Penn State redshirt freshman kicker Sander Sahaidak has made a smooth transition from young soccer standout to major college football player. His backstory of him is unique in a lot of ways, but he insists the way his first name of him came about is not as interesting as people might imagine.
“It’s not the story you think,” I explained in a half session last week. “You know, my full name is ‘Alexander.’ My mom, she didn’t like the name ‘Zander,’ she wanted something unique. So she just put an ‘S’ on the front. She said, ‘Sander,’ and that’s pretty much it.”
There is a chance you’ll be hearing Sahaydak’s name a lot this fall. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2021, he now finds himself competing with veteran Jake Pinegar for the starting place-kicking job left open when jordan stout made an early exit to the NFL.
Pinegar, who held the starting position before losing it to Stout late in the 2020 season, is currently the eighth-leading scorer in Penn State history (246 points). But he has never even attempted a kick of longer than 49 yards and is only 10-of-18 on tries between 40-49 yards.
Though slightly built at 6-foot, 171 pounds, the left-footed Sahaydak had multiple 50-yard plus field goal makes during his career at Bethlehem (Pa.) Liberty High. While kicking inside Holuba Hall during spring practice, the sound of his foot impacting the ball reverberated off the walls of the facility.
Looking back on how he got to this point, Sahaydak admits a big part of it was things happening to break the right way for him.
“Football was kind of one of those things that I actually didn’t really plan on doing,” he said. “Even in high school, I kind of kind of just bounced into it. And then it ended up being, you know, something that I’m going to college for.”
When Sahaydak says he comes from “a big soccer” family, he is not kidding. His dad de el, also named Alexander, played at Brown in the early 1990s. His uncle, Timothy Sahaydak, played at North Carolina, and later professionally for the Miami Fusion and Columbus Crew. His aunt, Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, played at North Carolina and later for the United States Women’s National Team.
If I have watched football growing up, it was usually Penn State, simply because it happened to be the most prominent team in the Lehigh Valley. But unlike many young athletes in Pennsylvania, he initially never dreamed of playing in Beaver Stadium.
“You watch football, but my family wasn’t a big football family in the first place,” he said. “I’m the first in my family to even play football.”
And that’s where fate stepped in. While Sahaydak was growing up and focusing primarily on soccer, his mom, Gretchen, was friends with the wife of an assistant football coach at Liberty.
“It was kind of always a joke, like, ‘Hey, maybe Sander could kick in high school,’” he recalled. “And then it turned out that their kicker graduated, and then it was, ‘Hey, maybe Sander really NEEDS to kick in high school.’ So they asked, and I tried out like a week before the first game.
“I only did it because I wanted to meet new people,” he added. “I was just a freshman in high school. And I was like, ‘Hey, this would be a great opportunity to meet some new kids, see what’s happening.’ So I kind of got thrown into it, and then kind of ran (with it) from there. You know, stuck with it, and just kind of, it’s where I am now.”
His parents were not initially thrilled with the idea of him playing football. “Especially my mom, because she knows all about the contact. I mean, I’m not a huge guy in the first place,” he said.
But to say it was a smart move is an understatement. Sahaydak was Liberty’s starting kicker as a freshman and sophomore, lettering both years. He did so well, that in the summer before his junior year it occurred to him that attending kicking camps might be a good idea. The idea was to see where he stacked up with other kickers, and it turned out that he was out-performing most of them. He ultimately earned a five-star rating from Kohl’s Professional Camps.
At that point, I thought, “Maybe I should really focus on this and see where it takes me.”
Sahaydak competed in soccer as well as track and field through his junior year at Liberty. I have received a scholarship offer from Penn State on April 18 of 2020 and committed to james franklin and company 11 days later. Realizing what sport was going to pay the bills in college, he focused only on football for his senior year of high school.
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Sahaydak felt fortunate to be able to spend the 2021 preseason and regular season working out with Stout, who was a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens (as a punter) in the 2022 NFL Draft. How did Stout impact his game from him?
“College football is definitely a lot more involved than high school football,” Sahaydak said. “So kind of getting out for extra work and then just helping with technique stuff, too. He was just a really good role model and teammate — a coach at times for me. So I was really happy for him (to get drafted). It really helped me with my freshman year.”
Pinegar has been a strong teammate, too, even though they are competing for playing time.
“We do a good job of trying to figure stuff out with our swings, bouncing ideas across each other,” Sahaydak said. “…I think we make each other better. So it’s great to have someone — especially a great kicker like Jake — to compete with and see where you stand and what you can do better.”
Sahaydak also enjoys competing with the other PSU specialists in FIFA 22. But doing that and watching soccer on TV are about as close as he ever gets to the sport anymore. He was asked if he has considered double dipping in football and soccer at Penn State, as Chris and Matt Bahr did with distinction in the 1970s.
“Especially now, I think football is a very, very involved sport at a level like this,” Sahaydak said. “You know, I have trouble balancing just football and class now. I don’t know how it would be throwing another sport on top of it.”
Which brings us back to the start of this story — the smooth transition from soccer to football by a kid named Sander. And the mom who gave him the unique name and later played a significant role in him getting involved with playing football, only to worry like crazy when he began actually participating in the sport.
“She’s a little more at ease with it now, knowing that as a kicker, there’s a bunch of 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 guys making sure I don’t get hit,” Sahaydak said with a smile. “So she’s a little more comfortable with it.”