Punter Anthony Santella has seen his dreams change many times in just a few short years.
Nov. 4, 2010
By Vanessa Voltaggio, Illinois Sports Information
Anthony Santella knows what it's like to have his dreams torn apart. Literally. The Illini punter wasn't always a star football player. In fact, before football, he played a different sport entirely. At the beginning of his high school career, Santella was well on his way to being a great soccer player. In less than two full seasons with the Wauconda High School soccer team, Santella recorded 22 goals and 33 assists. Outside of school, he traveled the U.S. and Europe with Palatine's Sockers F.C. His dream of playing professional soccer seemed within reach.
But just before his sophomore year, Santella tore up his right knee. Following one surgery and an attempted comeback, he tore up his left knee. After four more operations, two on his right knee and two on his left, Santella's soccer dreams were more damaged than his knees.
"Soccer was my thing," Santella recalls. "I got hurt pretty badly. I had five knee surgeries and kind of went down the drain with that."
Santella knew that playing soccer was no longer likely to be a part of his future. What he didn't know as a high school sophomore was that another sport would provide him with a new dream. And maybe even a second chance to achieve his old one. That sport was football.
Once he came to terms with the fact that his soccer days were over, Santella decided to play football. His older brother kicked for a Division III school, so Santella, an excellent athlete, followed in his footsteps.
After a successful high school punting career, Santella knew that playing college football was a possibility. What he didn't know was that by his final college season, he would become the best punter in the Big Ten.
This season, Santella's 46.0-yard punting average is best in the Big Ten and currently fifth in the nation. He recently recorded the longest punt of his career, a 67-yard boot against Northern Illinois on Sept. 28.
"So far, so good," said Santella of his final season. "I got off to a really good start and the games kept coming. I knew what I could do, and it's just doing it in front of the fans and doing it in games where it mattered. I just have to end the next six games on a good note and everything should take care of itself."
Santella knows what it's like to go from being one of the lowest ranked punters in the nation to one of the highest ranked punters in the nation. His journey hasn't been a smooth one. Santella originally went to play for the University of Utah, but soon realized he wouldn't have a very good chance to start there. In the spring of 2007, he joined the Fighting Illini as a walk-on.
As a redshirt-freshman the next year, he averaged 37.7 yards per punt and was ranked 100th nationally. He has improved each year since and is now arguably one of the best college punters in the country. According to Santella, he has not changed his punting approach much. Instead, he credits experience as the main source of his success.
"(I) maybe tweaked the drop a little, a little fundamentals (have changed this year)," he said. "But other than that, it's just the confidence of being back there, trusting the snap, trusting the coverage and everything comes together for a good punt."
Regardless, Santella's season has been outstanding and everyone has noticed. His coach is no exception.
"I am really proud of Anthony," Illini head coach Ron Zook said. "He worked extremely hard this summer and is really punting well - his operation time, the way he's getting the ball off, the way he's punting the football. He knows we don't want it rolling around in the end zone and that we want it inside the 10. I am very proud of the way he is working."
Zook added that there is another important factor to Santella's success.
"Zak Pedersen, our long snapper, is really one of the reasons because Anthony knows where the ball is going to be and he is able to step into the punt. Both of those guys have really done a nice job."
Santella also recognizes Pedersen's contribution.
"Zak has worked really hard and he helps our punting out a lot," Santella noted. "The blocking scheme and everything is going very well."
Despite his recent success, Santella doesn't know what his future holds. What he does know is that he has options. The punter earned a bachelor's degree in recreation, sport and tourism in May and currently is pursuing a master's degree in the same field. Last summer, he interned for U.S. Soccer.
"I got to work with the [U.S. Soccer] Development Academy this summer and absolutely loved it, and that's what I really want to do when I get older," Santella said. "I'll hopefully go work overseas."
With his success this season, there has been talk of the NFL. But Santella is realistic and has a diplomatic outlook on the possibility.
"I've heard a lot of things about (the NFL), obviously, with how my year's been going, but you can end up on the other end of the spectrum, so I'm just having fun," he explained. "If you worry about the stats, then you're not going to end up doing well. So at the end of the year, I'll look at the stats and if the opportunity happens, then I'm going to jump on it."
Santella's other option, of course, is to pursue his original dream. With the weight training he has done for football during his college career, Santella believes that he may be able to play competitive soccer again.
"I'm going to give [soccer] a whirl once football is over, so I'll see how far it can take me."
So in a perfect world, would he play football or soccer? After pausing a beat, Santella makes his choice.
"Soccer, obviously, but they say everything happens for a reason. Football is what it is now and that's what I'm going to excel at."
Next spring, Santella will find out his NFL destiny. Until then, all he can do is wait and see which dream his future holds.