CLINTON -- Clinton kicker Joao Cocenza doesn’t know much about American football.
It makes sense, considering he’s been in the country for about three weeks.
What Cocenza does now is how to kick a football a mile.
A new arrival to Clinton as a foreign exchange student from Brazil, Cocenza doesn’t know that the Maroons have made the playoffs just once since 2004 and that their 2-0 start to the 2018 season is an exciting development.
He does know that after just one career football game he has already won over the Maroons’ fan base, which loudly cheers his every point-after attempt and field goal try.
It is easy to understand their support. Cocenza has given Clinton a long-range scoring weapon that it will need as its Central Illinois Conference schedule begins Friday against Shelbyville.
In his debut, Cocenza, who the Clinton teachers call “John” and his teammates call “J-Money,” kicked a 32-yard field goal, a 19-yarder and was 5-for-5 on point-after kicks.
Cocenza has traveled the globe, and on his travels he's become a sporting Renaissance man.
“He’s a world traveler and he just happened to land here, and one of his things is that wherever he goes he tries to participate in whatever the local sport is,” Clinton coach Chris Ridgeway said. “He’s been to Europe and played soccer, he’s done rugby, men’s volleyball. When he came here he said he wanted to play football."
Although Cocenza wanted to play, he didn’t expect to make the varsity squad a few weeks after arriving in Illinois.
“I knew about American football but I didn’t know I was going to play," Cocenza said. "I just came (to Clinton) and they said they were having practice so I came here to try to do something. The coach had me kick the ball and they liked it, so I’m staying here."
Cocenza said he loves Illinois so far, and one thing in particular — fast food.
“It’s really cool here," Cocenza said. "I really like the school and the food here is really good. I like hamburgers — every kind of hamburgers they have here."
His arrival and success has been a pleasant surprise for Ridgeway.
“Honestly, John’s a really good kicker and he’s still learning," Ridgeway said. "That’s what’s insane. He lined up three steps behind the ball on kickoff. I’m like ‘No, you need to get a run at this ball and get as much leg into as you can.’ He didn’t know that.”
With each practice Cocenza is getting better — he’s made a 50-yard field goal in practice. On kickoffs, Clinton opponents might never start the game outside the 20-yard line again this season.
“With soccer, the ball is different, so he thinks he has to get under the ball to get air on it, but on kickoffs he has to aim higher, and he did that on the last three kicks and got it inside the five (yard line),” Ridgeway said. “It made a huge difference. He is learning every day and you just see him getting better and better.”
Maroons’ running back Tyrese Petty used to be team's kicker, but he’s happy to step aside for Cocenza.
“He took my spot but I’m OK with that," Petty said. "I don’t care, as long as we are winning. He can kick a lot further than I can. I was more of a kick-off type of kicker, but we can kick field goals now.”
Cocenza said he had jitters for this first game and, particularly, the crowd noise was getting to him.
“I was really nervous because everyone was looking at me and yelling and the band and the cheerleaders and we don’t have this at soccer games,” he said. “(In soccer) it’s just the people watching but we don’t have the band and everyone, so I was really nervous about kicking in my first game.”
Cocenza’s scoring will come in handy on Friday against a Shelbyville (1-1) team that will test Clinton.
“(Shelbyville) is the first team that we have seen that really excels in the passing game," Ridgeway said. "We haven’t seen that yet and we will have to practice and prepare for. (Quarterback Emric Messado) is both incredibly fast and has a strong arm. Defensively they are fast, so we are going to try to prepare for that as best we can.”
Offensively, the Maroons will try to balance their running attack with Petty and senior captain Kolby Winter.
Winter is the grinder when the clock needs to be run out and Petty picks up the big yards, including 65- and 61-yard touchdown runs against Pawnee in Week 2.
“I do all the grunt work. I like it. I drive down the field and Tyrese puts the ball in,” Winter said.
The early season success and Cocenza’s arrival has brought the Marroons closer together.
“We are more of a family than what we have been. We have a better bond than what we normally do,” Winter said. “That’s helped us in practice and is helping us succeed more than usual. Our work ethic is a lot harder than what it has been these last few years. You get that good feeling.”