He was still catching his breath, though it was hard to tell if that was due to exertion or exhilaration. All around Ute kicker Louie Sakoda there was commotion.

A regular party-down moment.

Teammates pelted him with back-slaps following the Utes' win at Michigan last Saturday. Reporters asked the details of his day. Fans who had made the trip to Ann Arbor brayed his name.

"Louie, you're the bomb!" someone called. "YOU ARE THE MAAAAAN!"

Louie the bomb, the man, smiled broadly. A hundred-thousand Michigan fans had come to the Big House to watch the Wolverines beat Utah. Instead, Sakoda booted four field goals and kept Michigan subdued with his punting. In the process, he earned MWC special teams player of the week honors.

"I actually felt more comfortable here than I have in a lot of places," Sakoda was saying. "I think a lot of it was my off-season work and preparation."

That preparation included, among other things, blasting the classic party song, "Louie, Louie" on the loudspeakers during two-a-days.

Aye-yi-yi-yi.

The amazing thing about kickers these days is that people think they're, well, amazing. They're as popular as big sunglasses. When BYU landed Bingham High kicker Justin Sorensen last winter, it was considered a major recruiting coup. The Cougars expect that if they ever need a 60-yard field goal, they can turn it over to Sorensen and stand back. In high school he kicked a 62-yarder. He also made kicks of 59 and 51 yards.

As proof that "foot" is huge in football, consider Monday's UCLA-Tennessee game. The Bruins' Kai Forbath landed a 42-yard field goal on the first possession in overtime. Then Tennessee's Daniel Lincoln missed on a 34-yarder to end the game.

Just like that, new UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was off to a roaring start, thanks to Forbath's toe.

And you thought kicking was just window dressing.

Truth is, recruiting kickers isn't just for kicks anymore. Used to be they were an afterthought at many schools. They showed up and walked on.

Increasingly, they're prized recruits.

"Over the years, it's been proven that the kicking game is more and more vital," Sakoda said. "Coaches are going out and recruiting kickers more heavily now, and they're glad to come in and do the job."

Against Michigan, Sakoda made field goals of 28, 24, 41 and 53 yards. Without him, the Utes would have lost 23-12, rather than winning 25-23. And that was just his placekicking.

Half his six punts dropped neatly inside the Michigan 20.

As recruiting has changed, so have kickers — or at least their image. They used to be like the kid nobody talks to at school, unless he has Oreos in his lunchbox.

Even coaches didn't know quite what to do with them. Former Utah coach Ron McBride would fidget and mumble when asked if kickers made him nervous.

If covering his eyes during field-goal attempts is any indication, the answer is yes.

But Sakoda has succeeded so well that he is the MWC's two-time Special Teams Player of the Year. In July, he became the first kicker ever invited to the conference's preseason media day.

It was a full-on, stars-only event.

Still, it would be hard to grab more media attention than former Cougar Owen Pochman. During his pro career, he became involved with centerfold Brande Roderick and ended up in the tabloids.

The hottest date in the room isn't always with the quarterback anymore.

Meanwhile, former BYU kicker Jason Chaffetz is running for office in Utah's 3rd Congressional District.

Kickers rule!

At 5-foot-9, 178 pounds, Sakoda isn't a pencil-neck non-athlete. He's muscular and fit, looking more like a cornerback or return man. Sorensen, at 6-2, 220 pounds, is even more impressive.

Could it be the quintessential geeky kickers are disappearing?

"Some of the kickers still fit that description," Sakoda said, "but I've broken that mold."

For those who make a living with their feet, the party is just getting started.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com