Todd Solomon has three recurring visions, the kind that keep him up late at night, writhing in his Navy issue bunk. In the first, he shanks the last field goal attempt of his high school career and his team loses the semifinal game of the state championship. In the second, the Naval Academy has just scored a touchdown to start a late rally against Pittburgh in what eventually becomes a 28-28 tie. Solomon's extra point attempt hits the left upright and bounces back as if it means to hit him between the eyes.
Unlike the first two, the third vision is purely fiction, and it is the kind of half-dream that makes him sit up straight in bed and go "Woo-ha," waving his arms at the crowd lining the walls as the ball sails over the uprights, between the lamp and the chair. Like a good Midshipman, he makes Army the opponent. The pass on third and five is incomplete, there is no time on the clock and the ball is right in the middle of the field, fifty yards or more away.
"You kick it and you dream it's so straight and so high, nobody can block it. I jump up in bed. Then I have the team swamp me, just like on TV. What kicker doesn't dream that?"
Now a senior at Navy, Solomon began bouncing a soccer ball on his toe at the age of 7 in a backyard in Jacksonville, a city bordered by the St. Johns River and the Intracoastal Waterway, where he paid little attention to the warships that often docked and naval aviators who passed overhead. He attended summer football camps held by his father Charles, a conventional-minded high school coach who told him that if he couldn't kick straight instead of soccer style, he shouldn't kick it at all. But one day a kicker from Europe came to town and started drilling them in that foreign, side-footed way, and Charles Solomon decided that maybe it didn't matter how a ball was struck as long as it went up and over.
At about the same time, young Solomon took his first plane ride, in a two-seater that an uncle strapped him into and which awoke in him a passion for flying that has given way to a fascination with P-3s, low-altitude, sonar-equipped machines that he one day hopes to skim over the open ocean stalking submarines. He began to take more note of the ships and planes that came through Jacksonville, just as he began to listen more closely to his father's talk of football.
He made halfback on the Bolles High School team and found himself drawing plays in class when he was bored. He continued to kick, but it wasn't as interesting as scoring touchdowns or watching the naval aviators pass overhead. His senior year, he made a 45-yarder and that was nice, but then he shanked that kick in the state championship. It didn't much matter because Bolles High got routed, anyway.
Few colleges showed interest in him, perhaps because of a misprint in the local newspaper that listed him as a junior during his senior year, but more likely because few schools need running backs who are 5 feet 11 and weigh 180 pounds. Only Army, Navy and Washington and Lee contacted him, and only as a kicker.
He still was an aspiring halfback, but he thought about the flying and the kicking and the fact that if you go to the Academy, at least you will never be unemployed. His classmates, partly amused and partly in awe, began marching in mock formation whenever he passed through the halls.
He was instantly recognized by Navy as a kicker from the first time he came to campus, despite his halfback ambitions. "It's not hard to evaluate kickers," Coach Gary Tranquill said. "They either make it or they don't."
After a sophomore season in which he missed eight games with strained knee ligaments, Solomon became Navy's leading scorer last season with 65 points and kicked a 52-yard field goal against Princeton, an Academy record. His performance earned him an all-East honorable mention. That was the result when he actually tried, which he had rarely done before. Solomon's thinking had been, who chooses to be a kicker?
"It was just something else to do," he said. "In between being a running back. But I got here and figured I better concentrate on what they recruited me for. I thought about asking Coach Tranquill if he would let me work out in the backfield. But I figured he'd say no."
While Solomon has given up hopes of breaking into the backfield that features Napoleon McCallum, he remains fascinated by football strategy. Because kickers don't have much to do in practice, he ocasionally doubles as a center in drills. He also goes to meetings for fun and has been known to watch game film for recreation.
In part because of his delight in all facets of football, he does not suffer much of the mental aguish other more dandified kickers seem to, although his final high school kick still haunts him. After missing the extra point against Pitt last season, he made a near-perfect onside kick. Navy recovered and drove for the touchdown and tying two-point conversion.
"You coach kickers with kid gloves," said Bill Haushalter, the special teams and backfield coach. "They tend to be hypersensitive. But Todd is very stable and reliable, emotionally and mentally. If it's windy and he misses a couple of kicks in pregame, he doesn't go to pieces. It's because he's an athlete."
Solomon's consistency last year resulted in 15 field goals in 18 attempts and 20 of 21 extra points. He has a good mind for some of the subtleties of the kicking game that allow him to place the ball well: last season, the Midshipmen held opponents to an average of only 14 yards on returns.
"I get here and I see what I can do, and it makes me wonder," he said. "What might have happened if I had started working at it earlier?"