(Wrote more than enough for the print edition. Here’s the uncut version.)
In the beginning, there was basic, vanilla kicking of points after.
He kicked the PATs, but preferred catching the football.
Then came high school. Kaimi Fairbairn didn’t see much ahead in football, even at a program on the rise. He took a chance on water polo.
“I almost drowned,” he said. “I’m not that good of a swimmer.”
He went back to football. Punahou is quite glad he did. Fairbairn has drilled nine field goals this year with a long of 53 yards.
“I think we saw him in soccer and we saw he had a strong leg,” Buffanblu coach Kale Ane said. “He wasn’t sure of himself, but the more he did it, the better he got. He became an all-state soccer player and he’s become more mature.”
His third season as Punahou’s placekicker is his best so far. What’s really caught the eye of potential recruiters is what he did on the mainland. There was the Chris Sailer kicking camp, a collection of the nation’s top 12 placekickers. Fairbairn was rated fourth.
Then there was the Buffanblu’s trip to San Diego, Calif., to play powerhouse Vista, a town located 500 feet above sea level. During one workout, he made a 67-yard field goal. That came with the use of a standard 1-inch tee.
In another workout, this time at dead noon in Aloha Stadium, kicking coach Eric Hannum held the ball on the 50, smack dab on the University of Hawaii athletic logo. Fairbairn nailed the 60-yarder, and Hannum, a former UH kicker, put the video online.
This kind of range and accuracy is fine. It’s Fairbairn’s balanced, opportunistic mindset that makes him a rare breed in high school football. Once Punahou’s offense gets anywhere close to midfield, he’s preparing for his next 3-pointer. He gets a ball, sets it down and knocks it into the kicking net a few times.
“I start getting warmed up when the team gets around the 50,” Fairbairn said. “I do a couple of kicks into the net to remember my technique, my follow-through, just visualizing and getting that contact. It’s all technique. It depends on the scenarios for the game. I like getting opportunities.”
Punahou’s potent offense hasn’t called on the talented senior too often, but having him right there, ready to go, is usually a major plus. The exception is when their normally superb special teams has a breakdown, as it did against Kamehameha on Saturday when a low snap led to a block of Fairbairn’s 53-yard attempt.
The fact that Ane, offensive coordinator Darryl Kan and the staff have no hesitation about launching Fairbairn bombs once they cross the 40 says it all. It’s been some the stuff of gridiron lore going back to the 1970s, when Tony Franklin was connecting on 60-plus yard field goals for Texas A&M. Back then they permitted a tee in the NCAA, and the Aggies were in scoring range any time they passed their opponents’ 45-yard line. The mentality is the same at Punahou.
In college, he’ll be stronger. With Fairbairn already hitting from 60 without a tee, chances are he’ll add distance to his in-game best of 53 yards.
“It’s great to have that backup. it definitely benefits us and we try to take advantage of it,” Ane said. “We didn’t do a great job blocking against Kamehameha, but he’s done a great job and the sky’s the limit.”
Hannum is the perfect teacher.
“He’s someone who’s played at Division I and dealt with the pressures and expectations. That’s a big help for Kaimi,” Ane said.
There’s only so much kicking that can be done in a two-hour practice session. Fairbairn doesn’t see himself as a pure specialist, though he has put in thousands of hours with and without Hannum. Sometimes, he’ll go to the local park and launch kickoff after kickoff with his little brother in tow. It’s always nice to have a brother as a gofer. But at Punahou, Fairbairn does his work, then does more working out with the defensive backs — not that Ane would risk a valuable weapon during game time.
“We wouldn’t put him in as a DB. We don’t want to risk it,” Ane said.
AT 53 YARDS, Fairbairn’s longest kick is four years away from the unofficial state mark, but his value goes far beyond field goals. He is practically 100 percent on sending kickoffs into end zones and giving his team a decided advantage in field position against most opponents.
“Every kick is the same kick for me now,” said Fairbairn, who isn’t kidding when he says he’s walked through his pre-kick routine a half-million times.
“It was ridiculous. Every little inch counts. The process of communication from me to the holder (Rick Nomura) to the snapper (Cory Johnson), every part of the kick counts, and it always starts with the snapper,” he said.
Whether he lines up for a 30-yard chippie or a 50-yard game-winner, it’s the same walk: three steps back, pause, two steps to the left.
“It’s the same routine every time. At 50 yards, the ball tends to curve, the power fade comes into play,” Fairbairn said, motioning his arm from right to left.
He has the same mantra through the routine, talking to himself before the snap.
“Keep my eyes back. Follow through straight. Keep my eyes back. Follow through straight.”
When he first met Hannum and began the learning process, Fairbairn went the first two weeks without a football, learning pure mechanics.
“He didn’t have any major quirks, so it helped us get started with his foundation,” Hannum said. “There’s a lot of little things, the plant foot, the angle of the ball.”
Fairbairn is already teaching intermediate team kickers about the fundamentals, passing along what he’s learned from Hannum and other gurus.
“Everyone has their own steps, but you want to be 90 degrees across,” he said. “You never aim a kick. Every kick is straight. Three steps, plant foot…”
At this point, Fairbairn pulls his right foot back and high, almost touching his hamstring, without losing balance. He keeps his shoulder closed, his chin tucked and keeps his eyes on the spot of the ball, even after contact, and there’s a little hop post-contact without losing balance.
“It’s about practice, getting that swing and keeping it every time. It’s a lot in your head and once you get that swing. It took three years of working with coach, and he’s a great coach.”
Hannum compares the motion to a golf swing.
“Kaimi is the best of any guy I’ve seen. His plant foot is here (straight ahead) and his leverage is great,” Hannum said. “You have the right visualization and spend time on the technique. There’s a lot of situations where the kicker is on his own, and how many 14- or 15-year-olds want to kick alone, kick 10 balls and shag, kick 10 balls and shag. It’s a challenge.
“Kaimi’s attitude is always, whatever the coaching staff asks him to do, he’ll do. Now he’s passing it down.”
The 67-yard field goal at San Diego had something to do with altitude, which makes replicating that feat, at least for now, unlikely at sea level.
“I was feeling good that day,” he said. “We’ve been practicing without the tee to get ready for college.”
The coach and student work plenty on technique with the help of video, as well.
“It’s evolved quite a bit over the last several years,” Hannum said.
Ah, college. Most recruiters know how to find the best high school kickers, but are unwilling — or unable – to offer scholarships. Fairbairn has the interest of schools from the West Coast to the East Coast, but he’s prepared to focus on his team’s bid for a league championship first and foremost.
“That loss to Kamehameha was a wake-up call, we’ve got to work even harder if we want to be the best,” Fairbairn said. “I always can get better. I always come on the field looking for something new to learn.”