Ruan Venter learned how to drop-kick playing rugby in his native South Africa and sometimes would do it for fun during football practices at NCAA Division II Shepherd University in West Virginia.
Until a couple of weeks ago, he would not have fathomed drop-kicking in a game.
In scenes hearkening to a bygone era, Venter successfully drop-kicked three extra points to the delight of teammates, fans, game officials and even opposing West Virginia Wesleyan on Oct. 27. Venter hopes to get another opportunity in his senior-day game against Virginia-Wise on Saturday.
A standout punter who has drawn the attention of NFL scouts, Venter is the first player known to have scored on a drop kick since Matt Newman of Division III Illinois College did it against Grinnell in September 2013.
“I had no idea about the history of it,” Venter said. “I did drop kicks my whole life, and by doing them again I thought about back home, being outside and doing the drop kicks with friends in my home country. Maybe I miss it a little bit. But it also made me excited I could bring that kind of kicking back into the game and, with that, making the people happy and making some history for them as well.”
The drop kick was a staple of football back in the days of leather helmets. The kicker takes the snap, holds the ball waist high and drops it straight down as he strides with his nonkicking leg. He strikes the ball as it touches the ground or just as it bounces up.
The popularity of the forward pass led to the evolution of the ball in the 1930s, from more rounded to sleeker and pointed on the ends. That made it easier to throw but more difficult to drop-kick because bounces off the drop became unpredictable. Thus, the drop kick became a novelty.
Shepherd coach Ernie McCook knew about Venter’s special talent and had the team practice extra points and field goals with Venter drop-kicking in case an emergency came up.
Venter’s time came after the team’s regular kicker, who had struggled with back tightness for a week, missed two straight extra points. McCook wanted to preserve the freshman backup kicker’s redshirt year, so Venter was the next option.
Venter is a capable kicker, but he is the team’s regular holder, and McCook was not comfortable with anyone else doing the holding.
“At that point,” McCook said, “the drop kick was the best option for us.”
McCook had given the officials a heads-up that a drop kick might be coming. Venter split the uprights to give Shepherd a 32-7 lead in what would be a 58-35 win.
“As the officials were jogging up the field to set the ball for the kickoff,” McCook said, “they said, ‘Hey, Coach, thanks for that one, man. That’s off my bucket list. I always wanted to see one.’”
WVW coach Del Smith said that first drop kick came as a big surprise. He and his team saw four more, and blocked one. Venter pushed another one wide right.
“Kudos to them for having that in their back pocket,” Smith said. “In general, when I see guys get creative schematically, when you’re in this business, of course you enjoy it. You just hope it’s not at your expense.”
Venter said he planned to ask McCook to give him another chance if Shepherd (7-2) gets a comfortable lead against Virginia-Wise (3-6).
“I would always entertain it,” McCook said. “I love it when our kids get a chance to have a lot of fun. He’s been a great player and a great person in our program. I won’t tell you it’s out of the question. It’s something we would consider. We’re going to just focus on winning the game first.”