Dan Tlapek froze. He stood there, on the sideline, as the madness unfolded around him. Bodies came rolling over the green artificial turf and engulfed his teammates like a tidal wave. They were cheering, clapping, whistling, high-fiving and celebrating. Tlapek held his spot and watched. He was in shock, awed by what just transpired. People he’d never met, young and old, ran up to him, told him congratulations and asked for photos with him.
“I didn’t even know what to think,” the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Tlapek says. “It was one of the coolest feelings in the world.”
Tlapek had never garnered a horde of well-wishers and photo-seekers. Then again he’d never won a game like this with his right leg. Tlapek, the St. Louis University High senior kicker, booted four field goals, all outside of 40 yards, to help the Junior Billikens knock off De Smet 47-46 Friday night at home in a Class 6 quarterfinal. SLUH (9-3) takes on CBC (12-0) on Nov. 18 in the semifinals. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
The 18-year-old kicker didn’t know what to do, what to say or how to feel. In the moments afterward, he was just trying to soak it all in. He had to pinch himself to see if this was actually happening. It was surreal. It was stranger than being in the actual heat of the moment. Tlapek connected on field goals from 40, 43, 48 and 46 yards. The last came with just over a minute remaining in the game and pushed SLUH ahead, 47-46.
Before their final drive, SLUH trailed 46-44. Tlapek knew it could come down to him. He was feeling confident though. He stepped on the field that evening ready to go. He was knocking in field goals from 50 yards out. “I knew during warm ups that I felt good,” he says. “I knew it would be a close game.”
Close games are won and lost at the feet of kickers. When you’re the kicker, there is only black and white. You either make the kick or you don’t. There’s nothing in between. The amount of pressure riding on the senior’s shoulders was immense. He had a stadium full of eyes watching. Half of them were hoping he’d make it. Half of them were hoping he’d miss. It’s this type of situation that defines a career and creates memories that will last a lifetime. In this pressure-packed moment, the biggest kick of Tlapek’s career, he somehow managed to find a sense of calm. “I knew it would end up coming down to me,” he says. “I tried to make it as routine and simple as I could.”
When the ball sailed through the uprights it landed amongst the sea of bodies that would drown the field moments later when De Smet had its final chance but turned the ball over. When SLUH quarterback Trevor McDonagh knelt down for the final time to run out the clock, the Junior Billikens went bonkers. SLUH coach Gary Kornfeld was, literally, jumping for joy. The fans rushed the field. And standing there, on the sideline, was the young man who’s right leg made it possible.
When he finally wandered onto the field he was besieged for photos and had his back slapped somewhere around a million times. Everyone wanted a piece of the kicker. Everyone wanted their picture with the hero.