Try as he might, Billy Para struggled to describe the sound.
“It’s a thump,” said Para, 27 years a high school football coach, “and to hear what I heard back then, it was like ‘Holy Moly.’”
The sound of a “million-dollar leg” colliding with a football worth $89.95, lifting it high into the horizon and through goalposts stationed 40 yards away on the football field outside Granada Hills Charter High School.
Daniel Gutierrez was an eighth-grader on that summer day, too young to kick for Granada’s varsity football team, too confident to skip tryouts and too impressionable to dare doubt Para’s proclamation.
“You have a million-dollar leg,” Para told Gutierrez that summer day in Los Angeles.
“That was, what, over 10 years ago now?” Gutierrez said — and long before he became the greatest placekicker in UNLV’s history.
Gutierrez, 23, will find out this spring exactly how much that right leg is worth. But for now, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Angeleno is content to bolster his totals at UNLV and enjoy his final season with the Rebels, who were idle this week after their 52-21 drubbing of Idaho State.
He’s converted 38 of 46 career field goals and his field-goal percentage of 82.6 is the best in program history. He also made a program-record 16 consecutive field goals across the 2020 and 2021 seasons, and can set another one by making 16 more to eclipse Nick Garritano’s career mark of 53.
He was named this preseason to the watch list for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation’s best placekicker. And to think he was a walk-on who learned to kick footballs by watching tutorials uploaded to YouTube.
“His standards have gone up,” UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo said. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself, which I like.”
A golden leg
Arroyo awarded Gutierrez a scholarship last fall, thereby relieving some of the financial stress that college can cause. Gutierrez is the third of four boys born to Carlos and Patricia, who own and operate a catering company that serves traditional Mexican cuisine.
He enjoys cooking for his teammates at UNLV. Ceviche, his mother says, is his speciality.
Soccer was, too, thanks to his father and brothers, who played and inspired him to start at the age of 4. His kicks were so powerful that his mom would bring his birth certificate to games in case she needed to prove to officials he was young enough to compete.
Gutierrez would go everywhere with his soccer ball, even showering with it from time to time. He can kick one between 75 and 80 yards, and by junior high, classmates at Patrick Henry Middle School began to notice the precocious pop in his right leg.
He’d play soccer with his friends during recess while another group of boys would play football instead. Among them was classmate turned UNLV teammate Noah Bean, now a transfer tight end at Grambling State who first recruited Gutierrez to kick in pickup football games.
“He would just kick that ball and I’d be like ‘Man, you could really do this, bro,’” Bean said. “His leg was just too powerful. It was just effortless.”
So effortless that Bean and others — namely the friend of a cousin — encouraged him to take football seriously, starting with the tryout at Granada. Gutierrez also played soccer for Granada and a local club that competed on the weekends across Southern California.
But placekicking, he learned, would lead him to Las Vegas.
He still watches the same kicking tutorials on YouTube he would study when he began kicking, stacking up repetitions at nearby parks when the football field was unavailable.
He made a 54-yarder during his junior season, sparking recruiting interest from Alabama, Missouri, Arizona and Boise State before electing to walk on at UNLV.
“I needed to learn how to grow up a little bit. … See if I can do life without my family,” said Gutierrez, the first in his family to play a sport at the collegiate level. “I can, but at the same time, I also need them. I feel like this is the perfect distance.”
Perfect in the sense that his parents and brothers have made the four-hour commute to every one of UNLV’s home games since 2017. Or that he could make the same commute when he needed support.
His freshman year was marred by grief after the death of a former soccer teammate. His sophomore year by a lack of playing time — necessitating frequent telephone calls home. He nearly quit playing football during his sophomore season, frustrated by a disconnect with former Rebels coach Tony Sanchez.
“He was very uncomfortable, but he kept going,” his mother said.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here,” Gutierrez added, noting his family remains his inspiration.
Gutierrez claimed the placekicking role in 2019, converting 11 of 14 field goals and 35 of 36 extra points. But he still wasn’t awarded a scholarship, triggering additional doubt about his future amid a coaching change.
“It’s like ‘I don’t want to be paying for school if I know I’m pretty good at kicking, right?’” he recalled. “I feel like I deserve one.”
A broad brush
Sans football — and a scholarship — at the onset of COVID-19, Gutierrez needed to find something to fill his idle time.
What he found was a street sign and a muse.
A discarded metal sign became a canvas for Gutierrez, who began painting custom, creative versions of cartoon characters on different types of print. That creative outlet could keep him occupied for hours on end, steadying his psyche and helping him relax.
Gutierrez hadn’t painted at all before and bought a shed from Home Depot to store his paints and brushes. He creates to the sounds of his favorite podcasts and was often the last person to leave the Fertitta Football Complex this summer when he opted to paint there.
“I just love it,” Gutierrez says. So do his teammates.
Gutierrez first customized a pair of shoes for former teammate Julio Garcia, adorning white Nike Air Force 1 low tops with a UNLV logo and colorway. He’s since sold more than 50 paintings and fields requests for custom pieces from his friends and coaches.
Some even hang inside their offices in the halls of the school’s football facility.
“He just wanted to help his family a little bit,” Garcia said, “because the biggest thing about him is he doesn’t want to depend on his family for money if he needs it.”
In hindsight especially, Garcia believes that art was an outlet that helped Gutierrez cope with the discontent he was feeling toward football. That discontent dissolved last year in August, when he was awarded a scholarship after nailing a kick to cap a scrimmage at Allegiant Stadium.
The ensuing season helped Gutierrez solidify his standing as one of the best placekickers in the country by making all 25 extra points and 16 of 18 field goals, including a long of 53 yards. The ensuing offseason helped Gutierrez add additional power in his lower body under the guidance of UNLV’s strength staff.
He says his range extends to 60 yards, sufficient for the NFL.
Opposing fans tend to tease Gutierrez while he warms up on the sidelines, usually for having a shorter, sturdier stature compared to the placekickers they see as conventional. But he never wavers, relaxing teammates during games by converting kick after kick — and on campus by telling joke after joke.
His jovial nature was reserved at first for the other specialists, but now he share it with all his teammates and has become one of UNLV’s most popular players.
“Everyone on the team likes him,” Garcia said. “If you really know him, he’ll make you laugh at least once every day.”
Maybe Para is right. Maybe that leg is worth $1 million. Or will be one day.
But even if Gutierrez doesn’t kick footballs on Sundays, his experience on UNLV’s football team is one whose value can’t be measured. He’s its resident placekicker, chef, artist, comedian and friend.
A walking, talking, kicking, smiling super-duper senior with a degree in business management and an optimistic outlook.
“I feel like my college experience has been such a cool experience that I wanted to finish as many years as I have,” Gutierrez said. “In life, if no one gives you a chance, you have to go ahead and take one.”
Who: UNLV (1-0) vs. California (1-0)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: California Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, California
TV: Pac-12 Now
Radio: KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)