Niagara Gazette — SANBORN — Johnny Parks has been coaching youth football at Niagara Wheatfield Amateur Athletics for 13 years now, but he’s never had a player like Tristian Vandenberg.
Vandenberg, a seventh grader at Edward Town Middle School, racks up yards, tackles and touchdowns for the 120-pound NWAA Tomcats, starting at running back and linebacker. But what sets him apart is his play on special teams — not as a returner or in coverage, but as a kicker.
The 12-year-old Vandenberg, who has a soccer background, decided to give kickoffs a try last season. After impressing from the tee, Parks and Vandenberg’s father, Jim, decided give Tristian a shot at field goals, and this season he’s hit from as far as 42 yards.
“He has a soccer background, and three years ago through school he go to try Punt, Pass and Kick,” said the elder Vandenberg, who kicked in high school at Williamsville South. “He won, then won at (Ralph Wilson Stadium) ... Right about then we decided to pursue it.”
“Pursuing it” consists of practicing three nights a week, with the younger Vandenberg kicking field goals for 20-30 minutes a night. It’s paid off so far, as he’s hit 9 of 11 extra points (one blocked) and 2 of 2 field goals this season, splitting the uprights from 19 and 28 yards out. He’s also started booming kickoffs, booting two touchbacks and consistently clearing 50 yards, kicking from the Tomcats’ 40 to inside their opponents’ 10.
So rare are Vandenberg’s feats of foot that Parks said opposing parents were “in awe” the first time the Tomcats lined up for a field goal.
“This is something unique,” Parks said. “It’s not something they teach in youth football.
“After we did it, we’ve seen other teams try, but so far Tristian’s got the leg up on everybody.”
Vandenberg has just started to earn accolades from higher institutions. On Wednesday night at Terry Harvey Field, Parks and Jim Vandenberg invited Adam Tanalski from the Hammer Kicking Academy in Hamburg to watch the younger Vandenberg kick before practice.
Tanalski, who kicked at the University at Buffalo and earned a tryout with the Buffalo Bills, founded the HKA and has turned it into a national invite-only football specialist training camp. After watching Vandenberg kick, he decided to offer an invitation.
“Tristian gets great lift and is extremely polished for a seventh grader,” Tanalski said via text message. “He gets great lift and height on his balls and has 40-yard range. (He’s) one of the best we’ve seen at a young age in our program, which has now produced 16 D-1 specialists.”
Vandenberg has also tallied 19 tackles, 15 assists, three sacks and an interception on defense while rushing for 364 yards and 11 touchdowns in just three games this season. He said he doesn’t have a preference as to where he plays.
Parks said he definitely has a future thanks to his fantastic foot.
“He’s a natural,” Parks said. “He’s gonna do something good. He’s the best I’ve seen around.”Follow Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.