Ryan Ivey couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
It was during the sophomore season of Stephen Gostkowski’s University of Memphis career, a four-year run that would eventually take him to a memorable, Super Bowl-laden, NFL All-Pro career with the New England Patriots.
Ivey, now the athletics director at Stephen F. Austin in Texas, listened on the sidelines at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium as Gostkowski doubted his abilities to become a successful college kicker following two missed field goal attempts against Houston. It didn’t take Ivey, the holder for Gostkowski, long to dismiss the talented kicker’s lack of confidence.
Recruited to the UofM to pitch for the baseball team, Gostkowski had walked on to the football team and was seriously considering punting the two-sport life.
“He thought he was just going to play baseball,” Ivey said. “I told him to go play baseball, but, dude, you are going to make money playing football. I’m telling you that your future is in football.”
Much like Ivey’s future was in athletics administration, Gostkowski’s was in professional football. Gostkowski was selected in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft and spent the next 14 seasons re-writing the Patriots’ record book. He is the most accurate kicker in Patriots’ history and the third-most accurate in NFL history.
Ivey said he knew Gostkowski was going to be special from the first time he held the football in place for him at a UofM practice in 2002.
“I had just come off a season (holding) for (kicker) Ryan White, who I thought was a great kicker,” Ivey said “But the way the football sounded coming off Stephen’s football was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I’m telling you, I’d never heard that sound. It was like a cannon had been shot off.”
Ivey and Gostkowski were members of a 2004 Memphis team that became ranked (No. 25) after a 2-0 start, the first Associated Press ranking in school history. In the team’s third game – at Arkansas State – the Tigers had to mount a furious fourth-quarter rally to avoid defeat.
Down by nine with 4:01 left, the Tigers scored 14 points in 23 seconds to avoid the upset in Jonesboro, Arkansas. In the rally, the UofM scored one touchdown on a fumble return and another score was set up by an interception. Earlier in the game, Gostkowski’s leg, aided by Ivey’s holding, kept the Tigers within striking distance. Arkansas State held a 21-10 lead midway through the second quarter, but two Gostkowski field goals cut the lead to 21-16 at the break.
“We underestimated Arkansas State and their ability to do the things they did,” Ivey said. “I never thought we were going to lose, but I knew we were in a dogfight. But we kept clawing back. And it had a lot to do with who we had on that team.”
Ivey spent three seasons holding for Gostkowski before completing his eligibility and beginning an athletic administration career that included a stop at Memphis as the director of basketball operations for the women’s team. Ivey spent successful several seasons at Texas A&M-Commerce and McNeese raising funds at those programs before being named AD at SFA.
“It’s been good,” Ivey said of his tenure at SFA. “It’s been challenging at times, but it’s been good.”
And nothing better than last season’s men’s basketball win over Duke, a victory that had far-reaching effects. Ivey said the upset “generated more than $100 million in ad value.” SFA upset the top-ranked Blue Devils 85-83 in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November, one of biggest upsets in college basketball in decades.
“When people ask why are we spending money on athletics, I think seeing the money generated in ad value resonates,” Ivey said. “We worked really hard for the next three to four days to sustain the momentum that win generated.”
But regardless of how much success he helps bring to SFA, Ivey said his time at Memphis will remain as an extremely memorable time in his athletics career.
“I tell people,” Ivey said, “that my claim to fame will be that I held for Stephen Gostkowski.”