Cortes Earns All-Conference First-Team Honors
By Rodney S. Yap
He was the forgotten kicker at a school without a football team.
With four field goals to his credit from his junior season, Thomas Cortes had no intentions of kicking footballs in college — much less, at a university 4,775 miles from Maui.
Except, a coach from Valley City State University called Cortes one winter day in early 2010 and asked the St. Anthony High School senior if he would like to kick for his team in North Dakota.
“First I got a letter from Coach (Dennis) McCulloch and he wanted me to send in the (recruiting) questionnaire. So I did. I didn’t think anything of it and then a week later he called me and asked for a highlight video,” Cortes recalls.
“So I made a highlight tape, went to the park and kicked, sent it to him and then after a couple of days he got it, called me up again and said he wanted me to sign my letter of intent. When I got the letter of intent, I signed it without hesitation. I had to do something because nobody was looking at me for soccer and I didn’t want to waste any more time — I was going to graduate in a few months.”
The airline ticket reads: From Maui to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Chicago, and Chicago to Fargo, North Dakota.
Cortes red-shirted his freshman season in 2010. He returned last year to a vacant place-kicker position and connected on 5 of 8 field goals and 39 of 40 point-after attempts. The Vikings finished last year’s campaign 9-2, and qualified for the NAIA Football Championship Series.
Last month, the Association of Independent Institutions (AII) voted Coach McCulloch of Valley City State its Coach of the Year, for leading the Vikings to a 7-3 overall mark and 4-1 in the AII. VCSU was ranked No. 24 in the final NAIA Football Coaches’ Top 25 poll.
In addition, VCSU landed eight selections to the AII All-Conference first team, including a 6-foot, 180-pound place-kicker from Kihei, who is expected to reach the 45,000 frequent-mile mark when he returns to the Valley Isle for the holidays later this month.
“We had a good year as a team, and it was a good year for me, too,” said Cortes, who finished second on the team in scoring with 64 points, making 31 of 33 extra-point kicks and 11 of 13 field-goal attempts — all between 29 and 39 yards.
“Honestly, it’s just a tremendous feeling to be chosen,” said the son of Jose and Rosa Cortes. “I do it for my parents, I do it for everyone back home, I do it for my team, and I do it for God. I see it as a challenge and I give it all I got.”
Driven by his desire to compete and earn a college degree at the same time, regardless of the area code, is a level of maturity that separates Cortes from other MIL student-athletes. His willingness to go outside of his comfort zone and embrace a once-in-a-life opportunity makes his story unique. Trading sun for snow is not in the DNA of most born-and-raised teenagers heading for college.
Three years ago he was getting his kicks playing soccer, hanging up his football cleats after returning home from a place-kicking camp at Stanford and learning about the death of 11-man football at St. Anthony.
St. Anthony’s skid on the field paralleled its troubles boosting enrollment and the school suffered a 3-35-1 mark over a four-year span from 2005-2008. By 2010, the year Cortes graduated, there were only 40 seniors.
“That’s when I began to ask myself if I was going to go to school (college) for schooling or am I going to go so I can play a sports I want and school at the same time,” Cortes explained. “I wanted to go to college and play football, but I knew that being at St. Anthony I was probably going to get overlooked by schools, especially the bigger schools.”
Cortes decided to re-commit to soccer, the sport he began playing as a 5-year-old growing up in San Gabriel, Calif.
“I knew I had to try my best to make first-team all-star in soccer if I was going to get any chance of playing in college.”
Cortes earned Maui Interscholastic League second-team all-star honors from The Maui News at the conclusion of the 2009-2010 season. At that point, soccer was clearly Cortes’ best college option as he was also a member of Maui United Soccer Club and trained eight months out of the year.
“I felt like football had let me down and the school had let me down, so I stopped kicking the football and concentrated on soccer.”
But once the letter of intent was signed, Cortes said he was all in.
“The day I signed my letter of intent was the day UH-Hilo called me up and offered me a chance to walk-on for soccer and I turned them down.
“I don’t regret it, although I miss soccer, I’ve learned a lot here. It’s kind of cool to be a kicker, all the way out here from a little island and making a name for myself. It’s fun.
“I think I would have ended up playing soccer if I had been given the opportunity before football, but it had to be from a school in the mainland, because I wanted to go away.”
Looking back, he is thankful he was allowed to red-shirt his first year and grateful to Coach McCulloch for believing in him.
“It was important for me to get to know the system and to see if it was something I wanted to do. Then the following spring, the starting kicker from the year before left and I saw my opportunity.”
Kicking in the cold, however, is no easy task. And the rain presents other challenges.
“The average temperature last month, November, was probably 25, 30 degrees,” he said. “A couple of days ago, in the morning it was 0 degrees. There was a time last year when I woke up to negative 45 degrees, that’s quite a change from the 80-degree weather back home.
“My freshman year I was always sore, kicking in the rain and cold — and I struggled a little bit. The following year I got better and than this year was even better because I was already used to it, so it didn’t affect me in any way. You learn to block everything out. . . . In our last game of the year we played in 20-degree weather.”
Recognized as the No. 1 public regional college in the Midwest by US News Report two years in a row, VCSU has an enrollment of 1,384. Cortes said the Vikings average about 350 to 400 fans for their home games.
“I think my best game was against Robert Morris, when we fell behind 20-0 at halftime and their kicker missed the first PAT, and we came back to beat them 21-20.”
Against Gustavus on Oct. 13, Cortes made three field goals, the longest from 37 yards.
When asked if he would consider transferring closer to home, he said: “I don’t like thinking about it. It’s a big step. I believe I can do it, but how am I going to leave a team that has put its fate in me to come here and kick. I don’t think I’m going to transfer anywhere. I want to stay here and try my best and maybe get a shot at kicking in the Canadian League over here.”
Proving the once forgotten kicker has indeed warmed up to his cold surroundings.