LAWRENCE — He stood his grandson outside the door to the bedrooms, walking a few steps away before stopping just in front of the kitchen.
Argentina-born Luis Rui had decided the training was going to start early. Two-year-old Gabriel had a strong leg -- powerful enough that stray kicks had broken his grandmother’s vases and also damaged paintings on the walls of their Oklahoma home.
The routine never changed, though. Luis would stand a few feet away, watching as Gabriel, time after time, booted his soccer ball over the couch in the middle of the room.
This was going to pay off one day, Luis thought.
His grandson was going to be a soccer star.
• • •
Gabriel Rui is the field-goal kicker for the Kansas football team, and one can be forgiven if the name is unfamiliar.
“I’m not sure, going into fall camp,” KU coach David Beaty says, “if anybody would have gave him the chance to be the starter.”
His debut couldn’t have gone much better. Last week, he made 5 of 5 extra points and also knocked through a 25-yard field goal ... all after experiencing some expected pregame nerves.
“Here I am,” Rui says with a smile, “kicking in front of a crowd bigger than my hometown.”
It’s only part of the redshirt junior’s unlikely path to KU.
Two years ago, he was a junior-college kicker looking for a school. Three years ago, the closest he came to a Division I program was discussing it as a goal with his best friend during late-night talks.
And six years ago, Rui had never even kicked a football at all.
“It’s a funny story,” Rui says, “but it works out to being a good story.”
• • •
Hinton High School football coach James Hansen’s request was simple enough: “Hey, can you come kick a ball for me?”
This was the last day of summer football workouts, and sophomore-to-be Gabriel Rui just happened to be nearby with some friends.
Word had gotten around, though -- as it often does in an Oklahoma town of 3,000 with exactly three gas stations and two hotels.
The new kid in town? The one who was always playing soccer? Yeah, he could kick.
Hansen still had no idea if that would translate to football.
Rui decided to give it a try. He took off his sandals -- he liked to play soccer barefoot -- and took a few steps back as Hansen held a football on the 30-yard line.
Though he’d never kicked a football before, Rui pulled his leg through with such force that the ball went through the uprights -- good from 40 yards on his first attempt.
Hansen had seen enough: “You’re playing football.”
Only, it wasn’t that simple. Rui didn’t have good experiences playing other football positions growing up, and most of all, he didn’t like getting hit.
Hansen was undeterred. He approached Gabriel’s mother, Carolina, at the family’s pizza restaurant in town.
“Basically, they had to get me to talk him into playing,” Carolina said.
Hansen was persuasive, though. Gabriel could have a future with football. His friends also were playing the sport, and this would be another way to be around them.
Carolina gave in. She told her son that he needed to give football a try.
“I argued with her for a little bit,” Rui says. “That didn’t go well.”
It was the start of a high school career that included two all-district honors.
• • •
Gabriel Rui’s future best friend was standing next to him ... and he had no idea.
While at a church camp in Davis, Okla., Rui was asked to separate based on his college destination. Only five had gathered into the “community college” circle, and the high school senior decided to start a conversation with the guy next to him.
Cole Moos said he was going to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, just like Rui. The two kept talking, and Moos said he was a football player too.
“What position do you play?” Rui asked.
“I’m the punter,” Moos said.
The two have rarely been apart since.
While roommates at Northeastern, both were chosen all-conference their sophomore seasons while starting to get attention from coaches.
“We would always talk about, ‘What if we went to the same power-five Division I school, ended up playing together, this and that? How cool would that be?’” Moos says. “I think that was something always in the back of our minds.”
It didn’t look like it would happen. Moos received a preferred walk-on offer at Texas Tech, packing his things to prepare for a move to Lubbock, where his older brother lived.
That was until Rui received a call from Clint Bowen during Christmas break in 2015. The assistant coach said KU was interested in him walking on, but the staff also wanted to know if Rui could punt.
The answer was no, but Rui said he knew the perfect guy.
Moos soon received a call from Bowen, and the two teammates took a campus visit to KU that weekend.
Plans changed quickly, as Moos and Rui both committed to KU.
“We look back and we just laugh at it,” Rui says. “It was just good times, and we’re so thankful to be here now.”
• • •
Rui’s ascent to KU’s starting kicker started with a new rule: No food after 8 p.m.
Assistant strength coach Jack Wilson met with him just after July 4, and after that, Rui became more serious about his nutrition.
In two months, Rui lost 30 pounds while paying more attention to his diet outside of the football facility. He noticed an immediate difference in his kicking, as his body became more agile and his leg more explosive.
He also worked all offseason to improve his accuracy. Moos had already established himself last season as KU’s starting punter, averaging 41 yards per punt on his way to honorable mention all-Big 12 honors. Rui, meanwhile, took a redshirt while sitting behind senior Matthew Wyman.
“After he left, I just worked and worked,” Rui says, “and just wanted to make it my job.”
He was a longshot at best. KU gave a scholarship to freshman kicker Liam Jones, making him the heavy favorite to win the starting job Week 1.
Rui wasn’t sure of his standing until last Friday. Special teams coach Joe DeForest called him into his office before breaking the news: “You’re going to be a starter tomorrow.”
“I had no idea,” Rui says. “A lot of things ran through my mind.”
The first of which was this: He needed to make a phone call.
• • •
Rui knows this isn’t the final goal. He’ll have to continue kicking well to keep his job, both this week and into the future.
“That’s literally all I’ve been telling myself, ‘Stay the course,’” Rui said. “Just continue what you’ve been doing and everything will work itself out.”
He still admits last Saturday was emotional. As he ran onto the Memorial Stadium turf before the game, he thought about that summer day six years ago, when coach Hansen saw something he didn’t.
Rui called his old coach Sunday morning.
“He said, ‘I told you.’ That’s what he always tells me when I tell him about football,” Rui says. “He says, ‘I told you.’ I said, ‘I’m glad you did.’”
Rui thought about his best friend Moos -- the laid-back roommate who only gave him one sentence of advice Saturday: “Keep your head down, and kick it far and straight.”
“It’s almost like we’re just living out our dream right now,” Moos says. “It’s pretty sweet.”
But Rui thought most about his grandfather Luis -- he lovingly calls him “Papi” -- whom he talks to multiple times per day.
Just a day earlier, Rui walked out of DeForest’s office and found a corner in the team’s Gridiron Room, dialing up his grandfather’s cell phone. As he told him that he’d been named the starting kicker, Luis began to cry on the other end.
Rui thanked his grandfather, who had prepared him for his future better than he could’ve ever known.
“The first thing I said to him, ‘It paid off, working, kicking the ball over the couch,” Rui says.
They had no way of knowing it at the time, but the couch never was a soccer goalie or a defender in front of the goal.
All those early moments that Luis spent trying to build a soccer star? They actually gave Rui something much more important:
His first experience at kicking a ball through the uprights.