Photo Credit: Vincente Cardenas
It’s Oct. 8, 2011 and the UTSA football team is tied with the South Alabama Jaguars 17-all at the Alamodome with 32,886 people on hand to watch. Number 92, freshman kicker Sean Ianno, has a chance to win the game if he can make a 26-yard field goal with three seconds left on the clock.
The snap is quick, but the Jaguars’ defense is quicker as they launch themselves into the kick and block Ianno’s attempt. The block means overtime, where the Roadrunners battle but eventually cannot overcome their lost opportunities, allowing the Jaguars to walk away with a 30-27 victory in double overtime.
Fast-forward to Sept. 1, 2012. It’s the opening week of college football and the Roadrunners find themselves in Mobile, Alabama, facing the very same South Alabama Jaguars. Only this time UTSA is trailing 31-30.
“It was funny actually, that game,” remembers Ianno. “Right before the last drive on offense, Eric Soza came up to me and said, ‘How far do we need to get?’ and I told him, ‘Just get to the 35.’ And he put the ball on the 34. So I was like I have to make it now.”
With only 23 seconds left, Ianno needs to make a 51-yard field goal on the road. That’s 26 yards further than his last game-winning attempt. The snap is good, but this time the Jaguars’ defense can’t get to him quickly enough. Ianno boots the football with ease through the posts and seals a 33-31 victory for the ‘Runners.
“I can’t even explain it. It was just — you know — you have a love-hate relationship with those kinds of situations. You don’t want the game to have to come down to you, but when it does, obviously you have to be prepared for it. And you always want to come out on top of it. When you do, the feeling is just incomparable. I can’t even explain it,” says Ianno.
And to think — Ianno never had an interest in football to begin with.
In Pflugerville, Texas, football is king. Parents and students come out on Friday nights to watch the Panthers compete for glory; the sports drama “Friday Night Lights” was even filmed there. But in Ianno’s case, he didn’t exactly take to football right away.
His interest was in soccer as he played for the Panthers soccer team until his junior year. As Ianno tells it he had “no interest at all” when it came to football. His uncle would try to get him interested by throwing the ball around with him and pushing him to compete in local punt-pass-kick competitions.
“I don’t like football; football’s stupid,” Ianno would tell his uncle.
That all changed one night on a bus ride home after the last soccer game his junior year. One of the assistant soccer coaches on the bus was a football assistant as well. During the ride he asked Ianno, “Are you coming out to football this spring?”
“I said ‘I guess so,’” recalls Ianno. “They didn’t have another choice. They told me I had the strongest leg, so ‘we’re going to go with you.’”
Ianno went out to the Panthers’ spring practices, taking in every piece of advice and instruction the coaches gave him. He began going to training camps and took to the game immediately. By the time his senior season ended, Ianno excelled as a punter and was selected to the second-team All-District 25-5A. In addition, he was chosen as the Special Teams Player of the Year.
Once his senior year ended, Ianno had some big decisions to make about football and college. There was no random act of fate on a school bus to lead him in a specific direction. Ultimately, Ianno decided his best option was UTSA. He was part of the first tryout-group in the fall of 2010, taking part in the start of the football program.
“It was a little weird. Everybody else that was going to play in college had already signed. I only played my senior year… They say that junior year is your recruiting year in high school, so I didn’t have that,” recalls Ianno. “I got offered by some small schools to play for partial scholarships, got asked to come out to their tryouts. I met with Coach Coker a couple of times and he told me to come out to the tryouts.”
Ianno made the team and earned the starting kicker’s spot as a freshman. All of his football statistics indicated a successful season with the Roadrunners. He made all 31 of his extra-point attempts, and he even had a game- winning 32-yard field goal against Georgia State in October of 2011. But Ianno struggled with something very common to freshmen — maturity.
With the next season of football quickly approaching, Ianno recognized the decisions he was making were not beneficial to him as a player or as a person.
“I kind of realized that I was doing a little too many extracurricular activities during my freshman year, and it was affecting my abilities,” explains Ianno. “So I pretty much just cut it out, flipped a switch and said, ‘(football) is what I want to do,’ and ‘I’m going to focus on (football) and have fun later.’”
UTSA Special Teams Coach Perry Eliano has worked with Ianno since the 2011 season and has seen the change he has made since his freshman season.
“In 2011 he was a freshman and not as mature as you would like, but had the potential to be an extremely good player. His sophomore year, he understood the significance he can make on a game and the significance he can make on this football team,” says Eliano. “I think (Ianno) having the speed bumps, whether it be from missing a field goal, just shanking a kick or from an injuries perspective, has allowed him to appreciate the opportunities he has had. It allows him to take what he has more seriously as far as helping our football team win.”
Aside from an injury that sidelined Ianno for six weeks of the 2012 season, he managed to set personal bests in several kicking categories.
“He is a very conscientious young man,” says Eliano. “He has a lot of insight. He cares about what he does and wants to be the very best.”
What makes Ianno a great teammate, kicker and individual is also what is most intriguing about him. He is the epitome of calm and collected — almost tranquil at what he does and how he interacts. There never seems to be a moment where he feels nervous, and that is an asset for someone who has to kick a field goal with the weight of the team on his shoulder pads.
Ianno is aware of how people see him, and he is just fine with it.
“He’s a good guy. He’s pretty quiet most of the time,” explains Seth Grubb, who has been Ianno’s holder for three seasons at UTSA. Grubb has seen Ianno’s personality on and off the field.
“He definitely has a dry sense of humor. It’s different, not a lot of people get it. I get it. Humor is humor to me. I like all different forms of it. He’s a quiet guy, but once you get to know him, he is pretty funny.”
Off the field, Ianno deals with the same responsibilities as a typical college student. He has a full schedule of classes and relationships to juggle. When things get hectic, he often turns to his girlfriend of two years, Rebecca Smith, for encouragement and support. She is also highly involved at school and running for Ms. UTSA.
“Vote for her! She keeps the kicker mentally stable, so you have to vote for her,” Ianno says, laughing.
“It works perfect — we hardly ever see each other once school starts,” Ianno says with his subtle sarcastic humor. “She studies a lot more than I do, so most of our time spent together is her studying and me studying, until I end up watching TV.”
Ianno’s schedule with football keeps him busy. So when he’s not squeezing in time for Smith, he’s “Sleeping!”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed that I’m in (The Walking Dead),” says Ianno. “I’ve had a couple dreams where I’m in the show or it’s happening to me in real life, and I have to survive. I always make it. No (kicking involved), the most recent one was a baseball bat.”
Besides watching AMC, he recently became a subscriber to the NFL Network. Ianno now spends many hours watching NFL programs as a way to prepare for a future that could include playing on Sundays. Ianno’s most immediate step towards making an NFL team is focusing on his junior season with UTSA as they join Conference USA.
The game experience Ianno is gaining this season by playing nationally recognized teams can only be positive for him.
When the Roadrunners took the field on Saturday, Sept. 7 in the Alamodome for their first home game of the season, it was Ianno who was front and center of over 40,000 fans as he kicked off. No one can miss Ianno as he casually struts onto the field wearing that number 92 jersey.
“I was actually 14 when I first got here,” remembers Ianno. “Then I was 7 for a little bit. Then I was 86. I don’t know what happened, but I ended up getting 92 right before the (2011) season started. And then my holder, Grubb ended up being 86.
“It’s just what I ended up getting,” continues Ianno. “Mike Villa offered me to change numbers, but I said, ‘I’m already stuck with this one now.’ I got my girlfriend a necklace with 92 on it — so I’ve got money in it. Can’t change it now.”