Nathan Gibbs realized he might get himself into some trouble.
When asked to discuss what the Penguins’ senior punter Nick Liste is like off the field, the long snapper chuckled before putting Liste on blast.
“He’s probably gonna get mad at me, but he’s a bit of a nerd,” Gibbs said. “He plays a lot of videogames.”
Gibbs then went on to tell a story of junior kicker Joey Cejudo walking into Liste’s dorm room. Upon seeing the 22-year old playing a videogame, Cejudo had said, “Hey Sun Lord, I need your help.”
“It was just a goofy thing because Nick’s such a videogame nerd,” Gibbs added. “All in all, he’s a good guy to hang out with; he’ll tell you how it is. But he’s just a bit of a nerd, and that’s why we love him.”
While Liste’s teammates enjoyed his off-field antics, they liked his on-field actions as well.
“He’s very important — he really is,” senior quarterback Kurt Hess said mid-season. “When you have a good punter like Liste, you’re really fortunate to have somebody who can change the game.”
A game-changer indeed. Over four seasons at Youngstown State University, Liste worked his way to the top of three Penguins’ all-time record lists and was named to the 2013 Missouri Valley Football Conference first-team.
Fittingly enough, the story of this “nerd” — who became one of YSU’s greatest special teams performers — can be told through a few important numbers.
At this point in his life, Liste figured he would be a college athlete — just in a different sport.
“I grew up a soccer player,” he said. “As a kid, I didn’t really like football.”
He started playing soccer at the age of 4 and continued to do so for the next 14 years until he graduated from Niles McKinley High School in 2009.
“Growing up, I thought I was going to play some college soccer,” Liste said. “Out of nowhere, all my friends started getting a little bigger and they were like, ‘Go out for football.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m a soccer player.’”
On the soccer field, Liste was best known for his ability to kick the checkered ball great lengths. He couldn’t help but wonder if he could do the same to the pigskin.
While Liste was an eighth grader, the Niles High football team tried to persuade his older brother Dave, a junior, to be the Dragons kicker.
“He couldn’t do it because he had knee surgery,” Liste said. “So I went and messed around kicking some footballs. I found out I was pretty good, so I stuck with it.”
By his freshman year, Liste earned the spot as Niles’ varsity kicker.
“I was like, ‘Oh boy, freshman starting varsity,’” he said. “I was nervous, but at the same time, I was ready.”
Apparently he was, as the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder averaged nearly 40 yards per punt throughout his high school career. Although he was recruited by larger schools such as the University of South Carolina and the University of Pittsburgh, Liste chose to remain close to home at YSU.
“Being a local guy, I knew that the community here is strong,” Liste said. “That played a big part in it. I like everything about this place, really.”
There’s praise, and then there’s the praise Penguins’ head coach Eric Wolford gave Liste after YSU’s 24-14 victory against Western Illinois University on Oct. 19.
On a cold and windy afternoon, Liste shined as he notched five punts for 217 yards. Furthermore, he placed two punts on the WIU 1-yard line, another inside the 20 and recorded a long kick of 55 yards.
“Nick Liste was huge once again,” Wolford said in his postgame press conference. “Made some big-time kicks. He’s possibly the team MVP in my book.”
Judging by Liste’s final statistics, it’s hard to argue with Wolford’s assessment.
In his four-year Penguins career, he averaged 41.6 yards per punt, breaking the previous YSU record of 40.9 set by Nick Xides in 1985.
Liste also shattered the yards-per-punt record for a season, as he finished the 2013 campaign averaging 44.2 yards per kick. Xides’ 1985 mark was 41.8.
“As a quarterback, you never average 40-something yards [per play],” Hess said. “As a running back, you never average 40-something. So because he can change field and pin them inside the 20, he really is a key element to what we do as a team.”
Others took notice as well. Liste was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference special teams Player of the Week twice in 2013. He also earned the award once in 2012 and another time in 2011.
Those four career MVFC awards tie a YSU record.
“Nick’s worked really hard,” Jamie Bryant, first-year Penguins special teams coordinator, said. “He’s a guy that can change field position at one swing of the leg.”
Attention to detail.
It may help Liste in video game exploits, but it’s also something he incorporates into punting and kickoffs. After every practice when the punt team is finished, he does an additional 50-100 drops by himself.
“My drops are very technique oriented; I compare it to golf,” Liste said. “If one thing goes wrong, the whole thing will end up bad. So I really try to be perfect in what I do.”
No wonder Bryant labeled the physical education major a perfectionist.
“He’s upset when he doesn’t punt the ball exactly where it’s supposed to be punted and exactly how it’s supposed to be punted,” Bryant said.
As Gibbs stated, “He focuses on the little things.”
Admittedly, Liste also has a focus on punting professionally. Various NFL scouts inquired and watched throughout the season.
“He’s a very talented person and he has a strong leg,” Bryant said. “If he continues to work hard and do the things he’s doing, he’s going to have a chance at the next level.”
Not bad for a videogame nerd.