LARAMIE – Nick Szpor was just as surprised as anyone he was awarded a scholarship by University of Wyoming football coach Craig Bohl just before this season started.
“All I do is hold. It’s important, but a lot of people could do it. Truly, they could,” Szpor said matter-of-factly. “Coming into this fall, a scholarship was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t really want it. I thought other people would benefit from it a lot more than I would.”
Szpor is “only” a holder for the Cowboys. He also serves as a quarterback and wide receiver on the scout team. But his value to the program extends beyond the field.
“He is one of those dudes who is always full of energy,” sophomore long snapper Jesse Hooper said. “He could be having a bad day, and you would never know it. He breathes energy into the specialist group.”
Added senior kicker Cooper Rothe: “I don’t know one guy who doesn’t like him. He is an overall great guy.”
Holder is an important, yet often overlooked position. The only times holders get noticed is if they save a bad snap or botch a hold.
“Everyone talks about the pressure I’m under, but he is under just as much pressure,” Rothe said. “He has done a great job of handling any bad snaps. We practice bad snaps, we practice with wet balls, we practice in the snow. He is ready for just about anything.
“If he is not doing his job, I can’t do my job. All of the recognition I’m getting should go to him. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”
Rothe was a finalist for the 2018 Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nation’s top placekicker, because he had a string of 18 consecutive made field goals.
Szpor never intended to be a holder.
He came to the University of Wyoming as a preferred walk-on quarterback after throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior at Central High in Fresno, California.
In fact, his arrival in Laramie was almost accidental.
Szpor’s high school friend, Greg Bartletta, was preparing to take college visits at the same time Szpor’s father sending out game video of Szpor’s gridiron exploits, hoping to garner some interest in his son.
“(Barletta) wanted to go to school in the middle of nowhere, so he was looking at schools in Montana and Wyoming,” Szpor said. “He invited me to come on a trip here, but I wasn’t really thinking about football.”
Shortly before Szpor set off for Laramie, Gordie Haug – who was UW’s recruiting coordinator at the time – reached out to schedule a visit. The Cowboys were interested in Szpor as a preferred walk-on, meaning he would be guaranteed a spot on the roster during the 2016 season.
Szpor mulled over his options and decided to take a chance on Laramie.
“Coach Bohl’s résumé and coach (Brent) Vigen’s résumé were both impressive for developing quarterbacks,” Szpor said. “I didn’t want to go to school close to home, so this was perfect.”
Current Buffalo Bills signal-caller Josh Allen had already established himself as the Cowboys’ starter by the time Szpor arrived on campus. He relished the opportunity to learn his position alongside a player who was emerging as an NFL talent, but he was eager to get on the field any way he could.
That’s why Szpor quickly raised his hand when Bohl asked for volunteers to hold for extra points and field goals. Szpor had experience holding for place kicks in high school, and thought that gave him a leg up on the competition.
There was just one problem.
“(Rothe) is a righty kicker, and the kicker I was used to holding for in high school was a lefty,” he said with a laugh. “That transition was a little funny. Everything flips in that situation. You have a different knee down, and you’re using a different hand to spin the ball.”
Szpor and Rothe operate like a well-oiled machine now, but their chemistry was anything but instant.
“It was pretty bad at first, honestly,” Szpor said. “We struggled quite a bit early, but Cooper had a lot of grace with me. I developed the confidence, but I had to just relax and do it.”
Szpor has been the Cowboys’ holder ever since.
“Not having to redshirt, and to be able to get out there and get my hands dirty with some college football was exciting,” Szpor said.
While Szpor may have landed in Laramie by happenstance, he has since fallen in love with Laramie, and is active on campus with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and as a volunteer in the UW Lab School.
Those off-field activities led him to end his bid to be the Cowboys’ quarterback and focus strictly on holding. Szpor thought Bohl and Vigen would be receptive to his decision, but he says he underestimated Bohl’s enthusiasm for the move.
“Ever since I started focusing on holding, coach Bohl has been fired up to get me involved on the scout team,” Szpor said. “I have played quarterback, and I have gotten receiver reps. Coach Bohl thinks I’m more athletic than I am.
“It’s been fun to see what a receiver goes through on a daily basis. Playing against our No. 1 corners is really cool. It’s fun to see how talented they are firsthand.”
Rothe isn’t surprised to hear that Szpor downplayed his scout team efforts in self-deprecating fashion.
“He will never brag about anything he has ever done,” Rothe said. “He is extremely humble. If you watch his film, he is really athletic. I lift with him every morning, and he is really strong.”
Szpor has used the time he hasn’t been spending in quarterback meetings to start working on a Congressional Award that requires 400 hours of community services and 200 hours of personal development. Szpor had heard about the Congressional Award in high school, and thought only high-schoolers were eligible to pursue its different levels. A friend who had earned a Congressional Award in high school let him know he could actually work toward it until he turned 23.
Szpor knew the volunteer work he does as part of the football team wouldn’t get him the required hours, so he reached out to Lab School teacher Brooklyn Smith – who is the wife of former UW quarterback Nick Smith – about volunteering with her middle-schoolers.
In addition to helping out in the classroom and with physical education activities, Szpor has judged a debate and been part of a staff-student volleyball match.
“It has been so much fun to meet the kids, mentor them and learn some stuff about life,” he said. “I have had a lot of great conversations with kids about life. It has been really fun to reflect on my experience in junior high compared to theirs.
“I’ve learned some things about myself. I’d like to get the award, but it’s not really about that anymore.”
Szpor has learned the greatest rewards often come when they aren’t the ultimate goal. That includes his scholarship.
“The bottom line is that it’s a privilege to be part of this football team,” he said. “A lot of people feel entitled. That’s part of the culture we live in. I received my scholarship when my feeling of entitlement went away and I started enjoying my time here instead of worrying about success in the eyes of the world.
“The scholarship was icing on the cake, but I wouldn’t have had things play out any other way. I’m glad I have experienced what I have. I have learned a lot of lessons along the way.”