio has more energy than any three Gramatica brothers. If he wasn't always so eager to talk to anyone -- media included -- he'd be impossible to nail down.
"I rarely ever just sit there and do nothing. I'm always doing homework, watching film or there's always something to be done. I just, as a personality, I kind of like that structure, where there's always something going, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and I thrive on that kind of situation," says Tavecchio. ""It's just the time commitment, I think time management is one of the skills, I've really learned to embrace. You need to be really diligent with your time and kind of get as much done in a day as possible."
He does always make at least some time for himself, and enjoys a crossword puzzle and a good cappuccino, which he says with just the perfect paisan inflection. It's not cap-uh-cheen-o. It's ca-poo-CHEE-no.
Any other Italian athlete at Cal can count on Tavecchio if they need any one-on-one tutoring, and he takes part in the SAGE mentorship program, which provides Cal students as mentors for elementary school children in local public schools in mostly one-on-one settings. Like the aforementioned canine, Tavecchio is very kid-friendly.
He's sponsoring a poor child in Honduras through Compassion International. He volunteers at a local Catholic church to help with confirmation proceedings. He's Cal's own Mother Teresa.
"He's always been like that," says Tedford. "I think he's very mentally tough. I think his faith plays a huge part in his makeup, and that carries him a long way."
As much community service work as he does, though, Tavecchio isn't afraid to mix it up. He still bears a nasty burn mark on his right arm from the home opener against Presbyterian.
"I actually made a tackle against Presbyterian, and the one time I actually had a nice tackle, it was on the dirt, so it tore me up, and then Washington didn't help," says Tavecchio. "I had a bandage on it, but it got torn up and that's just the leftover scar. It looks much worse than it is."
Last year, against the Ducks, Tavecchio was tagged with an illegal motion penalty on a 24-yard field goal try, which would have put Cal ahead by one early in the contest, and missed a 29-yard try on the next play.
Against the Wildcats, Tavecchio accounted for all of the Bears' scoring with three field goals, but missed two from 33 and 40 yards in an eventual 10-9 Cal loss.
"As a kicker, there's so many ups and downs, especially as a young kicker," says Tedford. "I've seen him grow from not knowing his name Day One out in the parking lot when he was kicking for us the next day -- when he kicked off, I didn't even know his name, and hey, by the way, you're going to kick off tomorrow -- I've seen him come a long way. He's really worked hard. He's got a great work ethic, very passionate about what he does in the weight room and everything we do, at school, he's just a real quality guy. You have a guy like that, who's going to work through '-- there's going to be tough times, and it's a good life lesson, as well as football lesson, to work through tough times."
Even after those misses, Tavecchio has come back to hit all five of his attempts this season, and Tedford still has faith that, if it were to come down to a last-second attempt next Thursday against Oregon, Tavecchio would be his guy. More importantly, Tavecchio has that same faith in himself.
"It'd be awesome. I'm going for a lot of extra points that game. That's my mindset," Tavecchio said. "In my mind, I want to hit the game-winning field goal every week. That's what kind of focused I need to be, the kind of focus I need to bring into the game. I can't control that; all I can control is my execution, and if that situation rears its head, then I hope to take advantage."
Last year's illegal motion -- when he started to move forward before the snap -- doesn't enter into his mind.
"Not really. My job is just to stay composed back there, and that was kind of a fluke," he says. "It hasn't happened in nine months. It's just those random times where it just happens, and I have to do my best just to continue to focus and stay composed in my stance and focus again on the things that I can control.
"The thing that stuck with me the most from that game was how much support the team, my teammates and my family, they gave me, and that's what I really appreciate. The game, obviously, didn't go the way I wanted it to go, but I can't dwell on that, because of the fact that you have to move on. The one thing I really noticed was how much support I had from my teammates, and I really, really, really appreciated that."