State bragging rights are again up for grabs when the Wildcats meet the Sun Devils

By Eric Wein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Before Steve McLaughlin took the steps to becoming the University of Arizona's kicker, he was climbing up and down them.

Back in junior high school, McLaughlin spent a few Saturdays as an Arizona Stadium soft-drink vendor. But where the other vendors enjoyed counting their profits, McLaughlin looked down at the field and dreamed of someday playing for the Wildcats.

"My priorities selling Cokes were different than the other guys," he said. "I don't think I was the top seller."

Nowadays, McLaughlin is not only realizing his dream as Arizona's kicker, but is among the nation's elite. As a senior this year, he has made 21 of 27 field-goal attempts and all 24 of his point-after-touchdown kicks, and is among five finalists for the Lou Groza Award, which honors the country's best placekicker.

McLaughlin attributes his success to more commitment this season. He doesn't go out on weekends, he pushes himself in practice with the help of assistant coach Rich Ellerson, and he has continually gotten advice from other kickers, mainly his brother Sean, who used to kick for Northern Arizona. Throughout most of the day, McLaughlin thinks about kicking.

"As far as field goals are concerned, he's done a brilliant job," UA coach Dick Tomey said. "He's been very consistent."

The lowest point in his UA career ended up being his most important moment, that being when his last-second, 51-yard kick barely sailed wide right in Arizona's 8-7 loss to then-No. 1 Miami in 1992.

"If there was a part of my career that was a turning point I would say it was then. It was such a shitty feeling," McLaughlin said. "It was so long ago that it's something that really helped me out. That whole year I had a lot of ups and downs."

People tend to remember that miss and one against Oregon State in 1992 instead of his three field goals in the Wildcats' 16-3 win over then-No. 1 Washington at Arizona Stadium.

Last season, his luck changed when he kicked the game-winner in the last seconds against Stanford and another winner the following week against Washington State. Most of the season, he was recovering from a hip pointer he suffered after trying to make a tackle on a kickoff return.

Fans in Pullman, Wash., got to watch a remarkable assault on the goalposts prior to the Wildcats' game against Washington State in 1991. McLaughlin, a redshirt freshman at the time, was ecstatic after kicking the ball through the goalposts from 71 yards in pre-game warmups, the farthest he has ever kicked it. It was impressive enough, until Cougar All-American Jason Hanson outdid him with a 76-yarder in warmups.

"I was just like, 'You are the best kicker in the nation,'" McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin has not only been in the spotlight on the field but on stage. He is the lead singer of the local alternative rock band Pet the Fish, which he formed with others including Joe Lohmeier, a teammate both at Sahuaro High School and at the UA.

The band has played local bars and opened for both nationally known groups Weezer and dada. But where other bands get fees for playing, NCAA rules prohibit the players from taking money.

When he reflects back on his five years of an up-and-down football career, McLaughlin said the one thing that means the most to him was playing for Tomey.

"Just being a player under him is as good an education as the university has given me through the classroom," McLaughlin said. "I've learned more about life from him than anybody. That's something huge that I can always have with me for the rest of my life no matter what I do. If I'm pumping gas at Exxon or kicking on Sunday."

This is the second in a series of three profiles featuring seniors on the Arizona football team. The seniors will play their final home game on Friday.

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