RALEIGH — RALEIGH -- The nervous kicker stepped to the podium. He smiled to cover how shy he was. Niklas Sade, wearing an Army logo baseball cap, wanted to choose his words carefully.
Inside Wakefield's auditorium Wednesday, Sade accepted an invitation to play in the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 8 in San Antonio, Texas - a game that features the top 90 high school football players in the country.
In the past two seasons, Sade has made 13 of 17 field-goal attempts - his longest this year is 41 yards - while missing just two extra points in 85 attempts.
The day was special because Sade is Wakefield's first selection to the game. His coach, J.D. Dinwiddie, who rarely gets emotional, fumbled over his words before putting Sade's accomplishment into perspective.
"This is the biggest event for an individual honor that I have seen come through here," Dinwiddie said.
In front of his teammates and the school band, Sade, a senior, took a deep breath.
"Hmm ... ," Sade said. "I just want to say thank you to my parents. They have helped me through a lot; and my coaches especially getting me through high school; especially Dan ... he helped me out a lot. I want to thank my teammates and my friend who really pushed me to make it to the next level.
After the event, while answering questions from reporters, Sade, 17, looked at the group he had just acknowledged.
Sade saw his mother, who moved him from Germany but dedicated herself to making his football dream come true. He saw his mentor, who helped him develop his natural talent. And Sade saw his best friend, who persuaded him to give this whole kicking a football idea a try.
The group was in a circle talking to one another. Sade, 6 feet 3 inches and 196 pounds, said his story is as much theirs as it is his. Because without them, he knew there was no way he'd be going to San Antonio.
Sade and Ralph Sperrazza had at least one thing in common when they met: Both were new to Wakefield Middle School.
After that, the two differed in many other areas needed to start a friendship when their families moved to Raleigh in 2002. Sade grew up in Munich, Germany; Sperrazza was from Spring Lake Park, Minn. Sade spoke only German; Sperrazza only English. Sade's love was fútbol; Sperrazza's was football.
But in a school where students have known each other for years, Sade and Sperrazza - the two newcomers - found themselves learning about each other out of curiosity. Their conversations always centered on sports, which meant Sperrazza had many chances to explain football to Sade.
"We became friends right away and started playing football right away," Sperrazza said. "He really didn't know much about American sports. Heck, he's still clueless about baseball."
Sade said he enjoyed football for how physical it is. And since he had a background in soccer, Sade immediately gravitated to kicking. Still, Sperrazza didn't get his idea to push his friend to play American football until he finally played soccer with Sade. Not only could Sade make sharp passes with is the ball, but his shots at the net were always the hardest.
"Our middle school [football] team really didn't have anyone who could kick," Sperrazza said. "That's how we got him into it. He started loving it right away."
So Sade became a kicker for two reasons: to stay close with his friends and because it didn't take him long to realize Americans weren't going to choose soccer over football anytime soon.
As the team's long snapper, Sperrazza watched Sade make 40-yard field goals with ease for the eighth-grade Wolves.
"I learned how to play [kicker] pretty quick," Sade said. "It all just worked out."
In just a few weeks, Sperrazza persuaded Sade to give up on his dream of being a pro soccer player. "He's athletic because he played soccer so well," Sperrazza said. "He could have done anything. He could have played wide receiver if he wanted because he's a great athlete."
By the time he finished his freshman season on Wakefield's varsity team, Sade knew his decision to leave soccer was the right one. And that's when Sade's mother made sure to maximize her son's potential.
Heike Sade wanted to raise her son to be bilingual. That was her dream and a reason for moving to Raleigh, along with an affinity for the area. Once he mastered English - the first three words Niklas Sade learned were restroom, hungry and thirsty - Heike Sade knew her son needed kicking lessons to fulfill his dream of kicking in college.
She could tell her son was still kicking the football like a soccer ball. So Heike Sade turned to the only tool she could think of to help her son: Google.
The search engine led her to North Carolina's kicking camp led by Dan Orner, who coaches former University of North Carolina kicker Connor Barth of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Barth broke the Tar Heels' school record with a 55-yard field goal in 2002. After the camp, Orner decided to let Sade train at his home in Charlotte with a simple message: "If you want to be the best, I'm the right person for you."
Every other weekend, Sade came back to learn more.
"We just went on and on and on, and it never stopped," Heike Sade said.
Before Orner, Niklas Sade was considered an average kicker.
"Certain kids say, 'Hey, I want to be an All-American,' " Orner said. "There are one or two kids I meet every year who do it. He's made tremendous gains from his sophomore year."
Now, Orner says Sade's leg strength and form - keeping his head down through his kicks - are what separate him from other kickers, so much to the point that Sade accepted a football scholarship at Nebraska."He's meant a whole lot to me," Sade said of Orner. "Without him, I technically wouldn't be as far as I am now."
When Sade went to Nebraska's kicking academy in June, coach Bo Pelini watched Sade kick from afar. Did he make a 45-yard kick? Yes. How about from 50 yards? No problem. But a 57-yard field goal for Sade's longest ever? The ball sailed through the uprights. Nebraska's offer came eight months before February's national signing day.
"When he came back with a big smile, I said, 'Oh, my God,' " Heike Sade said. "He looked so happy."
Kickers don't often get standing ovations.
But after Sade's short speech Wednesday, all of his teammates stood to applaud him.
"It means a lot," Sade said. "It's crazy knowing that I didn't know a thing about the sport.
"It's a tremendous thing to think about."
Along with the Wolverines, Sade's three most important influences in football were there standing and clapping, too: the best friend, the mentor and the mother.
Now all Sade wants to do for the group and his teammates is kick a game-winning field goal - something he hasn't done yet - as the Wolverines play Wilmington Laney on Friday in the first round of the state playoffs.
Whether that opportunity comes or not, the country will see Sade on a Saturday afternoon in January in the same All-American game that NFL first-round draft picks Tim Tebow, Adrian Peterson and Ndamukong Suh once played - a privilege Sade never expected, and one he is sure not to forget.
email@example.com or 919-829-4538