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LSU placekicker Cole Tracy (36) on the sidelines in the second half of the Tigers' 40-32 win over the previously undefeated Knights in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Tuesday, January 1, 2019, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Az.

Once the camera lights and tape recorders clicked off and pulled away from Cole Tracy, a teenager approached the kicker in the New Orleans Saints locker room.

His father worked for the franchise, the teen told Tracy, and his father had told his son that he could become a good kicker for the local high school team.

The boy was asking Tracy for advice.

"Do you want to kick?" Tracy said.

The boy smiled, nodded, and Tracy began to speak.

"With any position or really anything in life," Tracy told The Advocate later, "you can have the natural ability and be able to get far, but if you don't truly want it, I don't think you're going to be able to have a whole lot of success."

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Tracy has lived that lesson, first as an unknown kicker for Division II Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts — where he broke every school kicking record before setting seven more records as a graduate transfer at LSU — and now as an undrafted player seeking a home in the pros.

The path of an NFL specialist is a long one, something Tracy learned from his mentor, Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen, who advised his pupil "to move forward with stubbornness and never waver" through the volatile challenges professional kickers face.

Eighteen NFL kickers have been cut since August, and a large pool of specialists is fighting for the remaining roster spots on teams that aren't already set at the position.

Tracy spent the first weekend after the NFL draft trying out with the Green Bay Packers at their rookie mini-camp.

He left Wisconsin without a contract.

By Sunday afternoon, Tracy will have finished up another tryout with a New Orleans Saints franchise that is unlikely to sign him.

The dependable Wil Lutz, who made 28 of 30 field goals in 2018, is the only kicker on the New Orleans roster — only 10 NFL teams are carrying more than one — and Saints coach Sean Payton said in between Saturday's practices that "it's going to be difficult for a kicker" to be signed by the franchise.

"We have an interest in a kicker that could possibly be a kicker and a punter," Payton said. "We've got long snappers; we've got punters. ... I think if we were going to sign a kicker, a specialist, it probably would be someone we thought would be a third leg that would help us in training camp and do both."

Tracy said "I'm probably too late to start picking up punting" at an NFL level, and he's trying to show teams that he can be more than just a pure placekicker.

Although Tracy also handled kickoffs at Assumption College, he ceded the responsibility at LSU to Avery Atkins, who led the NCAA in touchback percentage.

"That's really what I'm trying to show (NFL teams)," said Tracy, who joined former LSU defensive back Ed Paris at the Saints minicamp this weekend. "I can put the ball in the end zone with a decent amount of hang time."

Even if the Saints don't sign Tracy, it's still possible that another team will pick him up before the NFL season begins. 

Lutz began his career in 2016 as an unsigned free agent with the Baltimore Ravens, in an uphill position battle against established kicker Justin Tucker. When Lutz was cut in the preseason, Ravens coach John Harbaugh recommended the kicker to Payton.

"The league is a lot smaller than people think," Tracy said. "Do the best that you can. Show why you're capable."

And at the base of Tracy's Saints locker, etched on his soccer cleats, is the acronym that's carried him through his football journey:


'You can do it'

Tracy has written the letters in sharpie on pieces of equipment since he began playing football.

The letters were written on Tracy's taped wrists when he tied an LSU record with a 54-yarder against Miami in the 2018 season opener at AT&T Stadium — a football fortress that could swallow Assumption's Multi-Sport Stadium.

The letters were on his wrists again when his arms were pressed against his body at the bottom of the dogpile against Auburn, where Tracy nailed a 42-yard game-ending field goal in a 22-21 win.

They're the words of Tracy's late grandfather, Stan Sali, an apple farmer in Yakima, Washington, who repeated the phrase to his grandson throughout his childhood.

"Whatever we were doing together, he was like, 'You can do it. You can do it,’ ” Tracy said. "It's something that I've been thinking a lot about this weekend."

Sali died before Tracy reached high school in Camarillo, California, and in the years since, Tracy has formed a memory of his grandfather by viewing him through the lens of his repeated phrase.

Sali had sold his apple farm by the time Tracy was born, but he moved to a house only a few miles away. So, when his grandchildren came to visit, they could walk up the hill and stare at the endless rows of trees and the scattered dots of Delicious Reds.

"He would be out there at 4 o'clock in the morning taking care of the trees," Tracy said. "Just a hard-ass worker. Farmers, you know? Some years are good. Some years are bad. But just knowing the history about him has helped me through this process."

Sali never saw his grandson play any games; but once Tracy adopted "YCDI" as his personal mantra, he was always able to keep his grandfather's presence near.

Tracy's family and friends picked up on the phrase, and before LSU football games, they'd send Tracy text messages that read "You can do it."

'Just don't give up'

So far, Tracy has proven he can.

He made 29 of his 33 kicks for LSU, setting a program record for most made field goals in a season, plus all 42 extra points he attempted.

Tracy's four field goals in LSU's Fiesta Bowl victory over Central Florida gave  him an NCAA all-divisions record with 97 career field goals.

Tracy previously had won the Fred Mitchell Award in 2017 at Assumption, given annually to the nation’s top non-FBS kicker, and he finished his college career as a Lou Groza Award finalist with second-team All-America and first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors.

Now, Tracy has to prove NFL teams he can, and the 32 franchises have already silently shown they're skeptical.

Tracy was not one of the two placekickers selected in the 2019 NFL draft — Utah's Matt Gay (No. 145 overall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Oklahoma's Austin Seibert (No. 170, Cleveland Browns) — and in the weeks since, the Denver Broncos signed free agent kicker Taylor Bertolet.

Tracy watched the final day of the draft at a party his parents threw at their home in California. Shortly afterward, his mother, Pam, looked him dead in the eye.

"Just don't give up," she told him. "If you were to throw in the towel a long time ago, you wouldn't be here."

Former LSU defensive back signs as undrafted free agent with Minnesota Vikings

Tracy said he's too far along into the journey to not see it all the way through. Before the NFL draft, LSU special teams coach Greg McMahon asked Tracy, half-jokingly: "What monster did you unleash by coming to LSU?"

"It probably would have been easy to finish out my career, get some looks and ride off into the sunset," Tracy said. "This last year has really opened my eyes to what's capable and what's definitely within reach. I'm definitely in it for the haul."