BEMIDJI, Minn. — Just a few short years ago Bemidji State kicker/punter Zach Pulkinen was kicking soccer balls into the back of white hexagon-shaped netting. Now the junior from Minot, N.D. is putting his foot on the pigskin and driving a football into the back of the end zone, despite playing just one season of high school football.
“A buddy of mine, who plays for Minot State right now, came up to me our senior year and said, ‘You have the big leg on the soccer team, do you want to come play football for us’? So I went to football tryouts and loved it,” Pulkinen said.
“They just wanted me for all the touchbacks. We didn’t try too many field goals, but I had a pretty good record on PATs.”
A walk-on in 2010, Pulkinen came to Bemidji State from College of Idaho after playing a season of men’s soccer for the Yotes. After realizing college soccer wasn’t the path he wanted to take, he started to send out letters to football programs. BSU Associate Head Coach and Co-Defensive Coordinator Rich Jahner responded and Pulkinen took a look at the camps and the football tradition.
“I sent a lot of letters out,” Pulkinen said. “Coach Jahner got back to me and he said he had heard of me from high school. I looked at the campus online, saw how the team won the conference championship in 2006 and decided BSU was at the top of the list. I started talking with Jahner, everything fell into place and I ended up walking on the next year.”
“The Minot State High School head coach was a former teammate of mine and he said Zach had a lot of potential,” Jahner said. “So I stayed in touch with Zach and when Idaho didn’t turn out, he contacted us and I told him to come over and kick for Bemidji State. It has turned out be a nice surprise for us and he is having a good career.”
He totaled 3,196 yards on 53 kickoffs his freshman year to average 60.3 yards per kickoff and recorded four touchbacks. Tutored by all-conference kicker/punter Jesse Sundby, Pulkinen took over the rest of the kicking duties as a sophomore.
“Jesse worked with me a lot my first year and I went to a couple camps that helped a lot. Once I got the basics down, I went from there and I posted higher percentages.
“It’s different (than kicking off a tee). My sight of focus on field goals is a 6x6 inch window where the ball has to come in and fit, if it looks right, everything is perfect, but it’s not always perfect. Once the ball is snapped I just trust my holder Christian Metz.”
Pulkinen improved his kickoff numbers in 2011 to average 64.4 yards per kick and 12 touchbacks. He finished ninth in the NSIC in extra point attempts, as he went 33-for-36 (91.7%) and made 6-of-11 field goal attempts.
Pulkinen also finished fourth on the team in special teams tackles with six, something he takes pride in.
“The coaches said I could go up with the last line of defense, so I did,” Pulkinen said. “In soccer I was always physical. I like the physical aspect of football, so I was definitely going to get up in there.”
With a lot of weight on his shoulders to perform as the primary kicker, Pulkinen had to develop a mental checklist and routine for kicking field goals and extra points, but the one he came up with raised some eyebrows among his teammates.
“They try to imitate me, but have yet to actually succeed. All the kickers have their own style, just so happens mine is a little bit odd,” Pulkinen said.
“A lot of people say it’s pretty goofy, but I have to do it to get to the ball where I feel comfortable. Kicking in general, it’s basically your fault no matter what, so hopefully all goes well. Mentally I just get out there, get set and go through all my mental checklists, take a breath and have all the faith in my snapper and holder.”
With Sundby gone this season, Pulkinen has added punting to his responsibilities, which forced him to learn another trade and how to properly catch the ball after playing a sport all his life that forbid the use of hands.
“I just had to play catch a lot. I got a lot of practice, good and bad snaps. So far I haven’t dropped one, ‘knock on wood’.”
Pulkinen had a productive season as the kicker and punter and finished sixth in the conference in punting (38.2 yards per punt), averaging 61.9 yards per kickoff and totaling 45 points lead the team and finish 10th in the NSIC.
But the game against Minot State Nov. 10 meant more than just a cap to the 2012 campaign. A Minot native, Pulkinen has friends on the roster of the fellow Beavers, friends he helped prepare and recover from the Summer 2011 flood that devastated the city of Minot.
Pulkinen and his family were lucky compared to some of his friend and neighbors.
“We lost our whole basement, but we moved everything from the downstairs to the upstairs and lost very little objects and furniture,” Pulkinen said.
“Our house is the third highest in the neighborhood and it slopes towards the river, not six or seven houses away they lost everything. Those houses belonged to a bunch of my friends, including guys on the Minot State football team.”
In the face of tragedy and loss, the Minot community banned together to help each other the best they could.
“My friends helped us get all the things out of the downstairs. Once we did as much sandbagging as we could, I helped my neighborhood. We would fill and tie sandbags all night. I also helped my buddies get stuff out of their houses.
“It happened so fast and it rose so quick. It was like a bad horror movie, you never think it would happen to you, but it did. It brought the community together, but it was heartbreaking, Minot is still recovering.”
With friends on the other side of the field, Pulkinen saw his hometown buddies before and after the game, but during the contest it was a different story.
“It’s exciting, we usually give each other hugs before the game, but when it comes down to it we go to war, then give hugs after. That is why we are friends because we have the same mentality.”
For more information on the Bemidji State football program, follow the Beavers on Twitter (@BemidjiStateFB or @BSUBeavers), like them on Facebook (facebook.com/bsubeaverfootball or facebook.com/BSUBeavers) or sign up for the TXTUpdates from BSUBeavers.com text-messaging system through the "Mulitmedia" pull down menu on the main page of BSUBeavers.com.
Nestled in Northern Minnesota’s wooded region and located on the shore of Lake Bemidji, Bemidji State University sponsors 15 varsity athletic programs with NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey membership in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, while its 13 NCAA Division II programs hold membership in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).