Under the lights on national television and with a chance to achieve a monumental upset victory, kicker-turned-punter-turned-kicker/punter Nickolas Null trotted out to attempt a game-winning 43-yard field goal. He booted it straight through the uprights with a confidence unexpected from someone who wasn’t even his team’s primary kicker just a few weeks ago.
Null, much like his team, plays each game with a chip on his shoulder. That made it extra sweet as his game-winner sailed through the uprights Oct. 28 at Princeton, giving the Red a 29-28 victory on the road against a team heavily expected to run away with the win.
Flashback just a few weeks ago, and Null was only the punter on an 0-3 team picked to finish last in the Ivy League — not exactly headline material. But Null’s unbounded confidence, paired with his team’s hunger as it continues its “Revenge Tour,” makes him one of Cornell football’s most compelling storylines.
“He just has that humble, earn it type of attitude,” head coach David Archer ’05 said of his Swiss Army knife of a player. “There’s no sense of entitlement. There’s no, ‘Where are my reps?’ It’s, ‘Let me show you and prove to you that I’ve earned these reps.’”
Null, who took over the starting role after junior Zach Mays’ injury against Brown on Homecoming, has since found success taking on both punting and kicking responsibilities, earning the Ivy League’s Special Teams Player of the Week honor twice in a row.
The Bradenton, Florida native is a perfect 3-3 on field goals and 5-5 on extra points, while sending all 10 of his kickoffs for touchbacks and averaging a solid 41.4 yards on punts.
Passed on by other football programs, perhaps most notably Brown, Null has Archer to thank for taking a chance on him. Right after nailing the game-winner against Princeton, the kicker went right up to his coach and said, “Hey, thanks for recruiting me.”
“A lot of places counted me out. I was getting recruited by some big time schools and they ended up offering other guys,” Null said. “It’s just a very rewarding feeling knowing that there was a coach [here] that believed in me and I was able to come up big for him.”
The team-first attitude is evident in Null’s reaction to being the hero in one of the Red’s biggest wins in recent program history — and in his response when he falls short, like in a botched fake punt attempt in the Red’s loss at Yale in its first Ivy game.
“He is a guy that takes hard coaching, that wants to get better, that cares about his team,” Archer said. “He was so down with that fake punt at Yale — ‘Oh, do you guys still have confidence in me?’
“I said, ‘Heck yeah we have confidence in you. Your attitude breeds that confidence’. And [we] saw it on display.”
Punting in the shadows of punter Chris Fraser ’17, one of the most decorated individuals to pass through the program, is extra motivation for Null. Null said Fraser mentored him not only on mechanics and technique but also about his mental game.
“A lot of people probably think that you got to come in here and you got to live up to those standards but I think if you set the bar high and shoot for that you’re going to produce good numbers and play well,” Null said of working to follow-up the first ever four-time first-team All-Ivy Cornell football player. “Coming in with the bar already set high is what pushed me a lot in the offseason to get better.”
Despite his dominance as a kicker, Null’s primary responsibility is — or at least was, up until recently — punting. But the skilled special teams player has done it all and even has the “football player mentality,” Archer said, to play another position like linebacker or receiver.
Whether off a tee, from a snap or through an upright, Null’s consistency and mentality have helped power a season everyone outside the Cornell locker room thought to be beyond unlikely.
“It just feels like I’m playing more. It feels like I’m just in it, and when you’re in it and you’re moving around doing all those things it just feels like you’re playing football,” Null said. “You’re not too worried about all those things, you just go out there and you just do it.”
Null’s prove-it mindset plays right into his team’s “us against the world” mantra.
“Every one of them is hungry to win games. They all have this chip on their shoulder,” Null said. “A lot of people predicted we weren’t going to be very good at the beginning of the year, and [we’re] coming out here and showing we can play ball too.”