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April 27, 2007One of the most powerful legs in college football comes from an unlikely source.
Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna's 5-foot-8 frame makes you wonder how he can make a 40-yard field goal, let alone a 50-yarder. Yet this former Lou Groza Award winner went 4-for-6 from at least 50 yards away last year and matched a school record with a 58-yarder against California.
"Physics says I'm not actually supposed to kick the ball that far, so it definitely does surprise people when I come out there," Serna said. "I knew I had that leg strength. It's just a matter of showing everyone else I have it."
How does someone so short kick it so long?
Serna's natural gifts and his exhaustive weight training provided the physical strength necessary to do the job. The mental toughness came when this former walk-on faced a kicker's worst nightmare in his first college game.
And he perhaps owes at least part of his success to a letter he received from an ailing boy shortly after that devastating debut.
Austan Pierce was a 12-year-old lying in a Washington state hospital room the night Oregon State began its 2004 season. Pierce was undergoing colon surgery and his final round of chemotherapy treatments after being diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer typically found in children or young adults.
Pierce liked to pass the time by placing 25-cent bets with his doctor, Frank Reynolds, on which team would win the various sporting events he watched. They placed a similar bet on that evening's Oregon State-LSU game.
Reynolds charitably offered to let Pierce select LSU, which was ranked third in the nation and had won a share of the national title the previous year. Pierce turned down the offer. He'd had a soft spot for Oregon State since he was a 5-year-old watching his dad cheer for the underdog Beavers in a game with Oregon.
Pierce's leap of faith nearly paid off.
LSU trailed much of the night and forced overtime only because Serna misfired on two extra-point attempts. The Tigers escaped with a 22-21 victory when Serna's third extra-point miss sailed wide right on the final play of the game.
"I felt pretty bad for him because that doesn't ever really happen," Pierce said. "Your morale and confidence in yourself must really be lowered when that does happen."
The next day, Pierce discussed the game with Reynolds, who suggested that writing a letter of encouragement might cheer up the beleaguered kicker. The two of them then composed the following message.
Less than two weeks later, the note arrived at Serna's locker. Although Pierce never mentioned in the letter that he was sick, the return address of Sacred Heart Children's Hospital gave Serna a clue.
The agony that Serna felt at Tiger Stadium couldn't compare to the numbness he experienced while reading the youngster's message.
"You're just in shock," Serna said. "You can't really say anything. You don't know what to say. You don't know if it's right to even say anything. I guess you could say I kind of felt guilty for feeling bad about myself and thinking about the game, when people are struggling more than what I was going through."
Serna would later learn a great deal more about the young man who had sent the letter.
Pierce's health problems had begun in the spring of 2003 when he developed a high fever and felt pain in his pelvis. His family took him to the doctor three separate times without having anyone pinpoint exactly what was wrong with him.
"They eventually said it was growing pains," said Pierce's mother, Jonnelle. "We knew it wasn't."
The fourth time it happened, they went to a different doctor who ordered an MRI. The test revealed a five-inch tumor resting against Pierce's left pelvic bone.
Pierce has since undergone a year's worth of chemotherapy, 31 days of radiation treatments and more than two dozen blood transfusions. He had his left leg and part of his pelvis amputated last December. His optic nerve started swelling shortly afterward and nearly caused him to lose his vision.
He has responded to every setback with a resolute focus and unyielding optimism that would make any athlete proud. He was at peace with the decision to amputate his leg before his parents could accept it. Instead of running and hiding from this disease, Pierce has offered regular health updates on the blog he keeps at www.caringbridge.org/visit/austanpierce.
Serna didn't know any of those details when he received the letter, but the note still allowed him to put his own predicament in perspective.
"It definitely humbled me and brought me back to reality," Serna said. "Even though I did have a bad game, there are people having a lot worse problems than I had."
Serna's own problems soon disappeared.
In his first game after receiving Pierce's letter, Serna made a 35-yard field goal in a 17-7 victory over New Mexico that helped him regain his job as Oregon State's first-string kicker.
One season later, Serna won the Lou Groza Award that goes annually to the nation's top college kicker. He enters his senior year with 62 career field goals, the most of any active kicker in the nation.
Since that LSU game, Serna has made a school-record 106 consecutive extra-point attempts.
Serna also has demonstrated he can deliver in the clutch.
He kicked a 40-yard field goal in the rain with 1:12 remaining to help Oregon State beat Oregon 30-28 last season. One year earlier, his 29-yarder with 1:03 left gave the Beavers a 23-20 triumph over Boise State.
"Alexis is a tremendous weapon and someone we have full confidence in," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "He has proved that he is reliable in big games, in bad weather and in hostile stadiums. We take him for granted sometimes."
As Serna's career blossomed, so did his friendship with Pierce.
Not long after Pierce sent that letter, a package arrived on his doorstep. Serna had sent Pierce an Oregon State T-shirt and shorts - along with a note that included his phone number. They soon began speaking regularly.
"It's meant a lot," Pierce said. "He's kind of been somebody I can look up to in a sense. It's just cool having that friendship and knowing he's always there for you. It's always exciting to get another letter from him when you're in the hospital not feeling very good.''
Their communication has gone beyond the occasional phone call or e-mail.
Pierce's family met Serna while attending Oregon State's 44-33 victory over Washington State two years ago. During Oregon State's bye week last season, Serna and his girlfriend made a surprise visit to the Pierce family's home in Spokane, Wash.
The latter meeting helped lift Pierce's spirits when it started becoming inevitable that he'd lose his leg.
"Alexis helped him focus on something that wasn't medical," Jonnelle Pierce said. "He started to build a friendship with an athlete that was pretty powerful in helping him heal. It helped him realize that there are other fun things in life other than this horrible situation he was in."
That healing process has begun.
Pierce's cancer is in remission and his vision has almost returned to normal. Pierce's hometown saluted his courage last month by giving him the Chase Youth Award, one of Spokane's most prestigious honors.
The former baseball and basketball player hopes to start playing wheelchair sports, and he has begun the process of being fitted for a prosthetic leg.
"The doctors are claiming it will probably be for looks and not function, but you never know," Jonnelle Pierce said. "Technology's only getting better. Hopefully someday he can walk with a prosthetic leg. At this point, the doctors aren't too optimistic, but he has a great attitude."
His attitude should only get better as football season approaches.
No matter how much his health bothers him, Pierce receives encouragement each autumn weekend. He savors the opportunity to cheer for his favorite team and favorite player.
"During the start of football season, you can always look forward to his game on Saturday,'' said Pierce, who now is 14 and in ninth grade. "It's always just a few hours of the day that you're not really thinking about what's going on. You're enjoying the game and watching your friend get out there and kick."
Even if Pierce doesn't actually attend the Oregon State games, Serna makes sure his friend is there in spirit. Serna writes the letter "A" on his left hand and "P" on the right hand before each game. When he puts his hands together, Serna can see Pierce's initials staring back at him.
"You'll see me once in a while put my hands together, and I'll definitely think about it," Serna said. "If I'm having a stressful game, I'll definitely look at it. It helps me calm down."
One look at his hands helps remind Serna how he has overcome such long odds to develop into one of the nation's most accurate kickers.
Serna doesn't merely have one of college football's strongest legs. He also has one of its strongest fans.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.