It’s fifteen minutes before the Stevens-Spearfish game, and Tom Schleusener is providing a little pre-game senior leadership. Younger Stevens players are huddled around the calm, focused, four-year veteran. At 6’4” he is a head taller than other players in the huddle. Get ready for a physical game, he reminds his teammates. Keep your spacing. Listen to my directions. And then he raises his voice just slightly. “This is our year, boys. This is Stevens football.” The huddle breaks out in laughter at the inside joke. “1-2-3 State Champs.”
The Stevens High School football team is off to a great start this year. But Tom Schleusener isn’t talking about football. He’s talking about football. You know…futbol. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s talking about both. He’s the starting goalie on the Raider soccer team. “He’s got speed, size, good hands, and he’s smart. He makes good decisions.” Says Stevens soccer coach Luis Usera. “Goalies don’t peak until they are thirty or thirty-five. So he’s still got a lot of potential. He can play in college. He just needs exposure to the speed of the college game.”
Schleusener went to a prestigious soccer camp this summer at Ft. Lewis College in Colorado, and was one of two goalies selected to the camp All-Star Team. He played in front of hundreds of college coaches at the College Search Kickoff Tournament in Muscatine, Iowa. He’s getting looked at, in a big way. But not so fast…
Ever since he was a little boy, Tom Schleusener has loved football. You know…the other football…with helmets. He played on a midget team, but came up lame in the seventh grade when he dislocated his knee. By the time he recovered for his eighth grade season, he had been selected to the Stevens soccer team. “He tried to play football as a freshman.” Says Stevens football coach Paul Ferdinand. “But he just couldn’t commit the time. Timing, communication, a good snap, the placement of the ball, all require practice. The average kicker might kick 25-30 balls a night at practice. But as a freshman Tom was only here for fifteen minutes, and then he’d go off to soccer.” That was then, this is now.
Last May, Schleusener put a football on a tee for the first time in four years, and tried to kick. “I had no prior knowledge about the technique of kicking at all. So I just started practicing on my own.” Former University of Nebraska and San Diego Charger punter, Bill Lafleur, came to town for a kicking camp at the School of Mines, and afterward spent two hours teaching Schleusener the basics of punting. Then off he went into the unknown–a competitive, motivated, smart, mature, athlete who didn’t have a clue.
He went to Kohl’s Kicking Camp in Chicago for a day and a half. “At the end of the second day he was invited to the National Scholarship Invitational Camp.” explains his mother, Karen. “We didn’t really know what that was. We thought it was just another opportunity to learn, but it turns out that it was set up for college coaches to see all of the top kickers in the country.”
Tom Schleusener brings a tremendous physical endowment to his quest. His maternal grandfather was an All American football player at Sam Houston College in Texas, and his father, orthopedic surgeon Rand Schleusener, was an All American at Nebraska under Coach Tom Osborne in the early ‘70s. But all the dedication and physical inheritance in the world can’t make up for practice.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become really good at a creative task—dancing, playing a musical instrument, throwing a pass, painting, hitting a baseball. 10,000 hours. When two-a-day practices started in August, Tom Schleusener had about 200 hours under his belt, and a long way to go.
“He showed up for every practice during two-a-days.” said Ferdinand. That showed a level of commitment the football coach hadn’t seen when Schleusener was a freshman. He would start the day with soccer. “My main commitment is to my soccer buddies.” Schleusener is quick to point out. Then he would race over to football practice, then back to soccer, then back to football. And every day he improved.
Against the Spearfish football team in the Rushmore Bowl Schleusener launched a 45 yard punt. “My longest are about fifty yards.” But he shanked a pooch punt into the corner. From the tee it was a rough night. He missed two extra points and a field goal. But it was a 49 yard field goal! And he didn’t miss it short. He had plenty of leg. He missed it wide left. “The holder forgot to spin the ball, and I hit the laces. We’ll work on that and it won’t happen again.” Like a veteran, he shrugs off the mixed performance. The team won, and his learning curve is so steep that missteps are going to be a natural part of the process. And, they are going to happen at game speed.
“If all your steps are perfect, and the timing is perfect, and a kicker misses a forty yard field goal, then that’s his limit.” Explains Ferdinand. “But Tom is working hard and he’s got a lot of potential beyond forty yards. There’s a huge upside. He’s just at the beginning of his development.”
The key to this season is that he has the support of his coaches. “They have both been really, really flexible and patient with me.” Schleusener told InsideDakotaSports. When a reporter showed up at football practice recently and asked to watch Schleusener kick, Coach Ferdinand casually smiled and explained. “He’s not here. He’s got a soccer game tonight.” At the soccer field the reporter explained to Coach Usera, “I’m writing a story about Schleusener playing two sports.” Usera feigned mock surprise and laughed. “He’s playing another sport? I didn’t know that.”
So far, so good. But there are storm clouds on the horizon. This Friday night the soccer team plays in Pierre and the football team plays in Sturgis. Schleusener has chosen to play with the football team. “If there’s a conflict, which won’t happen very often, I can be replaced at goalie, so I’m going to go with football.” It’s a perspective that doesn’t seem to worry Usera. Yet. “I’m a proponent of playing two sports. Whatever is best for the player. But if we are doing well in the state tournament and the football team is doing well, he’s going to have to make some tough decisions in the clutch, when both teams are relying on him.”
Schleusener’s doesn’t seem too worried about bridges he doesn’t yet have to cross. He is content to practice hard, play hard, and let the schedules sort themselves out. Afterall, “This is our year, boys. This is Stevens football, 1-2-3 State Champs.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Schleusener will be joining the InsideDakotaSports Recruiting Blog next week