BOULDER, Colo. - With 12 seconds left in the first half against Colorado State last Saturday, senior wide receiver Kyle Cefalo hauled in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Hansen.
It was his first touchdown grab ever.
"My touchdown gave us a lot of momentum going into halftime after a hard fought first half in which we faced a lot of adversity," said Cefalo. "It kind of lifted our team a lot and I thought that was the most special part about it."
Said Hansen: "Kyle is a great guy. He is one of my good buddies on the team. His sister was in town; his family was there at the game so it was a really special moment for him."
The last time Cefalo had accounted for a touchdown in an organized football game was during his senior year at Bishop Kelly High School, where he played quarterback for the Boise-based football powerhouse. That was in 2006.
Cefalo has been on quite a journey since graduating from Bishop Kelly. He originally enrolled at Oregon State and joined the Beavers' baseball team as a scholarshiped pitcher.
"I figured my goals in college would be going to Omaha to hopefully play in the College World Series and potentially getting drafted into Major League Baseball," Cefalo said.
But a career-ending shoulder injury kept him from ever playing in a college baseball game.
"I had nerve damage right behind my shoulder blade and I didn't know what happened," Cefalo recalled. "It wasn't painful at all but there was something wrong because I didn't have any velocity and I didn't have any control when I threw the ball.
"I went to a doctor and they did a ton of tests. They finally said, 'This is the issue but we can't go in and fix it'. There was no surgery they could do. So I took 10 months off from throwing, just trying to get better and then come back. But when I did come back, it was just as bad. So I had to make a life decision basically."
While at Wenatchee Community College in the fall of 2008, Cefalo watched his old high school teammate and good friend Cody Hawkins lead the Buffaloes to a victory over West Virginia on national television. That prompted Cefalo to call Hawkins to see if there might be an opportunity for him to join CU's program as a preferred walk-on.
"I knew I couldn't play quarterback anymore because of my injury, but I thought wide receiver would be a good fit for me," Cefalo said. "I figured I could pick up on receiver quickly because I understood the game of football pretty well. And I played quarterback so I was always with the receivers. I got an opportunity and I have tried to make the most of that opportunity."
Cefalo enrolled at Colorado in the spring of 2009 and gradually showed improvement in practice. Colorado fans became aware of his potential when he caught 12 passes for 144 yards during the 2010 spring game. Cefalo saw action in 11 games, including one start, as a junior last season. He caught a six passes for a modest 35 yards.
After the coaching change, Cefalo wondered if he would get a fair shot to play during his senior year.
"I woke up every day during spring practices knowing that I had to bring my 'A game' because I didn't have any leeway or any leniency given that I was a walk-on," Cefalo said. "I knew that I had to bring it every day and if I didn't, my career here could be over. I continued to fight, continued to stay in the mix. I still feel that way now. I know I still need to show up. I can't take a day off."
First-year Colorado wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said he knew early on during spring practices that Cefalo could potentially make an impact on game day.
"The first time I met with my guys when I came in, I said, 'I am here at Colorado and you are here at Colorado so you are all my guys and you are all going to get a fair chance'," Kennedy explained. "I told them that they have to come off the ball and catch the ball consistently and work hard in practice and Kyle demonstrated in practice that he was willing to do that. He went a million miles an hour."
Colorado head coach Jon Embree surprised Cefalo on Aug. 17 when he announced in front of the team that Cefalo would be placed on scholarship for his senior year.
"It's nice when four years of hard work can pay off and the coaches recognize that," Cefalo said.
In addition to his touchdown grab versus the Rams, Cefalo had two receptions against Hawaii and one catch against Cal.
Americans love an underdog and they love an overachiever. Rudy, which chronicles the struggles of an undersized football player that works tirelessly in an attempt to join Notre Dame's program as a walk-on, is one of the most popular sports movies of all-time.
Cefalo has often felt like Rudy Ruettiger since arriving in Boulder.
"The reason Kyle overachieves is because he works so hard every day," Kennedy said. "He is a guy that I have tremendous confidence in because he comes to practice every day willing to work and willing to listen. He has been a pleasure to coach."
Cefalo stands 5-foot-10, 170-pounds. He is not often recognized as a football player on campus.
"That is the story of my life right there," Cefalo said with a half-smile. "I had no Division-1 offers for football because of my size. But I am glad these coaches and my teammates don't just see my size. They see a player that is relishing the opportunity that I have and taking advantage of it.
"The key for me is not trying to do anything that I can't do and knowing what I can do. I try to be smart. I try to run crisp, precise routes and be quick out of my breaks. And once the ball gets to you, you have to catch it. I am comfortable with my hands. I'm not the fastest, not the biggest. I am not going to run anybody over or run by them but I am going to try to outwork you and play you to the best of my ability."
Cefalo is one of eight walk-ons or former walk-ons that have made an impact on game day for the Buffaloes through three games this season.
Having a strong walk-on program at Colorado is "very important" to Embree. His son Connor Embree is a walk-on receiver at Kansas.
"Walk-ons are important because you miss in recruiting," he said. "Sometimes a guy gets overlooked or he grows late or something happens. They help you playing and if they don't play, they help you in a lot of other ways. Kids that are walk-ons play for totally different reasons than guys that are on scholarship. They may not be thinking NFL. They really have to love the game. They come out and some guys get pounded on and don't get a lot of notoriety so to me it is special having walk-ons."