Sebastian Janikowski misses his mother.
This is a strange thing to find out about a person right away, especially about someone whose round head is shaved to the scalp, whose devilish smile reeks of trouble and whose 6-foot-2, 265-pound body looks as if it belongs to either a linebacker or nightclub bouncer. But there it was this week, blatantly obvious as he stood in his Florida State football uniform under the artificial lights of the Superdome.
Sebastian Janikowski misses his mother.
"He doesn't talk about it all the time, but you can tell that it bothers him," Clay Ingram, one of Janikowski's best friends, said as he watched Janikowski from a few feet away. "We were at the Sugar Bowl two years ago, and she was here, and he was like a totally different person. He just had more of a deep, peaceful feeling--you could see it.
"That's the main reason he wants to go to the NFL and make money, to get her back."
Ingram is the Seminoles' long snapper. Janikowski is their place kicker. In three days, they and their top-ranked team will play No. 2 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, with the national championship at stake. The game could come down to Janikowski's powerful left leg. But even if it doesn't, it will feel special to him and Ingram, just because it's the last hurrah for the colorful Janikowski, a 21-year-old junior who this spring will leave school for the NFL.
He is doing it to bring his mother, Halina, to the United States from their native Poland, which he left almost six years ago. And he is doing it because taking classes in that most foreign language of English never has been his forte anyway, not when he can find a good pool hall and hunker down with a stick, a rack and a slice of pizza.
"The lifestyle here is so different--people at home don't have a lot of money to live, but people in the United States, a lot of them are rich and can do whatever they want," Janikowski said. When someone suggested that he too will be rich soon, his almost always-present grin widens.
"It's weird to think about it; it's unbelievable," he said. "It hasn't really hit my head yet. But I just want to help my mom and my dad. My mom wants to come here. I'm going to work on it."
It is likely that Janikowski will be very rich. Only two place kickers have been taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 1967, but there are plenty of scouts who believe his name could be added to that list, alongside Texas' Russell Erxleben (1979) and Arkansas' Steve Little (1978). Janikowski is not just an excellent kicker, but a look-over-there, I-can't-believe-he-really-just-did-that kind of kicker, the kind who makes warm-ups worth watching.
In the past three years at Florida State, Janikowski has made 65 of 83 field goal attempts, including 33 of his past 38 inside 50 yards. In the final game of this regular season, with the Seminoles trailing Florida, 16-13, he made a 49-yarder that was nullified by a delay-of-game penalty, then made a 54-yarder.
Also this season, 57 of his 83 kickoffs were touchbacks, leading Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer to joke this week that "we're only going to spend five minutes on the last day of practice [before the Sugar Bowl] practicing kick returns. We're not going to need them."
Often seen messing around with Ingram or holder Marcus Outzen, Janikowski likes to stop his teammates midway through their stretches by kicking field goals that top 65 or 70 yards. At the beginning of this year, he kicked a 74-yarder that sailed through the uprights "with some room to spare," Ingram said--a feat so impressive that Coach Bobby Bowden didn't believe Janikowski had done it until a few of the other players vouched for him.
At practice the other day, he was equally sharp, despite complaining later that he didn't have the right high-ankled shoes for the Superdome's surface. Even in "the bad shoes," he was hitting the uprights from about 60 yards, after he first stopped to take aim at the scoreboard hanging above the field with some punts.
"[ABC reporter and former NFL star] Lynn Swann came to a practice last week and told us that [former Oakland Raiders punter] Ray Guy hit the roof in here years back, so of course that's the first thing he was trying to do when he got here," Ingram said.
For Bowden, who has lost some key games--and possibly some national championships--over the years because of missed field goal attempts, Janikowski's booming foot means he has not had to hear the dreaded expression "wide right" for quite some time. Bowden initially was against even recruiting Janikowski because he already had a kicker on the roster--Bill Gramatica, the younger brother of Martin Gramatica, who starred at Kansas State and is having a terrific rookie season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Martin Gramatica was taken in the third round of the 1999 NFL draft, becoming the highest-drafted kicker since the Denver Broncos made Jason Elam the 70th overall pick in 1993.) But Bowden fell in love with the displaced Pole, just like almost everyone else at Florida State. Bill Gramatica, meantime, transferred to South Florida.
"When [Janikowski] came to Florida State, he couldn't kick a lick--then I started working with him," Bowden joked. "No, he was nearly perfect, and I hate to lose him. I really like him. I'd classify him as mischievous. Very mischievous."
Janikowski is the life of almost every party he goes to, and when no party is going on, he creates one. Around the locker room, he always is cracking jokes and playing pranks, his favorite being to set a cup of water leaning just inside someone's locker, so it pours down on the person when the locker is opened. He is a dedicated eater, often hitting the Chinese buffets around Tallahassee at lunchtime, and a dedicated drinker, especially when he is playing pool deep into the night. Opponents know not to let Janikowski, a nine-ball expert, break, because they likely will not get a chance to shoot for the entire game.
Janikowski's nightlife sometimes has interfered with his schoolwork, although school always has been somewhat of a challenge since he came to the United States in 1994 and started high school without knowing any English. The story of his journey here is a strange one. It started eight years before his arrival, when his father, Henryk, a soccer player, left Poland to try his trade with U.S. club teams. Sebastian and Halina were left behind, and although he saw his father rarely, Sebastian began fantasizing about what it would be like to live in the United States.
When Sebastian was 11, Henryk sent him an old highlight videotape entitled "NFL's Greatest Hits," and Sebastian, who already was knocking out his neighbor's windows while kicking a soccer ball, liked what he saw.
"I thought those [NFL players] were crazy, but I saw those guys kick, and it looked easy," he said. "I knew I could kick like that. Really, any time I see a ball, I think about kicking."
By the time he was 15, Janikowski had made Poland's under-17 national soccer team, but his life was still far from idyllic. His father had decided to stay in the United States after his soccer career ended, divorcing Halina and marrying an American woman. Janikowski also was in a serious accident when a bus transporting his soccer team ran a stop sign and was blind-sided by a truck. Half the players were thrown through the bus windows, and many died, including one of his close friends.
By 1994, Janikowski's father finally was able to get him a visa to come to the United States, although he almost didn't go because the thought of leaving his mother seemed unbearable. But she wanted him to find a better life, and he knew he would have the opportunity to play sports here. He started with soccer, and by his senior year at Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach, Fla., he had joined the football team, often kicking balls out of the end zone and into the stands.
Despite his success, Janikowski said adjusting to life here was still something of a struggle, between feeling homesick for his mother and feeling that "every time I'd see people talking about something in English that I didn't understand, I'd think they were talking about me." His shaved head--a gesture done in honor of his dead friend, who had sported a similar style--sometimes drew stares. But his easygoing nature and golden foot earned him plenty of friends, and by his second year at Florida State, he was a local legend.
Now, Janikowski is becoming nationally known, and if the Sugar Bowl does turn on one of his famous kicks, he could quickly become a hero. He is hoping for some tough kicks during the game--"I like it, better for my statistics," he said.
After all, he still has a mother in Poland, and he wants to bring her here.
"I talk to her on the phone a lot," he said. "I wish I could see her more often.
"I miss her."
CAPTION: Like almost all his field goal attempts, life is good for Florida State place kicker Sebastian Janikowski, a native of Poland who is expected to be picked high in this spring's NFL draft.