Oct. 22, 2016

by Jim Daves

With all due respect to the Dos Equis pitchman, UVA would like to lay claim to having the “Most Interesting Punter in the World.”

Okay, maybe when Cavalier senior Nicholas Conte goes into a restaurant, the waiter does not tip him. Maybe his mom does not have a tattoo that says “son” and maybe Bigfoot does not try to get pictures of him, but Conte has certainly banked a number of fascinating life experiences.

So far the Roanoke native has learned to snowboard, surf, scuba dive, play guitar (both electric and acoustic), trombone and steel drums.

He’s traveled to Turks and Caicos, Mexico, Canada, Italy, London and the Dominican Republic. He lived with a family in France for two weeks as an exchange student. They didn’t know English and he quickly learned French.

His grandmother taught him to make pasta from scratch and he can whip up a mean stir-fry.

He’s made trips to South Dakota to do community service painting houses and assisting at a daycare. He helped to build a church in the Dominican Republic.

Ever milk a cow?

“Sure, plenty of times,” he said. “I even did it in a mall once.”

Oh, and he also collects Pez dispensers.

If you think all of that is interesting, then consider how the ACC’s leading punter learned his craft ââ’¬¦ by watching YouTube videos.

“I literally just looked it up because I had no idea about punting,” said Conte, whose only football experience entering his junior year of high school was backyard pickup games.

He watched the online videos for hours. He personally skyrocketed the view count on ones that focused on instruction like drops, leg swing and how to make the ball spiral.

“I kind of looked at all of those, figured out what worked best for me, and then went out into my yard and just started practicing.”

A rec league soccer goalie, he was determined to master the difference in kicking an oblong ball versus a round one.

“I couldn’t seem to figure out why I could punt a soccer ball so far, but I couldn’t punt a football as well,” Conte said. “I watched how these guys were doing it and finally I learned the techniques behind the spiral and how to get that going and it just started to jump off my foot.”

It took some convincing to get his mother, Alison, to allow him to try out for the high school football team. As he prepared for his first season, he attended a summer kicking camp at UVA with his father in tow.

“I just wanted to get some pointers and some coaching on how to actually punt and at one point they let some of us kick in front of the UVA coaches,” he said. “All of the sudden I started hitting big punts. It was just something about being in front of coaches for those couple of times, it really changed the path of my future.”

Former UVA assistant coach Scott Wachenheim, who is the current head coach at VMI, approached Conte. Wachenheim helped oversee the Cavalier special teams and also recruited the Roanoke area. After getting over the initial shock of learning Conte had yet to punt in a competitive game, he told the aspiring kicker he would follow his progress. That eventually led to an offer to attend UVA as a preferred walk-on. Last spring Conte was awarded a scholarship by first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Conte has made the most of his UVA experience. He earned his undergraduate degree in human biology and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in sports administration. He found the course work in human biology allowed him to combine his two favorite areas ÃÆ’¢Ãƒ¢’¬” sociology and biology. Eventually he plans to attend medical school.

“I wanted the biology side but I also wanted to delve into other things as well that would make it more about bedside manner,” he said. “I’m really able to focus on the whole of being a doctor, not just the medical side of it.”

Med school is just one of the items on Conte’s extensive bucket list. His top goal is to visit Bora Bora and to “do anything that requires a license.” That covers just about everything from flying to fly fishing. Skydiving, motorcycle riding and bungee jumping are all in his future.

For now, Conte just wants to concentrate on being the best punter he can be. That was certainly on display late in UVA’s win at Duke when one of his punts was downed on the one-yard-line, leading to a strip-sack touchdown to put the game away.

“It wasn’t my biggest punt and it wasn’t my farthest punt, but it was the biggest situational punt I’ve ever had to do,” Conte said. “It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. There was no question we were going to win the game after that play. That put the dagger in them.”

Dagger is an appropriate term. Earlier this year Mendenhall gave high praise to Conte when he referred to him in football-speak as being a weapon the team could rely on.

“Punting is not a position you play to get gratification from other people. I’m out there to just help the team,” Conte said. “That’s the highest praise you could get from Coach Mendenhall. It was amazing when I heard that. It goes straight to your heart. I’ll remember that forever.”

And it fits in perfectly to the storyline of being “The Most Interesting Punter in the World.”