By Bill Sorrell
The nickname fit Houston High School punter Pat Gardner perfectly.
“His nickname was ‘36’,” said teammate Jacob Painter. “We joked about him being the valedictorian of our school.”
Gardner made a perfect score – 36 – on his ACT and with a 4.72 grade-point is the valedictorian of the Class of 2017.
“He is the ideal student athlete with a heart for the game and a mind for the classroom,” said Painter, a senior, who did kickoffs for the Mustangs.
Gardner, 18, has not minded taking the most rigorous course load available to him.
“That is the biggest factor in my ACT success. By challenging myself through my first three years of high school, I developed many of the necessary skills to do well,” he said.
As a junior Gardner took seven Advanced Placement (college-level curricula) courses — English, calculus, U.S. history, statistics, chemistry, physics, Spanish.
His senior year he has taken AP classes in English, physics, computer science principles — his favorite subject, microeconomics, U.S. government and politics and a dual enrollment with the University of Memphis in Calculus III.
Gardner has made straight A’s throughout high school.
“During my freshman year, I was thinking what I want to achieve four years from now. Being valedictorian was one of my goals,” said Gardner, who credits the support of family and friends for his “sticking to” a difficult academic regimen. He will graduate with 17 Advanced Placement classes.
During the spring semester of his sophomore year he took five ACT practice tests at home on five straight Saturday mornings.
“I had to manage the will power to go to bed early and focus on the tests rather than going out with friends. That helped me get acclimated to the ACT and the timing, test structure and the questions. You have to be able to focus throughout the 3 1/2 hours and not anything else.”
He took three official ACT tests improving from a 34 the summer before this junior year to 35 to 36 which he made in February 2016. Before the first test he had written down a goal of making 30-plus which he said was not that stringent. Before the third one he had written down a goal of 36.
He almost didn’t make it. He was on the reading test and had five minutes left on the last passage. He skimmed it, answered the questions and “it paid off.”
“Wow,” was the reaction of his parents Bill and Patricia Gardner when they saw his score.
Pat was surprised.
“It was difficult,” said Gardner, attributing his perfect score to “constant academic self-improvement” and “all information that I have gathered” from demanding curricula that gave him a boost for standardized testing.
Houston head football coach Will Hudgens said, “It is not surprising to me that he has a 36 on his ACT. It shows his intelligence. The true thing about Pat is how hard he works. He worked probably harder than anybody else on our team.”
Painter said, “What I admire most, he’s got a bright mind and a great ability to catch onto things quickly. He worked his tail off to be a great teammate, a great student.”
Gardner did not play football until his senior year. He brought the same mindset that he used to develop academic success to the gridiron: Repetition creates consistency.
“When I practice enough I can see good results, Punting is a lot more mechanical. If it is a game and high-pressure scenario or in practice, you have to go through the same mechanics 1,000 times to get it right,” said Gardner (5-7, 155).
Emmanuel Chi, a Houston junior who kicked extra points and field goals, said, “He would non-stop practice his punting form and it definitely showed off in games.”
Many of Gardner’s punts went beyond his 36 ACT score.
Earning Region 4-6A honorable mention, he had five 50-plus yard punts, including his longest, 53 yards against Arlington, and 13 punts of 40 yards or more. His longest hang time was 4.4 seconds on a 41-yard punt against White Station.
His 52-yarder against Ravenwood went for 44 net yards from the line of scrimmage.
Gardner’s biggest thrill was a 52-yard net punt against Collierville that was downed at the Dragons’ 4-yard line.
“Pat’s ability to punt gave our team a great ability to completely change field positions and to really pin our opponent back in their own territory, giving our defense a great opportunity to make stops and force turnovers,” said Painter.
Gardner’s field-flipping punts made him “a really good weapon for us,” said Hudgens, whose team had a rebound season from 1-10 in 2015 to 4-6 with the four victories against municipality schools.
After bobbling two snaps against CBHS, Gardner wondered if his punting career would be short-lived. One went through his hands, hit him in the helmet and bounced off.
“The other team pounced on it,” said Gardner, who did feel better when Houston’s J.C. Reynolds got a pick-six soon afterwards.
“I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to go back on the field, whether the coaches trust me. That is one thing I had to overcome. Coach Hudgens gave me the support I needed to be able to succeed. Even after faltering in my first game, my teammates and coaches had my back.”
After the game, Gardner, who did kick a 51-yard punt against CBHS, asked Hudgens for a football to work at home.
At practice Hudgens would shoot balls to him “really fast”, spiking his confidence and catching ability.
Painter, who was selected to play in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl High School All-Star game, worked with Gardner on basics, such as hand placement from snap to kick to follow-through.
“One of the most important things we worked on was his drop, which at first was not consistent, and we did drill work on it daily. I gave pointers on directional punting and different types of punts. He exceeded my expectations how quickly he was able to grasp them. He really excelled in his craft and I couldn’t be more proud of how well he did every game,” said Painter.
“Pat was a soccer player before so I knew he would have a solid leg. After a couple of months working out and repetitive practices it just becomes natural. What surprised me most was his drive to be better every day, to work on mistakes of the previous day. His attitude was a big factor. He never once complained about drill work or practicing.”
Taking advantage of Painter’s pointers, Gardner worked on timing to keep from getting the ball blocked.
“The drop is the most important thing,” said Gardner, who wanted to drop the ball without it twisting and get the right spiral so that it would go the farthest distance. “I have learned that through constant and determined training, whether it be practicing, catching the snap, dropping the ball or kicking through the punt, I can excel. It’s definitely been a learning process. Punting has been an incredible experience for me. The support of the team was tremendous. I like the team aspect of the sport.”
