As he walked through the doors and stepped onto the turf of the John Mellencamp Pavilion, James Knowlton couldn’t believe what he was stepping into. He spun around looking at the red and white walls and the IU logo planted at the center of the field, faded from countless practices.
When James Knowlton messaged senior kicker Logan Justus two months earlier, he never imagined it would lead to him standing on IU football’s practice field getting ready to work out with one of the best kickers in the country.
Growing up in Carmel, Indiana, James Knowlton and his family were die-hard IU fans. Even with basketball being the main sport in the state, James always had an affinity for football and grew up watching quarterback Peyton Manning play for the Indianapolis Colts.
James Knowlton's love of football grew even more when his family moved out of basketball country to Salt Lake City, Utah, when he was 10 years old, where football is still king.
“James has had a love for football from a very early age,” his father Stewart Knowlton said. “Unfortunately, his body size didn’t grow as fast as his love for the sport, so he was forced to focus on a sport with a little less contact than football – soccer.”
James Knowlton found success playing soccer as a standout athlete and grew to love the game, but there was always a special spot in his heart for football.
At the end of his sophomore year of high school, James Knowlton realized many of the best kickers in football are also soccer players.
In that moment, his avenue towards football opened.
“I started kicking late, late in my sophomore year,” James Knowlton said. “I kind of just started and worked until the next season.”
James Knowlton caught the eye of Skyline High School’s football coach Zac Erekson and was invited to come play for the team in the upcoming season. James Knowlton, however, was still committed to playing soccer and before he could take the coach up on his offer, wanted to be assured that he could play on both teams. He was told it wouldn’t be a problem.
After practicing all summer and teaching himself how to kick, James Knowlton was ready to compete. Or so he thought.
“I ended up getting kicked off the team in the third week,” James Knowlton said. “I had hurt my foot and told the coaches that I couldn’t do the conditioning and all the sprints. I guess there was some kind of miscommunication, and they weren’t too happy about that, and I ended up having to leave.”
Just as fast as James Knowlton had found a path towards football, it vanished.
After being kicked off the team, James Knowlton refocused on soccer as he tried to put football behind him. Unlike his younger self, who couldn’t get enough football and dreamed of strapping on a helmet, his love for the sport faded. James Knowlton went almost his entire junior year of high school without kicking a football.
But like all things people love, football crept back into his heart, and the urge to play started up again.
“At the very start of the summer, I started to get into it again,” James Knowlton said. “It was kind of just something to have some fun with, and I really enjoyed it and decided to reach out to our school’s new head coach.”
James Knowlton knew he would be walking into a kicking competition in the fall and desperately wanted to improve to give himself the best chance to win the job. James Knowlton and his family couldn’t afford to send him to a kicking camp or hire a kicking coach, so James Knowlton turned to the internet for help.
“You can find a lot of good stuff on the internet,” James Knowlton said, “but I couldn’t find anything I was looking for when it came to kicking and proper technique.”
In a last-ditch effort for help, James Knowlton reached out to Justus on Instagram.
“Hey do you have any workouts or drills that I can do to increase my field goal distance?” James Knowlton wrote. “I’m in high school, and I just can’t find anything online. It would really help man. You’re pretty much an idol of mine.”
Ten days later at 8:49 a.m. as James Knowlton sat in his 2005 Mitsubishi Galant before starting his workout, an unexpected response popped up on his phone.
“Yes, a bunch of single leg movements such as lunges and also hip workouts,” Justus responded. “Focus on technique. The distance will come.”
James Knowlton couldn’t believe it as he stared at his phone in shock that his idol had responded. As his eyes glued to the screen rereading Justus’ response over and over, James Knowlton couldn’t pull himself out of his car to start his morning workout.
“I couldn’t believe that he had actually responded to me,” James Knowlton remembered. “It didn’t really hit me for at least five or six hours that Logan Justus had just responded to my text.”
James Knowlton took some time to collect his thoughts and think of any other questions he had for Justus. Most of his follow-up questions were about different things he should focus on and ways he could train, but then the most important question hit him.
James Knowlton remembered that he would be in Bloomington for a week in July for IU’s soccer camp and decided to ask Justus if he would be willing to work with him while he was in town.
The response was a resounding yes.
“I was a little surprised someone was asking me for some help,” Justus said. “But anytime anyone needs help, I always make sure to help them.”
A day before the two were supposed to meet, Justus contacted James Knowlton wondering if they could move their workout because IU’s practice schedule had been shuffled during the week. When James Knowlton told him that him and his father were heading back to Salt Lake City the next day, that was all Justus needed to hear.
“As soon as I told him it was my last day in town he was like, ‘Oh for sure let me know where to meet you, and I’ll be there’,” James Knowlton recalled.
As James Knowlton and his father pulled up to Mellencamp Pavilion, Justus was waiting for them by his Camaro. A car James Knowlton used to hate, but not anymore.
“James loves cars but hates Camaros,” Stewart Knowlton said. “When he saw Logan’s and said, ‘Nice car,' I knew I had lost him.”
Like most people meeting one of their idols, James Knowlton was starstruck and barely talking. That bashfulness didn’t last long as within half an hour, the two of them were joking like old friends while going through their workout.
The main thing Justus had James Knowlton focus on was the fundamentals and learning the proper technique of kicking.
One of the biggest things James Knowlton learned was that kicking isn’t just about swinging your leg as hard as you can. He needed to be deliberate in his motion and ensure he struck the ball the proper way to create maximum force.
For two hours they worked out together, honing James Knowlton’s technique, with every kick seeing slight improvement over the previous attempt.
The longer James Knowlton spent learning from Justus, the greater his confidence grew in his ability to become a kicker.
“The young man I saw go in that fieldhouse and the one that left was night and day,” Stewart Knowlton said. “You could see it, the way he walked, the way he talked. His confidence had skyrocketed.”
At the end of their workout as the two were walking off the field, Justus turned to James Knowlton and told him to make sure he stayed in touch. Justus offered to break down James Knowlton’s film and give him feedback on what he needs to work on and things to fix.
James Knowlton has taken Justus up on his offer to stay in touch, talking about not just technique and drills but also how to approach different aspects of football life. As James Knowlton competed early in the season to be the starting kicker, he would talk to Justus about how he approached being in a position battle.
“I knew he had to compete for [the IU] job for years now,” James Knowlton said. “So when my coach brought in like five or six other guys to compete against, having him there to help me through that helped a lot.”
With Justus’ help, James Knowlton won the starting job and has continued to see his distances increase throughout the summer and fall.
Before working with Justus, James Knowlton was squeaking 30-yard field goals just over the bar, but since then his range has expanded. Now anywhere inside 45 yards, James Knowlton expects himself to make it without any trouble and has been able to stretch his range all the way out to 60 yards in practice.
With every kick a new dream slowly builds in his mind.
“His dream was to play for Indiana soccer, and now there’s no word of soccer,” Stewart Knowlton said. “It’s all about Indiana and kicking. He would sell his soul to kick for Tom Allen. He wants to be just like Logan."
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