Nik Grau is 37-of-42 on field goals in his career, and after a junior season where he converted on 13-of-14 and didn’t miss a single PAT he was named the Southland Conference’s top kicker with first team all-Conference honors. But what’s most impressive about the junior placekicker’s accomplishments is when the season began, Nik was unsure if he’d ever make another field goal let alone lead the conference.
It all started a little over a year ago, when Nik began feeling shock down his leg getting in and out of his car; however, with just two games left in the season, and in the midst of a stellar sophomore year, Nik pushed through. But the pain continued to increase.
“It progressively started getting worse over Thanksgiving and Christmas break, and it started coming to a point where I was always walking with a limp and it was really uncomfortable to sit down,” Nik said. “It just felt like someone was getting a knife and shoving it into my calf or right next to my shin.”
With the pain becoming increasingly excruciating Nik and his family sought a spine specialist to give him a diagnosis, and the possibility of a herniated disc was first revealed. Knowing this Nik opted for an MRI and the injury began to become a reality to him and his family.
“Come January when we realized it was a serious problem with his spine, as a mom their pain is your pain,” said Yvette Grau, Nik’s mother.
The MRI showed two herniations, which was radiating direct pain down his sciatic nerve.
“I was really distraught, and I didn’t really know what it meant, I just knew I was in a lot of pain,” Nik said.
In an effort to reduce the pain, Nik tried various types of treatment including two epidural shots, designed to relieve and ease the pain, but every time the pain would come back.
Nik had no intentions of giving in, as he began lifting again and pushing through the pain during spring practices.
“After the second one [epidural shot] I was tired of just not doing anything,” Nik said. “So then spring ball came around and it never really effected my kicking over the spring, it hurt after, not necessarily during. So I was like well if this is the case then you know what, I can deal with pain after, just as long as it’s not hurting me during.”
Despite the ability to continue to kick well, the pain did not subside, and Nik received two more shots, one at the beginning of the summer and one before fall camp. After the third shot, Nik was not allowed to kick until two weeks before the team was to travel to Fresno State for the 2015 season opener. Even still, he was limited to just 15 kicks a day when he had previously been kicking as much as he wanted.
“Mentally that was playing a huge role on me because I love kicking and could kick 100 balls a day, and that’s what I used to be doing,” Nik said. “And it was really frustrating because if I hit nine bad ones and the rest good then that’s all I get, and I leave with bad taste in my mouth.”
In the season opener Nik did suit up to kick. He managed to convert his only PAT, but missed on a 33-yard attempt, which in previous seasons had been near automatic. After the game Nik began to come to terms with his pain.
“I really thought well it’s not worth it. I don’t feel confident in myself, I don’t feel healthy, I don’t feel like I can do what I normally do, I just didn’t really believe in myself,” Nik said.
After a conversation with his kicking coach back home and his family, Nik made the decision to forgo playing and do something lasting about the pain.
“In the prior years he had set an expectation for himself and his team, so when he knew he couldn’t do it, I knew it was a tough decision for him,” Nik’s mother said.
After various opinions from doctors, Nik was told he would have about a 50/50 shot at kicking again. With the desire to one day step on the field again and finish out his eligibility, Nik went through with the procedure in late October. When Nik returned to Abilene after two and a half weeks, he was unable to do much.
“From when I returned to Abilene all the way to the last day of the fall semester I went from my bed, to class, back to my bed,” Nik said. “It was really tough having to get up in the morning, I couldn’t tie my shoes, it was hard to take a shower, if anything fell I would just leave it there. All my muscles hurt, my back was aching.”
At the time Nik feared he might have re-herniated a disc in his back, because there was such little relief, and he began to wonder if the surgery was the right move.
“Two weeks after the surgery, it just didn’t look good at all,” Nik’s mother said. “But even after that he continued to persevere. After the surgery, it was hour by hour. Weeks after that it was a day at a time. Then after that it was all of us being focused on the healing of his injury. We didn’t know what was going to be the outcome of his kicking.”
Over Christmas break Nik made progress through physical therapy at the Carell Clinic Center and he began feeling a pain relief, but it was still lingering
“It was frightening it was a lot of ups and downs. It was just so much,” Nik’s mother said. “So much progress, yet so many steps backward. It was tough.”
When Nik returned to ACU for the spring semester, Brian Welch, one of the head trainers at the time began spending hours working with Nik through pool workouts and stretches.
“He had the mentality of I’m not going to stop. He’s a very positive individual,” Welch said. “There were obviously times during the rehab you would’ve thought he was never going to make it back mentality wise, but once we kind of got over that hump everything changed for him from an emotional standpoint.”
After several months of work with Welch and walking around the football field while the team did its workouts, Nik got the opportunity to start kicking again at the end of April.
“I told him [Nik] I think we should kick a ball and he was just elated and excited,” Welch said. “But I was extremely nervous when we first got out there.”
It was the first time Nik had kicked a ball in seven months, and being able to see the progress and holding firm to a passage from Philippians 4, he was hopeful in his recovery. With all the work Nik and his trainer had put in and the prayers they had prayed, Welch said the moment was just as special for him.