Coaches gave Gardner the team faithfulness award one week for his dedication.
Playing soccer from age 4 to seventh grade, Gardner knew that he had the leg muscles to be a kicker. In April 2016 he got a kicking tee and began kicking field goals on his own. “I got pretty good at that,” he said.
His focus went from field goals to punting.
“We had Emmanuel doing field goals. He was the best at it. I could help the team by punting. We all had our specialty. Jacob could kick the farthest.”
“Every one has to do their part in order for the team to succeed in any game and in the season,” said Gardner. “What surprised me about football, I didn’t know if I would have the ability to play in a game.”
Versatility in Houston’s kicking game was a strength this past season.
“We would coach each other up on things we may have been inconsistent with during previous games or in practice. Being able to count on each other to make plays that we needed to in the right situation proved it was a weapon,” said Painter. “If one of us messed up the other two were there to tell him what we saw and try to give pointers on what could be done to prevent them. Kicking with two of your brothers and teammates and being able to give constructive criticism played a huge role in our success as a special teams unit. We trusted each other and the coaching staff trusted us which always was a confidence boost.”
Along with leg strength, Gardner brought speed.
“You work to improve it but you are born with a lot of ability to be fast,” he said.
Making quick decisions has helped him in soccer, which he is playing on the varsity level for the first time.
He is an outside midfielder and has brought a stronger leg because of football that helps him run more and kick the ball harder.
Houston soccer coach David Wolfe said that Gardner provides, “Determination, attitude and resilience.”
Also a soccer teammate, Chi said, “He hasn’t played at a high level since around middle school so it was a rough start but he’s definitely been improving. He’s doing great now.”
While soccer is his primary focus, Gardner is also playing on the tennis team. Gardner, who plays ping pong and darts, played tennis last year.
His older brother, Jonathan, who goes to LSU, played soccer his senior year at Houston. He also ran track and cross country. His older sister Mary, who goes to Tennessee, played volleyball. His younger sister Angela is in the eighth grade at Incarnation Catholic School. His father went to Rice University and his mother the University of Florida.
A former executive with International Paper Company, Bill Gardner teaches Algebra II and Statistics at Bartlett High School where he is the cross country coach and assistant track coach.
“What separates me, I like both academics and sports. Normally you have one or the other. People have focused solely on sports and don’t focus on academics or people care only about academics and not about sports and teamwork. I have learned that in order to stay at my best, I need to exercise both my physical and mental capacities,” said Gardner, who was one of the winners from select high schools of the Yale Book award.
It is given by Yale Clubs, a regional group of Yale alumni. He reads a chapter of a non-fiction book daily.
At Houston, Gardner has been on the leadership council of the Honors Academy which does community service projects. His sophomore year he helped to lead a St. Jude blanket project that provided 50 fleece blankets to patients.
He has participated in Mustang Mentors, which takes a group of 10 freshmen the first day of school to show them their and to lead them in activities. Through that he met Logan Farmer who was a senior.
Then a junior, Gardner and Farmer would paint up and go to football games to “be part of the school experience. That put me forward in my athletic pursuits because I was able to go to games and see how much spirit was involved.”
Gardner finds role models in Farmer, his parents and family, political commentator Ben Shapiro and professional athletes.
“He really is about principles and sticking to those principles over personal gain,” Gardner said of Shapiro.
“One athlete who inspires me to a great degree is Tim Tebow,” said Gardner.
He recently read “Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms,” written by Tebow, former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback.
“My parents are a constant source of inspiration, good friends, professional athletes that I look up to in terms of their work ethic. My faith inspires me. Faith is really important to me,” said Gardner, who wears a crucifix given to him by his parents. “It is something I constantly rely on for help. I pray and talk to my family about our faith and different topics that relate to religion.”
A member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Germantown, Gardner said that Christ “means my salvation. He forgave me for the wrongs I have done. He represents forgiveness to me. He is a constant source of help in my daily life. In academics you have to worry about the test that is coming up and in athletics about the game that is coming up. You have different worries about whether I am going to succeed or am I going to fail? Every night I pray. That helps me in my worries and gives me a sense of composure as I try to do my best to succeed.”
His favorite Bible verse is Luke 1:37, “For nothing shall be impossible with God.” “It has given me the determination and the faith in God to be able to do whatever I have to do and have confidence in myself, whatever I want to pursue and wherever God points me toward,” said Gardner.
“He is a tremendous young man with great character,” said Hudgens. “He is going to be successful at whatever he chooses to do. He doesn’t accept mediocrity.”
Wanting to be an executive in a tech company and major in computer science and business administration, Gardner has applied to 25 colleges including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Vanderbilt, the University of Chicago, Case Western, Purdue, Rice, Michigan, Ohio State, Rochester, Duke, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Southern California, UCLA, Auburn, Pittsburgh.
He may walk on a football team. He said that MIT coaches are supporting him with the application process because of it being one of the hardest schools in the nation to get into.
“With their support, I might be able to do it,” he said. “There are too many factors to know whether I will be playing in college. I hope to punt on a smaller team maybe at a strong academic university or give my best shot at practicing with a larger university. I will have to wait and see how my options play out.
“I want to try my best in college, pursue extra curricular activities, internships that will help propel me in my professional career, maintain a 4.0. It will be a lot of work but that is a goal.
“Whichever route that I pursue I know that it is going to be a lot more difficult than high school,” he continued. “My faith will always be a source of composure and give me strength to do the work necessary whether it be at a really difficult institution or doing both sports and academics, or when I get a job, and going into new frontiers in my life.”
Said Painter, “I see him doing great things in the future.”