When Justin Yoon kicks a football, it explodes off his foot. The ball cuts through the air, well above the crossbar and lands several yards beyond the end zone. Even from 50 yards out, it sails through the uprights. And when he’s kicking off, the ball frequently flies through the back of the end zone and over the head of the opponent’s return man. When you’re one of the nation’s top recruits, nailing long field goals and accounting for touchbacks are required skills.
Yoon, according to ESPN, is the No. 2 kicker in the 2015 recruiting class. And this coming fall, he’ll most likely be Notre Dame’s starting kicker, the one ultimately responsible for converting any game-winning field goal attempts and every point-after try.
Yet just five or six years ago, football was an entirely foreign game for Yoon.
“Not just the rules or anything, I just didn’t know what it was,” Yoon says. “I saw it on TV a couple of times, but I really didn’t know what the heck that game was.”
“Now I do,” he says.
Still, Yoon admits that even today he doesn’t really know other positions or play calls. If you were to ask him to explain a read-option or the concept behind a zone-blitz, he probably wouldn’t know where to start.
What Yoon does know, however, is how to turn a football into a heat-seeking missile. And for him, that’s enough.
“I just kick the ball,” he says. “I just play for the love of kicking a ball.”
Yoon’s athletic career didn’t begin in America, which explains his indifference toward the intricacies of the game. Despite being born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Yoon called South Korea his home for roughly the first nine years of his life. It was in Seoul that he fell in love with ice hockey.
When Yoon returned to the United States, he and his family resided in Nashville, Tennessee. Some mornings, as early as 5 a.m., Yoon would fire pucks toward his older brother, Eric, who played goalie. In eighth grade, with the encouragement of his friends and a coach, Yoon began kicking. Still, hockey — not football — was the sport at the forefront of Yoon’s mind.
“Our family isn’t really a typical football family,” Eric says. “We’re not crazy about football like a lot of Americans are. We don’t watch football that often on TV. We never played it; we didn’t have any relatives that played it.”
Yoon was on the move soon again, this time on his own. He decided that he wanted to spend his high school years at Milton Academy — a boarding school in Massachusetts. He also wanted to give himself a chance at playing hockey, so he opted to repeat ninth grade, as the NHL prefers to draft older, more mature players.
“The reason why I came was to play hockey — that was my original goal, but I switched over,” Yoon says. “The plan backfired, but not really in the sense that it hurt me, but in the sense that it helped in itself.”
As a freshman, Yoon also kicked for the football team and made a quick impression on his coach. The first time Milton Academy head coach Kevin Macdonald saw Yoon strike a football, he knew he had stumbled upon a dominant kicker. As Macdonald puts it, “It didn’t take a genius to realize he was something special.”
Soon, football began growing on Yoon.
“When I kept on kicking, I started to enjoy the feeling — the atmosphere,” Yoon says. “I started to see that I had a chance at going somewhere with this unique talent.”
Macdonald recalls a game in 2012, during Yoon’s sophomore season. Macdonald says that Milton won the game by roughly a touchdown, but Yoon provided the difference in the game, hitting four field goals — a 54 yarder, 49 yarder, 47 yarder and 37 yarder.
“He’s generally money in the games,” Macdonald says. “He’s got ice-water in his veins. He never gets nervous. In fact, he’s better in games than he is in practice. A lot of times, on Friday in the pregame he’s kind of shaky, but there’s no carry over to gameday on Saturday.”
“What sets him apart is that he’s a cool cucumber.”
Yoon is also a kickoff specialist, often hitting the ball out of the end zone. Macdonald calls him a “defensive coordinator’s dream.”
Unknown to Yoon, college recruiters already began looking at him during his freshman season. By his sophomore year, Yoon knew of their interest. Still, even Macdonald was unaware at how highly touted his kicker was. It wasn’t until someone told Macdonald to Google his name that Macdonald realized Yoon was ranked as high as No. 1 in his recruiting class.
The schools began lining up — Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern, Texas A&M. The list goes on.
“He didn’t let it get to his head,” Eric says. “He didn’t become arrogant. He was still my brother.”
Yoon narrowed his options, eventually settling on Notre Dame last June.
“I really just felt like Notre Dame was just the right place,” he says.
During the first game of Yoon’s senior season at Milton — a few months after giving his verbal to Notre Dame — disaster nearly struck. Yoon had taken over the punting duties — in addition to handling kickoffs and place kicking duties. While punting during that first game, the snap flew over his head. Yoon ran, chasing down the loose football. He dove on top of the ball, securing possession. But a defender in pursuit of the football landed on top of Yoon, driving his knee into Yoon’s back.
Yoon was driven to the hospital. He had cracked three vertebrae.
Macdonald feared Yoon’s senior season was lost. The back-up kicker, however, was well prepared. Trained and taught by Yoon himself, his back-up didn’t miss a single point-after attempt, going 36-for-36.
Yoon returned for the final three games of the season, hitting a 49 yarder in his last game in a Milton uniform. And his revival was completed in January of this year.
Invited to participate in the Under Armour All-America Game, Yoon and his entire family made the trek down to St. Petersburg, Florida. This was Yoon’s chance to prove he was completely recovered from the injury. It was also his chance to prove he could handle kicking in front of thousands of hollering fans, which will be a necessity in the coming years.
Seconds before halftime, Yoon lined up to attempt a 47-yard field goal. He took his steps in preparation and nodded at the holder. As the ball was snapped, Yoon made his approach, his plant-leg landed next to the football, his cannon swept through the ball, jolting it to life. The ball sailed straight and true. Yoon had just set an All-America Game record for the longest field goal.
Yoon converted on all three of his field goal attempts that day — another record.
“It will be a memory I will always cherish — seeing my younger brother do something like that,” Eric says. “Our family, we weren’t always together. It was great for the whole family to be there and to watch his success on the field. It was very emotional.”
The next time Yoon attempts a kick in a real game, he’ll probably be in South Bend, Indiana, under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium, under the watchful, critical eyes of the Irish faithful.
If previous indications mean anything, all signs point to Yoon thriving in his new role, both as a college student in a new environment and as the kicker for one of the nation’s most prestigious football programs.
“I think it has to do with his nature as a kicker,” Eric says of his brother’s ability to adapt. “He doesn’t get flustered easily, he’s very mentally strong. Whatever he’s put into it, he learns to adjust very quickly.”
When Yoon is standing on the sideline, watching his offense drive toward field goal range, he won’t understand why his coaches called for a quarterback keeper or a halfback screen. He might not be able to pin down the reason his offense is stopped short of the line to gain on a third down. But when that drive does stall and when it’s his time to turn that drive into points, Yoon will know what’s required of him.
He’ll trot out onto the field in front of 80,000 fans. He’ll line up, nod to his holder, and watch as the snap is executed. He’ll block out the crowd and when he puts his laces to the football, the distinctive sound of impact will be inaudible. The ball will climb, its trajectory will carry it over the trenches, rocketing through still and storm. Its flight will only be interrupted by the net behind the uprights. And if the ball has reached its intended destination, Yoon — a football player who didn’t even know what football was five or six years ago — will have given the Irish three points.
“I do my one job,” he says. “And that’s all I need to do.”