Will Reichard, the nation's No. 1 kicker, lost his father in 2016.
Will Reichard and his extended family went to Chuy’s two months ago to celebrate his father’s life. Chuy’s was one of Gary’s favorite restaurants, and he would have ordered the fish tacos and made sure the chips were flowing to the table because he loved the queso.
Will made sure the queso was at the table when he and his family went. He loves Chuy’s queso as much as his father did.
Gary died of pancreatic cancer on March 28, 2016. He was 53 years old. Will was a freshman at Hoover (Ala.) High School when he lost his father.
“It was very difficult for me,” Will told SEC Country. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. It came as a surprise and it came quickly. He got diagnosed in February and died in March. It wasn’t like we had a while to think about what we were going to do. It happened so quickly.”
Will saw his father in the hospital the night before he died. He woke up the next morning thinking he was going to see his father alive again. His mother, Dana, broke the news to her son shortly after he woke up.
The nation’s No. 1 kicker in the 2019 class had a normal conversation with his father the night before. He didn’t recall the specifics, but they were just hanging out with each other like they always did. Because he didn’t know the worst was coming the following day, he never got the closure he wanted.
“That was the worst part,” Will said. “I didn’t get to say what I wanted to say to him.”
Gary meant everything to Will and Will meant everything to Gary. Gary was a family man. He cared deeply about his wife, Dana, and Will’s sister, Taylor. Will said whenever his father wasn’t working for AT&T as a senior technical director, he was spending time with him, his mother and sister.
Gary would take Will to all of his kicking camps and would coach him up when the two had the field to themselves. He wasn’t only a father to Will. He was his best friend.
“We spent all of our time together,” Will said. “He would always give me the best advice. He was my best coach.”
A new life coach comes along
Will’s father didn’t get a chance to see his son turn into the nation’s top kicker. He didn’t get to see his son get named to noted kicking instructor Chris Sailer’s prestigious Top 12 list, which is bestowed upon the most elite kickers, every year since the summer of his freshman year, which is something that hasn’t been done since 2010 when Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey did it. He wasn’t there for Will’s first offer, which came from LSU last summer.
“I wish he was around for this recruiting process,” Will said. “It has been hectic trying to make my decision, so I wish he was around helping me make my decision. I wish he was around so I would know what he thinks. I wish he could be at all of my football games.”
Will Reichard has been the nation’s best high school kicker, according to Sailer’s rankings, since he was a freshman. (Chris Sailer/courtesy)
Will is down to Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Oregon. He will announce his commitment prior to May 24, which is the last day of school at Hoover. It will be an anticipated decision because he’s the best kicker that has come out of high school in several years, according to Sailer, who has coached some of the best kickers in college football and the NFL.
Sailer has been coaching Will since the sixth grade. He was kicking alongside high school players back then, and he says Will was light years ahead of every kicker he has seen on the middle school level. That high praise hasn’t stopped since he’s been in high school.
“I feel like he is the most well-rounded kicker that we have put out in high school probably ever,” Sailer told SEC Country. “I love his makeup both mentally and physically. I think what he has gone through is a big part of that.”
Sailer remembers the voicemail he received from Gary. Sailer was at a tennis lesson for one of his children. When he heard Gary’s voice on the message, he knew something was immediately wrong.
“I got on the phone with him and my heart just sank,” Sailer said. “I felt for him as a father. I felt for Will and his family. He was always there for the kids. Everyone knew him as a fantastic father. In my 18 years of coaching, that was one of the top 5 saddest moments I have ever had to go through.”
Gary told Chris bluntly that he was not going to be around for much longer. Gary also asked Chris if he could be Will’s mentor when he did die because his son looked up to him.
“It’s kind of one of those things that was a challenge for me to step up in that role,” Sailer said. “His dad was a fantastic guy. It was tough. Will was only a freshman. No one deserves to go through that. It wasn’t fair. Will is a very tough-minded kid. He handled it as best as he could. Of course, he was extremely upset, but there are very few people who could have handled it the way he did.”
Sailer said if he could draw up the perfect parent of all the athletes he coaches, Gary would be the person he would sculpt. He was caring but not overbearing. Like any parent, he just wanted Will to have every opportunity he could to succeed.