“That feeling for me, it’s what I do my job for,” Welch said. “It’s not just you show up and you treat a guy you literally put yourself whole self into them.The first time watching him kick was probably one of the highlights of my career.”
Welch, who is now employed at Sit-N-Wise Sports Medicine in Decatur, said he was excited to see Nik excel this season.
“I’m beside myself knowing that Nik has made vast improvements not just as an athlete, but as a person,” Welch said. “I’m just super excited for Nik and can’t wait to see how he continues to improve.”
Even though Nik, along with his family and friends were thrilled to see the progress, there was still more to accomplish. Over the summer Nik rested as much as he could, but when he came back for fall camp he struggled to get enough height on the ball, which made his kicks easier to block. And it was at this point Nik was just happy to be kicking again.
“At that time my back felt 10 times better than what it did before, but I was still missing the fluid between my vertebrae,” Nik said. “I kind of took a reality check. I thought, ‘I’m here, I’m back on the team, I’ve kind of made it.’ It bothered me a little, but I was a little satisfied.”
But Nik’s effort never faltered, and neither did his support around him. Nik’s mother encouraged him along the way, not knowing what was in the cards for Nik.
“Never place a period where God has placed a comma,” Nik’s mother said. We just didn’t know what was coming behind comma. Although so many times I felt helpless, I didn’t know if anything I was doing was helping him, but I wasn’t going to give up.”
When the Wildcats opened up their 2016 campaign, Nik was still satisfied with being on the team and letting sophomore transfer Brendan Conn fill his role, helping him as much as he could.
“When I arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Conn said. “It seemed like I was going to be some sort of relief pitcher for Nik. No one was sure of how Nik’s back was going to feel throughout the season.”
Conn handled all the kicking for ACU in the opening game, and for all Nik knew it would remain that way. Through it all the two have become close and helped each other.
“Nik and I kind of have like a big brother, little brother relationship,” Conn said. “He will pick on me and give me a hard time, but when I need advice and am looking for some guidance he is always there to give it.”
However, over the next week something changed, and Nik began to gain confidence in his kicking and figure out his limitations.
“I think I figured it out, of how I need to kick the ball with the limitations that I have and I started kicking really well. At halftime against Northern Colorado, I really surprised myself at how well I was practicing.”
Wishing he had felt this good earlier in the season Nik expected Conn to finish out the game against Northern Colorado, little did he know his opportunity was close.
“I remember coach telling me ‘Hey Conn we are going to let Nik take the rest of the kicks tonight, but you’re still doing kickoffs’, and when Nik found out I could see the excitement on his face, and he immediately started kicking into the net,” Conn said. “I think it kind of took him by surprise but he was more than ready. And anyone could see the excitement wash over him.”
And he was ready. With 1:51 left in the third quarter, Nik converted his first extra point in over a year.
“That PAT was a ton of emotion, with everything I’d been working for over a year all in one moment,” Nik said. “It was just an incredible feeling and I couldn’t have done it with out everyone’s support. It was such a good feeling to be back on the field.”
But Nik didn’t stop at a PAT, because in the fourth quarter he converted his first field goal since the end of the 2014 season.
“To see my son out on the field and doing a successful kick was probably the most joy and thankfulness I’ve felt in my heart,” Nik’s mother said. My heart was swelling with joy, pride, thankfulness. I didn’t care if the kick was going to go in our not. He was given the opportunity to try again. I don’t think anyone really understood what the whole dynamic there was.”
After the Northern Colorado game, Nik was back kicking field goals as the starter and Conn handled kickoffs. And over the next nine games he would not disappoint. Nik posted the best season of his career, leading the conference in field goal percentage and finishing tied for sixth in points (60) and points per game with six. With this year’s success, Nik is now third in ACU history in PATs made (124), attempted (130) and in career points by a kicker (235). He is also fourth in field goals made with 37 and fifth all-time in scoring by all players with those 235 points.
“I could have never imagined what this year would have looked like,” Nik’s mother said. “And still today I just look back and praise God for everything he’s done in Nik’s life. It’s been an incredible journey. So many answered prayers.”
Ken Collums, Nik’s former head coach said Nik’s maturity was crucial in his return, and is a big reason he excelled this season.
“Part of maturity is knowing your strengths and your weaknesses, and not trying to do too much and stay in your limitations,” Collums said. “Every athlete has limitations and coming to grips with that is the crucial part. So he’s learned how to manage himself and when he kicks the ball it is like a sweet stroke.”
Nik said he couldn’t have made it without the support of his mother, Ray, his father and his younger sister Nataly. Family has always played a big role in his football career, especially his sister who passed away at a young age and wears a purple bracelet for.
“I always wear my bracelet and I move it to my left hand before every game,” Nik said. “She is my guardian angel who watches over me throughout my whole career. I have not played a single game without it on my left hand. A lot of what I do is to make my family proud and represent the name on my back.”
There is no doubt, in overcoming this injury and becoming one the best kickers in the conference, Nik has more than made his family proud. And although Nik is a senior academically, majoring in information systems, he said intends to stick around to give the Wildcats a stout kicking game in 2017 with the hope of continuing to represent the name on his jersey.