Rocky Mountain grad Nino Alibegic (2016) estimates he only attempted one PAT, one punt and a handful of kickoffs as the Grizzlies’ backup kicker in high school. But after two years in junior college, the former soccer player has earned a spot on a Division I roster.
Alibegic announced his verbal commitment to a preferred walk-on offer from Hawaii on Sunday night, choosing the Rainbow Warriors over scholarship offers from Division II Missouri Southern State and Southwestern Oklahoma State.
Alibegic said he chose Hawaii because it allows him to be close to his mother, who lives on Maui, and because its coaches told him he has a chance to compete for a starting spot immediately.
But even he can hardly believe his journey from a backup kicker in high school to a Division I roster.
“If you put in the work, anything is possible,” Alibegic said. “If you walk on at first, if you go to a JC, in the end, as long as you believe in yourself and trust the process and work hard, everything will come together.
“At some points, I had doubts. ‘Is this all going to work out?’ It wrapped up late for me, as you can see, but it all worked out in the end.”
Hawaii finished last in the Mountain West in 2017 in field goals made (four), attempted (nine), percentage (44.4 percent) and longest made field goal (38 yards). It also ranked second to last in kickoff distance at 57.7 yards per kick and only recorded two touchbacks.
The Rainbow Warriors return their starting field-goal kicker, Alex Trifonovitch, and kickoff specialist, Ryan Meskell, as juniors. Alibegic will compete with both for a starting role.
“With their kicking situation, they are not bringing anyone else in for this class,” Alibegic said. “Whoever wins the starting job will be put on scholarship. With how I’ve been working out, I’m pretty confident. I’m just ready to go over there and work and get that spot.”
The son of Bosnian refugees, Alibegic was born in Boise and spent the majority of his childhood focused on soccer. He grew up in the FC Nova system, played midfield for Rocky Mountain and never considered football until the summer before his senior season.
He and Jonah Dalmas, another soccer star and the Grizzlies’ All-Idaho kicker and punter, punted the ball back and forth after a soccer practice when Scott Criner approached. The former Rocky Mountain coach told Alibegic he should try out for the football team, and Dalmas sealed the deal by convincing Alibegic he could win a state title. Rocky Mountain did later that fall.
“What I liked about him is he’s stayed after it and kept reinventing himself,” Criner said. “I’m excited about him going to Hawaii. With Nino, it was never about leg strength. It’s about how much he knows and how much he picks up. It’s all about him being with the right special teams coach.”
Alibegic admits he didn’t take the sport seriously until after his senior season ended, when he started weighing the scholarship options between football and soccer. He chose football because of the scholarship money available and because he felt he could go farther in the sport.
“I told my dad, and he said: ‘You’re crazy. We put so much into soccer,’ ” Alibegic said. “My mom started crying when I told her. I don’t want to know how much goes into club fees and airfare for camps and tournaments.
“… But after a couple camps and they saw what I could do, they stuck with me and have been on my side the whole time.”
His performance at kicker camps secured him a partial scholarship at Arizona Western College, where he earned first-team all-league and all-region honors. He then transferred to Independence Community College in Kansas, where he made 6-of-12 field goals and 27-of-33 extra points last fall. His longest field goal was 44 yards.
His story from a backup in high school to the college ranks also led the producers of the Netflix series “Last Chance U” to feature Alibegic on its upcoming season set to debut in July. The series filmed its third season at Independence Community College last fall.
“I’m kind of nervous,” he admitted. “But I’m really excited to see how it turns out.”