And that he has.
Specialist recruiting is different from other positions. Only limited offers get extended to kickers because teams normally don’t carry many on their roster. Sailer believes Will would be the exception.
“I kid you not, I could call any division 1 school in the country and tell them Will is interested, and they would take him,” Sailer said. “That’s how good he is. Even if they recruited a kicker last year or the year before. I asked Will for a few schools he was interested in and called those schools and they were all interested. He has been the best kicker, essentially, since the sixth grade. I have put him under extreme pressure in front of anyone I possibly could, like Nick Saban or my college kids who are currently starting around the country. I have never seen him fail any challenge. He is quite remarkable.”
Sailer said Will is what you would want in a kicker. Normally, high school kickers have a flaw that is fixable, such as technique, gaining leg strength or handling pressure situations better. Sailer said there are currently no major flaws in Will’s game.
“If he was in the Class of 2017, 2018, 2019 or 2020, he would still be the No. 1 kicker in the country,” Sailer said. “He’s that good. If I brought him to any campus of where my current college starters are, they would be fearful of their job if Will came to compete. I will go a step further. I even believe you could put him in an NFL camp right now. He’s that good. He’s ready for the next level.
“That’s how special Will is. Everyone fears Will, no matter what age he is.”
The challenge of grief
There wasn’t much time to process what his father was going through shortly after getting diagnosed. He was diagnosed in February and was gone a month later. Pancreatic cancer’s 5-year survival rate for even the earliest stage of cancer varies from 12 to 14 percent. It is the deadliest form of cancer, according to survival rates from the American Cancer Society.
My grandmother died of it nine years ago. Watching my grandmother fight her hardest was the toughest part. My grandmother loved cooking. Holidays were her favorite because she knew she was going to do what she loved — cook and be surrounded by her loved ones. She couldn’t cook anymore shortly after getting diagnosed because her energy level tanked.
When Will told me what his father was experiencing during that short time period after getting diagnosed, it brought back the memories I had of my grandma during that awful time.
“I was really hurting for him,” Will said of his father. “Just watching someone go through that pain and having no energy — he did some chemo — he had nothing in him. He fought as hard as he could, but he didn’t have anything in him. The doctors caught it late, so he was already in a late stage. We knew there was nothing they could do.”
The worst time in Will’s life didn’t get much better shortly after his father’s death. Football was his escape. That, too, was taken from him. He tore his ACL three months after losing his father.
Gary Reichard (left), pictured here with his daughter, Taylor, wife, Dana, and his son, Will.
“I lost two of the biggest things I had going for myself, my dad and football,” Will said. “I was lost during that time. I didn’t know what my purpose was. A lot of people in our program helped me get through that time. I also couldn’t have gotten through it without the help of the Lord.”
He also leaned heavily on his sister and his mother. Taylor was a senior at Hoover when she lost her dad. She only had a few more months at home before she enrolled at Auburn, so the siblings made sure they spent as much time together as possible.
And then there was his mother, who is Will’s everything. Will said they have a very close relationship. She tries to get off from work for every game he has. It’s now just the two of them at home.
“She has inspired me with the way she has worked,” Will said. “She has had to be two people. She has had to be my mom and dad. She’s had to do things that two parents would normally split between each other. No matter if I’ve had a bad day and no matter what I’m going through, I know what she has went through and it keeps me pushing every day.”
There are days that are tougher than others. He said he wakes up every day trying to make his dad proud. Gary always wanted Will to be the hardest worker in the classroom and on the field. It’s something he prides himself on now.
Will now just goes through life day-by-day. He tries not to look too far ahead in the future because of what he has gone through and how fast plans can change. He keeps a journal where he writes his thoughts down, and he occasionally goes back and reads how he has grown since.
Death affects everyone differently. It’s how we move on and how we learn to cope with the loss that defines us all. The death of his father is still fresh to Will, and it’s something he is still trying to process and may not ever fully understand.
“I would say that I am happy with my life, but I would not say that I have completely moved on,” Will said. “I don’t know if I ever will. I will always be happy. Just not having him around, I don’t think I will ever completely get over it.
“I just miss his love. Just knowing that I’ll see him again in heaven one day has tremendously helped me get through it.”