The Nerf balls, in hindsight, were the low point.
Through fits and starts, planks and crunches, he never doubted himself. Well, except this once. Rafael Gaglianone felt silly enough having to kick toys around for two weeks over the winter while rehabbing his surgically repaired back.
But when you look up and notice your Wisconsin Badgers teammates staring the way they would at an elk mixing a margarita, brother, the heart does tend to sink a bit.
“You’re going out there and your teammates are seeing you with a Nerf ball,” Gaglianone told Land of 10.
“And they’re like, ‘What is this kid doing? He’s never going to come back.’”
Now that he’s over the mountain, metaphorical or otherwise, Rafy can laugh about it now. The Nerf balls. The pee-wee balls. All part of the legend.
All part of how the elk got his groove back.
“A lot of it was just mentally trusting myself,” said Gaglianone, the Badgers kicker whose 2016 — seven makes on eight attempts, including a game-clincher against LSU — was over after three games because of that aforementioned back issue. “You come from any injury and any type of situation like that, there’s a little bit of hesitation here and you’re a little bit scared there.
“It’s one of those situations where you’ve just got to get off the hump, just move on and really tell yourself, ‘I’m going slow.’”
There was a method to the madness, in hindsight, same as any tear-down and build-up from square one.
Part A: Strengthen the core muscles around the back again. Part B: Increase the weight and resistance of the balls being struck, slowly.
Starting with the ridiculous and the neon-hued.
‘And when you see the games, and the way we play, it’s always going to [involve] close games.’
— Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone
“And I started kicking Nerf balls and moved on to the pee-wee balls,” recalled Gaglianone, who enters the autumn with 44 career makes with the Badgers, No. 5 all-time in Wisconsin annals. “And the first time I hit an actual football, it felt like I was hitting a rock, because of how heavy it felt.
“It was just so mentally challenging to just stay through the process and you know, trust that I was going to get back to where I am right now.”
He’s been pain-free for months, which is good. He’s been putting rocks between the uprights from a healthy distance — Gaglianone has converted 17 of 25 attempts from 40 yards out or longer, 15 of 19 from 40-49 yards out — for longer than that, which is even better.
“We were just trying to be the same with the process, and we really didn’t want to rush anything,” Gaglianone said. “I didn’t have to come back [the rest of] the season, I knew I was going to get a medical [redshirt]. I knew I could take my time. Just starting with flexibility, working on that flexibility.”
Bending. Mobility. Mojo. A 5-foot-11 specialist pumping iron and huffing alongside offensive linemen and linebackers.
“I kind of joke around with the guys [that], ‘This is not my time to shine, lifting weights and doing sprints,’” Gaglianone said. “That’s not where I’m going to leave my mark on this program.”
The ultimate mark — the bar — is on the scoreboard, for better or worse. The top of the West division is tighter than a Steve Cropper riff, and the spoils tend to land with those who finish what they start.
The Badgers’ last six meetings with Nebraska and Iowa — five of them victories, outlining the path to two division titles over the last three seasons — have been decided by an average of just 7.8 points per contest. The finer the margins, the higher the stakes.
“Coach [Paul] Chryst is always talking about, ‘Just be the good version of yourself,’” Gaglianone said. “You don’t need to be anything more than yourself. Just be the good you.
“And when you see the games, and the way we play, it’s always going to [involve] close games. It’s always going to be seven-minute drives. And if you miss a field goal, that’s seven minutes that just went down the pipes.
“So there’s a lot of responsibility in this position. And being an upperclassman, you understand that a lot more. So you take everything a lot more seriously and you know how much you can help a team and how much you can hurt a team.”
Time flies when you’re crushing Nerf balls. Gaglianone found out earlier this summer he’s getting a year of eligibility back after a star-crossed 2016, putting two more years on the clock.
Which means, given that the Brazilian kicker averaged 18.5 makes over his first pair of healthy seasons, Wisconsin’s career record of 65 field goals — set by Todd Gregoire from 1984-87 — could very much be in play.
“It’s easy to look back right now and say like, ‘Yeah, I knew I was going to get there,’ and this and that,” Gaglianone said. “I really just felt like it was a blessing that I was able to take my medical [redshirt] and get two years back.
“I’ve got to understand that I’ve got an opportunity to get that year back, to play half my career with that senior mentality. I have that senior mentality and I have guys above me who kind of taught me the way, taught me the ropes. I’m fortunate to be in that position, to be able to help the young guys now.”