Navy blue and gold courses through the veins of Tom Vanderhorst.
The son of a Vietnam Navy pilot and grandson of a World War II sailor, Vanderhorst never considered going to college anywhere but the Naval Academy.
"When I was place-kicking for my high school team in Newman, Ga., I dreamed of one day kicking the game-winning field goal against Army," he said last week before the Midshipmen started preseason practice.
And it almost happened, only Vanderhorst's saga was more implausible than a Hollywood script.
He had no immediate plans of playing football as a plebe. When he did decide to audition as a walk-on, he earned a spot on the jayvees.
But the varsity was experiencing place-kicking problems as sophomore Jason Covarrubias struggled with his consistency, and Vanderhorst was considered a possible solution.
He won his promotion two weeks before the annual showdown with Army after winning a kicking contest against Covarrubias and junior Ryan Bucchianeri.
Navy publicists did not have time to add his name to the game roster before Vanderhorst found himself at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, living out his boyhood dream of playing against Army.
"We got Tom out there an hour and a half before the game to acclimate him to the surroundings," said kicking coach Todd Wright. "We were both a little nervous because of the game's importance.
"With place-kickers, the mental part is probably more important than the physical skills, and I put a lot of stress on keeping your emotions in check. But Tom has the perfect temperament for a place-kicker. He never gets too high or too low. Nothing bothers him."
Vanderhorst, however, remembers being somewhat awed by the situation. "I'd never been on the field with such a big crowd in the stands," he said. "It was electrifying, and I was really pumped."
But he dispelled whatever butterflies he might have possessed when he kicked an extra point to give Navy an early 7-0 lead.
He would later kick field goals of 39 and 22 yards to give the Mids a 13-7 lead late in the fourth quarter, and it appeared he would get a chance to put the game out of reach of the Cadets when Navy marched to the 1-yard line with 8: 26 left to play.
But Charlie Weatherbie, in his first year as Navy's head coach, knew all too well the recent history of the Army series, and how, for two straight years, missed kicks by Bucchianeri had allowed Army to escape with last-second victories.
So Weatherbie opted to go for the touchdown. But the strategy failed when Chris McCoy's fourth-down pass to an open Cory Schemm fell in the end zone.
A tearful Weatherbie apologized to his team after Army had marched 99 yards for the winning touchdown.
"When I got back to Georgia during a school break, a lot of people said, 'The coach messed up,' " Vanderhorst said. "But I don't agree, and the coach didn't need to explain himself.
"At the time, I was standing right next to him, yelling 'Go for six.' At that point, I wasn't thinking about being a hero. I just wanted us to beat Army."
Vanderhorst could get another chance this fall. He is listed as the team's No. 1 place-kicker.
"I tell Tom he has a chance to break all the Naval Academy kicking records," said Wright. "I tell him, all he has to do is make 100 percent of his kicks from inside the 40, and he's capable of that."
But Vanderhorst could be seriously challenged by freshman Tim Shubzda.
"When Shubzda kicks a ball, it sounds like someone exploding a watermelon," said Weatherbie. "He's got a real strong foot."
But Vanderhorst has had a taste of glory. And now the dream is within his grasp.
Pub Date: 8/12/96