By Richard Rourk
In a game of inches, one of football’s biggest weapons is a skilled punter’s foot.
Much like Thor’s hammer, a punter’s foot can control and neutralize an opponent’s offense.
Unicoi County High School Blue Devil Head Football Coach Drew Rice has had a foot up on his competition with UCHS’s own Esteban Mendoza.
“He has been an instrumental part of our football program since he was a freshman,” Rice said. “We pride ourselves on having great special teams, and having a weapon like Esteban helps give us a major advantage in the kicking game. There have been several games over the last three years that the field position he gave us through his punting, truly was the difference in us winning.”
It’s not just Mendoza’s kicking game that impresses Rice. “I think you would be hard pressed to find a better young man,” Rice said. “It’s a total compliment to his parents for the young man they have raised. He is extremely hard working and a selfless young man. He has every reason in the world to be cocky or arrogant, and he is truly humble in every way. His teammates love him and respect him. He has a very bright future both in football and in life.”
Mendoza recently participated in a Chris Sailer Kicking Camp in Las Vegas.
“The camp in Vegas was a lot of fun,” Mendoza said. “It was amazing to see the competition and to see where I stand.
Mendoza placed fifth out of 92 other competitors in his class in the punt competitions.
“My best ball at the camp was 40 yards with 4.5 seconds of hang time. Overall, the trip was amazing. Vegas is a very beautiful place and I am truly blessed and thankful that I got to go.”
Mendoza’s love of football started at a young age.
“I began playing football in sixth grade,” Mendoza said. “I was just 10 years old when I fell in love with the game.”
Rice has leaned on Mendoza many times during his tenure.
“Esteban averaged over 42 yards a punt this year, which is just tremendous,” Rice said. “He has been named All-Region both his sophomore and junior seasons. He was the Specialist of the Year for Region 1-3A as a sophomore. He has been named to the 3A All-State team twice, as both a sophomore and junior, including making the prestigious TSWA (Tennessee Sports Writers Association) this past season.
“The thing is that a lot of people who have not seen us play do not recognize how good of an actual football player Esteban is, mainly because his kicking and punting draw so much attention,” Rice continued “He started both ways for us on both the offensive and defensive lines and was actually named the Defensive Lineman of the Year for Region 1-3A.”
Rice said that Mendoza had 44 tackles, 15 TFLs, and five sacks. He also had a defensive touchdown that won the game against Sullivan East after Lucas Slagle had the huge hit on their quarterback that caused a critical fumble.
“Those two may be the best defensive end tandem that ever has played together at the same time at Unicoi County High School,” Rice said.
Mendoza credits coaching, family, community and practice to his success.
“Some of my greatest inspirations are my family, coaches, my teammates and even our fans because I can feel all the love and support and it motivates me,” Mendoza said. “I practice kicking three times a week for about two hours.”