By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) _ The labyrinthine path that 28-year-old punter Karl Schmitz took to the cusp of the NFL routed him from the soccer pitches and beaches of Bermuda to being a YouTube sensation and finally a legitimate pro prospect.
He played one half of one high school football season in St. Louis after recovering from an auto accident just before his senior year and a single season in college after bouncing around to three universities, one of which didn’t even field a football team.
Yet, here he is, amazingly, with a shot at making the Denver Broncos _ after he turned the head of chief executive John Elway.
For years, Schmitz returned to Clayton High School in St. Louis, often after getting off work at 2 a.m. _ not to pine over the state championship he helped win in 2004, but to practice on a field illuminated only by the lights of his Volkswagen.
Knowing of this British citizen’s American dream, neighbors didn’t call police.
It’s just Karl again. Go back to sleep.
Schmitz’s dogged determination took him to Arizona State, where he walked on but was ruled ineligible because of a problem with his transcripts. He transferred to Missouri-St. Louis, where there’s no football team. Then, after redshirting a year, he played a season at Jacksonville University.
His time there consisted of 11 kickoffs and no punts. It was so forgettable that the school’s website doesn’t even spell his name correctly.
While in Jacksonville, however, he met then-Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis. Schmitz reached out to him after graduation and Hollis helped him realize he didn’t have to muscle every kick.
“I think mentally he just needs to convince himself and be confident, you can perform under pressure,” Hollis said this week. “But he obviously believes in himself and what he can do.”
While managing his father’s tapas restaurant, Schmitz often bartended, the tips jar funding his trips to kicking camps and combines.
Soon, he was an Internet sensation, this 6-foot-4, 210-pound athlete pounding punts and coolly splitting the uprights from 70 yards.
Still, no NFL scouts called.
His friends started to joke that he was getting too old to keep doing this, like that chap who can’t bring himself to throw away the love letters from his high school sweetheart.
And in a twist on the seven-year itch: Schmitz’s last in-game kick came in 2008.
Yet, here he is with a shot, however long, to unseat punter Britton Colquitt and kickoff specialist Brandon McManus this summer after wowing Elway in a blurry-eyed tryout that was just as outrageous as the rest of his journey.
“And I know it’s like the biggest stretch of a dream that anybody else can realize, but in my heart of hearts, I felt like it was always possible,” Schmitz said.
He had promised himself that this year was his last try. If no one called, he’d give up on his football fantasy.
The pressure off, he turned heads at Gary Zauner’s kicking combine in Arizona, then caught a red-eye home. No sooner had his head hit the pillow when Broncos special teams coach Joe DeCamillis called offering him a tryout in Denver the next morning after another red-eye.
“That night I didn’t sleep a lick,” Schmitz said. “I had like 18 alarms set to make sure I’m at the airport at like 5.”
He caught no winks on the flight, either. Arriving at 8:30, he was on the field an hour later, warming up under the glares of DeCamillis and his assistant, Tony Coaxum.
“And out the corner of my eye, I see, I mean, it’s pretty easy to recognize who John Elway is,” Schmitz recounted, still awestricken two months later. “So, I catch that punt, I stop the Jugs machine, I run over, introduce myself, shake their hands, say `Thank you for the opportunity.”’
Then, “I just kind of shook it off and zoned in on what I needed to do and muscle memory takes over,” Schmitz said. “I’ve been doing this forever, you know?”
Before he knew it, the tryout was over and he was showered and sitting down for a quick breakfast in the team cafeteria when Elway called him over to his table.
How would you like to sign a futures contract, Elway asked?
Of course, he said, racing upstairs to sign a contract that will pay him $435,000 this year if he makes the team.
His dream at long last is within reach.
“I always believed in my ability,” Schmitz said. “So, in the back of my mind I knew at some point I would be here.”