WATERVILLE — If he can muster the focus and concentration it takes to ride a bike 1,700 miles from Boston to Miami, then surely Walter Thilly can block out the world for three seconds to kick a football.

Snap, hold, kick. In those three seconds, Thilly mutters “ball ball ball” to himself and nothing else in the world matters. It’s a trance.

Thilly, Colby College’s sophomore rookie kicker, is new to football. He was a soccer player, a member of Colby’s men’s soccer team before concussions forced him to step away from that game. Defying convention, Thilly decided if he couldn’t play soccer due to concussions, he’d play football, the sport much more associated with head injuries. He always had a big leg, Thilly thought, and if they do it right, kickers don’t get hit anyway, right?

This season, Thilly was 5 for 6 on field goal tries, including a 29-yard kick in Saturday’s 30-14 win over Bowdoin Thilly bounced off the right upright and through. He made 14 of 15 extra point tries in this debut season.

But when Thilly jumped on a borrowed bike the summer of 2017, a few months before enrolling at Colby, football wasn’t on his mind. The bike belonged to a friend’s mother. Thilly is no cycling enthusiast. He can’t tell you what kind of bike it was, or how many gears it had. He can tell you he replaced the saddle with one designed for men, and after the first day, Thilly bought a pillow to sit on as he rode south.

Thilly can tell you he made the ride because sometimes, you just need to push yourself.

“There’s a reward in working hard. Even though it might not come right away, it comes,” Thilly said.

When he was in junior high school, Thilly couldn’t find a ride from his home in Winchester, Massachusetts to a friend’s party in Gloucester. So he rode his bike the 35 miles. It took a few hours. It felt great.

When he was 15, Thilly biked from Winchester to Quebec. He had to explain to the border guards he wasn’t running away. So the summer before he enrolled at Colby, Thilly decided to go bigger, Boston to Miami. Thilly’s father, Bill, wouldn’t sign off on the trip until his son memorized the route and agreed not to engage any meathead drivers who might give a teenager on a bike static. His mother, Elena, was away when Walter hit the road. She found out when he wasn’t home when she returned.

Thilly knocked off between 80 and 100 miles most days. In the beginning, it was pure joy. Thilly reveled in knowing he’d completed another state. He cleaned off by jumping in the ocean. He slept in his hammock tent. Miami didn’t seem so far away.

“The idea of completing this trip that so many people said I couldn’t do was an unbelievable feeling to me. I was smiling on my bike the whole way,” Thilly said.

Then he hit Virginia, and the heat of summer in the South, and it became a grind. Two flat tires in one day in south Georgia, trying to change them with sweat in his eyes and bugs crawling into his ears, that was almost too much.


“The heat, the humidity, the idea of flunking out was getting to me,” Thilly said. “What I do today, I don’t have to do tomorrow. That got some extra miles out of me every single day.”

Ride. It’s no different than snap, hold, kick.

The last 100 miles on Florida’s Route 1A were glorious. In West Palm Beach, a neighborhood watch guard took a look at Thilly, shirtless, sweaty, sporting three weeks worth of beard, and told him he couldn’t be there.

“I laughed. I didn’t tell them what was going on. I didn’t have the energy to explain. I knew they wouldn’t believe me,” Thilly said.

Thilly reached out to future Colby football teammate CJ Hassan, a Miami native, for a place to stay before he flew home. Goal completed, Thilly found new challenges. First, it was a season with the Colby soccer team. When that became untenable, he focused on teaching himself how to kick a football. Last spring, Thilly was at Alfond Stadium, kicking over and over, when new head coach Jack Cosgrove spotted him. Cosgrove asked Thilly to set his tee up on the 35 yard line, where kickoffs begin, and kick the ball as hard as he could. Then Cosgrove told Thilly he’d see him at camp in August.

Three weeks ago, Thilly made the first money field goal of his career, a 34-yarder with 13 seconds left to lift the Mules to a 23-21 win over Hamilton. It was Colby’s first win of the season, and for making that and another fourth quarter field goal, Thilly was named New England Small College Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Week. As the game clock ticked away to the final minute and the Mules drove the field, Thilly lay on the sideline. For five minutes, he lay there, knowing the game would come down to his leg. He was nervous, but he was focused.

Snap, hold, kick. Ball ball ball. For three seconds, that’s all there was. The kick was good.

If it’s just for three seconds. If it’s for 100 miles on a bike. There’s a reward for working hard.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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