Three days a week, former professional and Arizona State kicker, Luis Zendejas, offers free kicking lessons to local high schoolers. The group lessons are taught on a 60-yard field built in Zendejas’ backyard. Sam Caravana/azcentral sports
It is a record-hot Tuesday in Chandler, and cars are lined up, leading to the dead-end sign at the end of the street.
An iron gate is left open for young kickers from all over the Valley to enter Luis Zendejas’ backyard.
At the edge of his front yard is a crossroads post with one sign reading, “Rancho Zendejas Dr.,” and the other, “Sun Devils Way.”
Take a sharp right, and it’s a kicker’s wonderland. A spacious, perfectly manicured yard that looks like something from a country club golf course, measuring out to 60 yards with a trio of goal posts – one NFL-wide, another that is high-school-wide, and the narrowest is the width of the Arena Football League.
Most of the kickers, ranging from seventh graders to college seniors, aim to split the AFL uprights.
Proving ground for kickers
Zendejas’ yard has been a proving ground for some of the best kickers from the Southwest to fulfill their dreams. They’ve come from around Arizona as well as California, Nevada, Texas and New Mexico, some flying in just to kick in Zendejas’ yard, he said.
Chandler Basha’s Becca Longo, whose story quickly went national this spring when she signed a national football letter of intent to kick at NCAA Division II Adams State, would fine-tune her kicks in Zendejas’ yard, he said. She is believed to be the first female to sign out of high school with a Division I or II football scholarship.
Zendejas said that Brandon Ruiz, a high school All-American last season at Gilbert Williams Field, sometimes kicked there, along with Zendejas’ son, Christian, who graduated from Gilbert Perry.
Both kickers will spend the next four years competing for the job at Arizona State (Ruiz received a scholarship, Christian Zendejas is a walk-on).
Luis Zendejas doesn’t dare try to kick anymore for fear of tearing something. But his passion to teach is deep. Luis was one of the greatest college kickers between 1981 and ’84 at ASU. He made a then-school record 28 field goals in 1983.
He went on to kick in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. He was also was part of the early Rattlers in the AFL, the only kicker in Rattlers history to drop-kick extra points for two points.
Now, Zendejas works for the Arizona Cardinals as senior director of community relations and gives free kicking clinics out of his backyard.
He had about 10 kickers come through in the early evening on a day when it reached 119 degrees in the Valley.
“It’s nice to do it here,” Zendejas said. “We don’t have to jump fences and get kicked out of high schools. Just come in here and enjoy kicking.”
There are flood lights surrounding the field and speakers that blast ’70s music. A huge gray barrel on wheels is filled with footballs, ranging from all levels, high school, college, NFL, AFL.
Kids gather them, set up self-hold tees from various spots that are marked off at 30, 40, 50 and 60 yards.
Beyond the posts is a net to stop balls. But if the balls go beyond that and over the wall, they end up in a canal. Zendejas keeps a net to fish them out.
When he was looking for a place with a yard big enough to teach kicking nine years ago, he kept driving by a big lot about three miles from his home.
“I’d put up a motor home if I had to,” he said. “I’ll put my field in first, and my house second.”
Zendejas bought the vacant house in 2008, and, learning from watching Cardinals groundskeepers mow the field, he built his dreamland. He crafted the yard to make it look like an NFL field, cut and shaped the way he wanted it. He rides his mower across it to make sure it is always cut low enough to putt on.
He does it all from the bottom of his heart.
“I have a foundation that says, ‘No kid should ever be left out,’ ” Zendejas said. “If he wants to go to a camp or wants training for free, I give them that stuff.”
He said a few times over the past decade, he brought Cardinals quarterbacks, such as Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart, to his Chandler home, where they would donate their time to work with young quarterbacks.
Poston Butte senior Zack Piwniczka has come from San Tan Valley twice a week for two years to Zendejas’ home to kick.
“It’s a great environment,” Piwniczka said. “I’d go to my own high school and sometimes I couldn’t kick because the coaches said they were trying to get the grass ready. I’d go to parks, but there would be no nets and no goal posts. You’d kick at trees.”
Parents can make it a family night, bringing lounge chairs and watching their children kick, sometimes competing against each other for accuracy and distance.
“We started out going to YouTube to learn (to kick),” said Leo Piwniczka, Zack’s father. “At Luis’ camp, he told us about this. We came one time, and that was it.
“One of the best things is his rapport with the kids.”
Zendejas doesn’t just open his gate for kickers. He videotapes and gives instruction to each of them. They all have an hour to kick. If there is a kicker or two who needs one-on-one instruction, he’ll have them come in early in the day.
On Father’s Day, Zendejas spent it in the yard, working with his son, videotaping his kicks.
“I take my vacation this time of the year,” Zendejas said. “The Cardinals say, ‘Where are you going?’ This is it.”
To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at [email protected] or 602-316-8827. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.