Last fall, as the football team’s kicking game continuously struggled, Michael Bittner was making his plans to become a two-sport athlete.
The junior gymnast, who is preparing to enter his first season kicking with the football team, said he didn’t think dual-sporting would be anything too overwhelming – mainly because he had done it before.
In the latter half of his high school career, Bittner competed in gymnastics, soccer and football. He would head to soccer practice right after school, leave it a little early to head up to the football field to kick and then go to the gym and train until about 10 p.m. After that, he would take care of any homework, eat, sleep and then do it all again the next day.
“Time management – I learned quickly when I was a younger kid,” Bittner said. “I think I could’ve done it [in college]. As long as you believe in something and you work hard enough, you can achieve it.”
Bittner came to Temple for gymnastics, but he was originally on a football scholarship with Division II Lock Haven. After a visit in May 2011, however, things fell through.
“When I went up, I didn’t feel at home,” Bittner said. “It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like the right place for me. So, at the end of May I didn’t know what I was going to do, didn’t know where I was going to go.”
So, he called coach Fred Turoff, who he said had shown interest in him as a gymnast.
“I asked to come here,” Bittner said. “He said yeah, so I filled out an application, got accepted and everything and came here for gymnastics.”
Still, it was tough for him to focus on just one sport. Bittner has been doing gymnastics since he was 2 years old. He picked up soccer when he was 8 years old and kicked for his high school football team in his junior and senior year. He loved doing all three.
Temple’s football team was in need of help in the kicking department last fall. The Owls missed five extra points and went 3-for-9 on field goal attempts. Bittner talked to assistant coach Patrick McLaughlin about the idea of competing in two sports, and he had McLaughlin’s support.
“The guy is driven,” McLaughlin said. “He’s got a vision for what he wants to accomplish. Would it been difficult? Yeah.”
But McLaughlin said Bittner would have been able to pull it off.
Bittner said he would have gone through with handling two Division I sports in gymnastics and football at the same time. But then, the Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the men’s gymnastics program last December.
“I started e-mailing the coaches and then we found out about the Dec. 6 cuts,” Bittner said. “I was like, ‘Alright, I kind of really got to take this football thing seriously.’”
“For me, I need to be an athlete,” Bittner added. “I can’t not do a sport in college. I mean we’ll still have club gymnastics, which I’ll still partake in, but it’s not the same as varsity.”
Bittner had approached McLaughlin about the possibility of going to kick for the football team, but he was hesitant to talk to Turoff about it.
“I went to Patrick about it,” Bittner said. “Eventually I started easing into it with Fred. I started training in the gym. My mom bought me a kicking net, I started kicking in the gym every day and he saw me doing it, I don’t know if he knew I was taking it seriously or not yet.”
But when the cuts were announced, Bittner said that Turoff had no problem with him playing football.
“Now if it was still varsity and I was playing football? I don’t know, it might be different,” Bittner said. “But he supports me with what I’m doing now.”
Bittner has started practicing with the football team, but is still on a schedule more tailored for his workload as a gymnast. He has 8 a.m. classes, which allow him to get his work done before he has to go to the gym and train, and then be able to relax afterwards.
He practices with the team on Saturdays, but during the week, when the team practices early in the morning, he said that he accelerates quicker through the practice so he can still get to class.
Bittner hasn’t kicked since he graduated high school in 2011 and he said that the three years away gave him some rust. He said he is 60 percent of what he can be right now, and said it all isn’t going to come back to him right away.
But Bittner hopes he’ll have consistency again by the end of spring practices. Having three other kickers on the roster – sophomore Jim Cooper, redshirt junior Tyler Mayes and redshirt sophomore Colby Perry – will push him too.
“Lots of people say that since there are multiple kickers that they have a bad relationship,” Bittner said. “Or their friendship might not be like it is to a running back or a quarterback, but in my eyes we’re all on one team and were all doing our best to make that team better.”
Nick Tricome can be reached at email@example.com.