When Jon Nicolaisen enrolled in Coolidge High School in 1980 as an exchange student from Norway, he was excited about the prospect of playing football. It took only one practice to confuse him.
"I didn't know what was going on," he said. "People were coming out to practice in these helmets."
Coach Sam Taylor quickly explained the differences between American football and what the rest of the world calls football, or what is known here as soccer. Taylor then asked Nicolaisen if he could kick.
He could, but there were some fine points to be ironed out.
"In the first game, I saw the ball on the 20-yard line," Nicolaisen said. "I went up to the coach and said, 'Let me kick. I know I can make it from there.'
"The coach said, 'Not now, Nic. We're on defense.' "
Nicolaisen kicked well enough to earn a scholarship to Howard. Saturday, he kicked three field goals, including a 20-yarder with 13 seconds remaining, to enable the Bison to defeat Virginia State, 22-21, and break an 11-game losing streak.
Nicolaisen, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound, left-footed junior, still does not understand the intricacies of the game, and does not really care.
"Everybody talks about how it is a team game, but I think everybody has their own job to do," said Nicolaisen, who has made seven of 10 field goal attempts, including the last six in a row, and has a 37.4-yard punting average.
"It is a team game, but if everybody out there does his own job, that is what it takes to win."
Although his game-winner against Virginia State amounted to little more than an extra point from the right hash mark, there was reason for anxiety.
Nicolaisen missed a similar attempt near the end of the first half against Bethune-Cookman earlier this year when Howard was leading, 3-0. The Bison ended up losing, 19-6.
"I was praying and I told everyone around me to pray," senior tailback Richard Vickers said about Nicolaisen's winning kick Saturday. "I had no doubts about his ability to make it -- I just wanted to make sure."
Coach Willie Jeffries stopped assistant Tom Seward from saying anything to Nicolaisen just before the kick.
Jeffries said he had "complete confidence" in Nicolaisen, but yesterday he had to laugh in recalling what he whispered to Seward. "I said at the time, 'If he makes it, we love him, and if he misses it, we love him.' By golly, I did say that."
At practice, Nicolaisen is consistent from beyond 50 yards and has made kicks from as far as 63. Although his field goal won the game Saturday, a 54-yard punt he put out of bounds on the one midway through the fourth quarter was the key play of the game, according to Jeffries and Virginia State Coach George Moody.
"He had us in poor field position the entire second half," Moody said. "We never recovered from that punt."
Being the player who knows the least about football is not the only distinction Nicolaisen holds among the Bison. He is also Howard's only white player. A physical therapy major, he chose Howard because it was the only college to offer him a scholarship.
"I don't think it makes a difference here," senior quarterback Brian Sloan said. "He's part of the team. No one ever gives him a hard time because he's white. He goes to parties and social functions just like everybody else."
Nicolaisen said going to a college that's 97 percent black never fazed him. "After all," he said, "Coolidge was all black, also."
The only place Nicolaisen finds himself segregated is at practice. He takes several balls to an isolated area and kicks by himself while the offense and defense drill.
"Since I'm the kicker and punter, too, it's a problem," Nicolaisen said. "Not only do I kick the balls, but I have to go get them, too."