GRAND FORKS-Warren Taylor stood on the Memorial Stadium artificial turf Wednesday morning, Aug. 8, holding his University of North Dakota football shoulder pads and helmet under his arm.
It's the first football uniform he's ever had. The only pads he's ever put on were borrowed from a friend who played NCAA Division III football.
Welcome to the wild story of UND's backup punter-a 22-year-old graduate transfer who didn't play high school or college football. He used YouTube videos to learn how to punt, practiced at a nearby dog park and now booms 50-yarders with a 5.0-second hang time.
"I had watched a lot of football and fell in love with it," Taylor said. "I felt I could do it better. It took a while to get there. When I first went in the backyard, I was hitting 20 or 30 (yards) at a time. It was knuckling and wobbling.
"But I saw myself getting to this point. And it worked out with a lot of hard work."
Taylor's name seemingly popped up out of nowhere at UND, appearing on the team's most recent depth chart but not on any public roster. He wears No. 96 in practice, a jersey number associated more with the defensive line than the special teams group.
Taylor was born in Berkeley, Calif., grew up in Williamstown, Mass., went to private school in Vermont (graduating with a class of 12) and holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Denver, a school that doesn't even sponsor football.
For the past three years, Taylor-mostly by himself-practiced in a dog park next to a highway near his Denver residence, squeezing training in between his part-time job with the DU science department.
Another one of Taylor's favorite training spots was a rugby field surrounded by a fence.
"The gates were always locked, so I had to hop the fence," Taylor said. "I got used to climbing the fence.
"I would watch NFL guys punt on YouTube night after night. It was all I could think about sometimes. I would go and watch YouTube for hours and then go out and try to emulate what I saw."
After graduating from DU, Taylor started to attend special teams showcases-first in Pittsburgh (a more than eight-hour drive from his hometown in Massachusetts) and then in Orlando, where college recruiters were searching for recruits.
Taylor didn't tell his family much about his punting desires until he was ready to head to the showcases.
"They were taken aback, not knowing what was going on," Taylor said. "I didn't talk about it much because I wanted to show what I could do before I started talking myself up. Now, they're just as into it as I am."
In his quest to find a college football home, Taylor made some YouTube videos of his own. He emailed every Division I school in the country. He heard back from 20 of those schools, although most quit talking to him when he told them he'd never played high school or college football before.
Some kickers don't have a background with football but often are experienced soccer players. Taylor said he played soccer in high school, although admitted he wasn't very good and the competition was "an extremely low level."
"And I don't know how much that really translates to punting," he said.
Through the emails and his own YouTube videos, Taylor made a connection with about five Division I coaches, including UND special teams coach Shawn Kostich, who convinced Taylor to walk-on to UND and join the competition for the starting punter role with true freshman Cade Peterson.
Taylor committed in June and arrived in Grand Forks before the Fourth of July. His only background knowledge of the area was that he spent summers with his grandma in Plankinton, S.D.
"I'm very excited," Taylor said. "It has been fun. I've come a long way since getting here a month and a half ago. There's more work to do to be game-ready, but I'm working hard every day."
Taylor's leg strength is undeniable, but his biggest challenge to see the field for UND will be his ability to handle a hard snap and get a punt away with the speed a Division I player needs before it can be blocked.
That wasn't the easiest part of the equation to simulate at the dog park.
"I'm hoping to smooth out and get under 2.0 seconds operation time," Taylor said. "But I've got a big leg ... from kicking every day for two-and-a half years."