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Saturday, December 27, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vinson Pictured Himself On Team -- Inexperienced Kicker Walked On At Michigan

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

GLENDORA, Calif. - He is standing to the side of the picture, dwarfed by the giants of Michigan's offensive line. He looks so small and timid out there. The men beside him have burly arms, and their jerseys barely cover their stomachs.

Jason Vinson's head is cocked slightly sideways. His shoulders droop even with shoulder pads. In the photo he looks like an impostor, someone who fooled the Wolverines into letting him stand there in full uniform with No. 38 blazing bright on his chest.

In a way he has. Three years ago, Michigan had not heard of Jason Vinson. He once sent the school a tape of him kicking field goals and punting, but it's not likely anyone looked at it. Vinson wasn't even the regular kicker for his high school team in Troy, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. He knocked a few extra points through the goal posts, but that was it.

His freshman year at Michigan, sitting in the stands, he watched as Wolverine punts wobbled in the air.

His friends scoffed in disgust, "Hey Jason, I'll bet you were better than that."

Vinson thought about it and figured he probably was.

He was playing flag football in intramurals at Michigan, hardly a training ground for the Big Ten. Plus, he says, he really didn't understand the game that much. He wanted to be a soccer player but couldn't make the team in high school.

Still, a friend who worked for the football program had a number for a coach. So Vinson called and said he wanted to be a punter. No one asked if he had punted in a game before, and Jason didn't think to offer the information, so he slipped through the screening process with astonishing ease.

Which is how he came to be in this picture of the Michigan football team about to burst from the tunnel onto the field before a game.

After two seasons on the practice team, Vinson became a regular this year. He punted well, averaging 38.9 yards, which was good enough to be second-team All-Big Ten.

"It took a lot of practicing, I guess," he said. "It took me awhile to decide I wanted to play.

"The first year and a half I was just excited to be on the team. I didn't take it as seriously until this past year.

"I saw the opportunity; it was between me and another guy. I knew I had a shot, but I knew I would have to do more in the summer."

So he spent $900 to attend two kicking camps last summer. A small fortune since Vinson still was paying his way through school, partly on loans and partly with a job he worked when he wasn't participating in kicking camps.

Suddenly, Vinson, who at one point didn't understand football much, is thinking about a kicking career after college. He has another year of eligibility left, and if he has another strong season next year . . . who knows?

But for now he's going to the Rose Bowl and playing for a national championship.

And the Michigan coaches are glad he picked up the phone and called them that day. Even Coach Lloyd Carr, who was more than a little shocked a couple of years ago when Vinson's father remarked off-handedly that his son had never punted in a game.

"I think Coach Carr was a little surprised to hear that," Vinson said with a laugh.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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