One might imagine Greg Huegel followed the usual, well-worn path.
Soccer players migrate to football all the time. The skills translate. His brother, Steve, was drawn from kicking a round ball to kicking an oblong one en route to a short stint as a walk-on at South Carolina.
But Blythewood’s Greg Huegel, now a starting kicker for a Clemson team preparing to play in the national title game Monday evening, had a different reason for making the change.
“He wanted to be able to hit somebody,” Greg Huegel’s father, Dave, said.
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He didn’t try out for kicker. He tried out to play safety.
“He kept getting red-carded in soccer,” Bev Huegel, Greg’s mother said. “You know how you have to be aggressive as you get older. So his idea of being aggressive wasn’t exactly what some of the coaches’ and referees’ ideas of being aggressive was.”
Then opportunity brought him back to the spot his brother played, and little about his journey from high school with the Bengals to falling in love with the orange-clad school in the Upstate to starting mere weeks after officially making the team to the trip he and his parents will make to Phoenix, Ariz., for the title game has followed a usual path.
“I would definitely explain it as a surreal moment,” Greg Huegel said. “So I haven’t really had a chance to just sit back and think about exactly where I’m at. I can’t really wrap my head around it. ... I’m just living in the moment and loving it.”
Bev Huegel remembers the phone calls, coming from teachers and principals.
Her son didn’t have a penchant for getting in trouble, but his personality sometimes burst past the confines of strict classrooms.
“If you’re a teacher that knows how to deal with a hyperactive, fidgety boy, then you loved him,” Bev Huegel said. “If you needed a guinea pig, so to speak, to do something, they’d call on Greg. But if you were a teacher who was very serious ... then you really didn’t care for him as a student.”
It took until sixth grade for the family to make it to Christmas without some sort of call from the school.
That year, the family moved to the Midlands from Pittsburgh. Steve Huegel had come to USC around the same time his father, a mechanical engineer at Westinghouse, was transferred.
Greg Huegel found soccer the way many do, following his older siblings. But as the red cards piled up, the gridiron called to him. He went out for Blythewood’s freshman team, and fate intervened.
Steve Huegel became a kicker after hearing a presentation from a University of Pittsburgh football player and fellow diabetic. At practice sessions, his brother helped out.
So when the varsity coaches at Blythewood asked around if any of the freshmen played soccer, Greg Huegel already knew the basics.
“I’d be out there every single day just catching his balls and throwing them back,” Greg Huegel said. “So I guess that’s how it all started.”
Greg Huegel’s first time setting foot on the Clemson campus came with a purpose.
He’d only had ties to the school for a few months. His parents were from the Northeast. His brother was a Gamecock. But his sister, Marie, had just started her college career when he planned the covert visit.
“I got a ticket from her roommate,” Greg Huegel said. “So I surprised her on her birthday coming up. Her birthday was on a gameday, and we were sitting in the upper deck. But I came up behind her, and that was the first gameday at Clemson.”
His mother remembers him coming home and declaring it was Clemson or bust.
He meant it.
“He actually did not apply to any other colleges,” Bev Huegel said. “We made him apply to a backup.”
He’d made the rounds with private kicking coaches in high school, and maybe he could have gotten an offer, but with his heart set on being a Tiger, his parents didn’t get hung up.
When Steve Huegel was looking around for schools, a coach told him to look for a place where if football came to an end, he’d still be happy. Bev and Dave Huegel took it to heart.
They tell all their kids they have to go to college and can’t stop at a bachelor’s degree.
So it was enough Greg loved Clemson, the country setting, and it didn’t hurt the school had the only four-year architecture program in the state.
His mother says his philosophy was simple: go big or go home. Picking a school and trying out to join a good major-conference football team, that fits the bill.
Jim Brown saw something in Greg Huegel the first time he came to Clemson tryouts. Clemson’s gregarious long snapper recalled the day in fall of 2014 when the freshman just popped.
“We were watching, and we were like, dang, this guy’s got a little boot on him, you know?” Brown said. “We kind of kept in touch.”
Thus began Greg Huegel’s quest to become a bona fide college football player, a stretch where the frustration of getting denied stood in contrast to the welcome he got from future teammates.
See, he didn’t make it on that first tryout.
“They’re like, ‘OK, we’ll keep in touch,’ ” Greg Huegel said. “Say I’d be kicking, I’d stop by, just say hey to (special teams) coach (Danny) Pearman, ‘Hey coach, how’re you doing?’ Just keep my name fresh in his mind. Came out in the spring, same thing happened.”
Early this week, he seemed nonchalant about getting turned away twice, but his parents said it was hard on him.
As parents, they’re in a peculiar spot. On one hand, they want to support their son’s dream. On the other, the compiled life experience tells you, sometimes you have to be realistic.
“It was tough there for a while because there were a lot of emails, phone calls,” Dave Huegel said. “We kept telling him to stay after it.”
Perseverance paid off in the summer, an exciting afternoon when the call came. Greg Huegel was home from school and his mom was in the house. But the family didn’t know the whirlwind about to hit their son’s career.
There’s a great irony in how Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip’s dismissal from the team opened the door for Greg Huegel.
Lakip would probably be starting if not for a DUI arrest and cocaine possession arrest during the summer. But the Huegels have nothing but good things to say about him.
They saw how he welcomed Greg Huegel to the group. He gave him pointers, on mechanics and dealing with pressures of the position.
It all meant Greg Huegel stepped into a somewhat open competition, but one where he was at a disadvantage in experience.
The family had agents on the inside, as Marie Huegel was friends with some of the team photographers, and they passed along reports: Greg was doing well.
“It was coming really quick in August,” Dave Huegel said. “So that was kind of cool that they were starting to talk about him, comments like, the football sounds different off of Greg’s foot.”
Since Greg Huegel became a starter in the latter half of camp, it’s brought a small-scale level of celebrity to his family.
They’re not totally sure how to respond.
‘We’re not used to it yet,” said Bev Huegel, a registered nurse. “Like when people recognize our name. I had a patient (Wednesday) that recognized the name on my nametag and wanted a signature.”
Both parents said it’s nerve wracking being in the stands. They marvel at how their son deals with the pressure, finding a calm in that moment.
Still, they’ll be in the stands Monday night in Phoenix, nerves and all, watching something that not so long ago seemed like a pipe dream.
“I didn’t expect to be the starting kicker, especially since I just got here at fall camp,” Greg Huegel said. “It’s been a great experience”.
The next one is the opening kick of the national title game. A crew of Tigers have come a long way, but it’s hard to say many have come quite as far as Greg Huegel, and his family will watch with apprehension from the stands as they’ve watched his whole journey unfold.
“We’re very proud of him,” Dave Huegel said.