Ilya Uvaydov has always had the goal of becoming the first in his immediate family to go to college.
He envisioned his avenue of getting there coming through academics. But a new path emerged near the end of his sophomore year at Gilbert High School.
“I was practicing soccer and the football team was having their spring practices at the time,” Uvaydov. “Coach (Derek Zellner) had his monster offensive line coach at the time, coach (Jeremy) Bridges, come over and he just introduced himself and he told me he thought I would be a great asset to the football team.
“Honestly, I was too afraid to say no.”
Uvaydov joined the football team as a kicker. Despite playing soccer his whole life, the transition was easy. He said he fell in love with the sport right away. He felt support from both the coaches and players. Though there were still some learning curves he had to overcome.
He began working with former Arizona State kicker Steve Rausch, who played with Zellner when the two won a state title at Dobson High School.
Rausch immediately recognized Uvaydov’s determination to improve.
“He was raw the first time I saw him, I could tell nobody had worked with him before,” Rausch said. But he’s confident and extremely self-driven. You look at him now compared to what he was before, it’s a night and day difference.”
Uvaydov’s confidence is one of the key characteristics he possesses that has allowed him to go from goalkeeper on the soccer team to starting kicker earning recognition. He was named to the first-team all-region as a punter this past season. He was named to the second team as a placekicker. He accounted for 37 total points for Gilbert, a team that made the playoffs for the second straight season.
His improvement on the field helped him gain popularity among his teammates. Given his heritage, they nicknamed him the “Russian Rocket.” But most importantly, his accolades helped put him on the radar of some colleges. He even took it upon himself to research college programs without a kicker currently on the roster.
He sent his film to several schools, many of which expressed their interest and had plans to see him kick in person come the start of the 2020 season. It puts him one step closer to potentially securing a scholarship to move on to the next level.
“I see my dad to work hard to make ends meet. That’s where a lot of my motivation comes from,” Uvaydov said. “I don’t want to put the burden of having to try and pay for college on him.”
Uvaydov’s parents were both born in Uzbekistan, at the time part of the Soviet Union. His father, Mikhail, was first to arrive in New York at 18 years old in 1989. He had no money, he had no job and according to Uvaydov, didn’t speak English. His mother, Tatyana, lived in the same town as his father but didn’t meet him until she also arrived in the U.S. in 1995.
Uvaydov was born in Phoenix and grew up in Ahwatukee until his family moved to Gilbert. Aside from tirelessly working in the classroom, he found time to train in soccer as well. But when he isn’t studying or training now for two sports, he can be found working at a local pizza shop five nights a week.
His father works as a barber. He said he doesn’t have much of a relationship with his mother.
“My dad works hours upon hours to make ends meet,” Uvaydov said. “He puts all of his effort into me and my sisters. He doesn’t want me to stress so I can just focus on school and training. The support from him has been amazing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on his father’s business, but the two work tirelessly together to make ends meet. His father’s ability to essentially build himself from the ground up when he arrived in the U.S. gives Uvaydov motivation to do the same on the football field. Uvaydov trains with Rausch at least once a week. But he tries to find an open field nearly every day.
“He’s a kid that goes about his workouts and does exactly what you ask him to do,” Zellner said. “He continually wants to get better and better. He’s just a great kid.”
That same work ethic has helped Uvaydov improve to the point where he now posts videos on Twitter of himself clearing the uprights from upwards of 50 yards out. Just 9 months ago, he barely hit his first-ever field goal for Gilbert, a 32-yarder that hit off the up-right and went in.
It’s a moment he still cherishes for many reasons. Not only does it give him a sense of how far he’s come in a short amount of time, but it was a moment he was able to share with his father who was in the stands. Just like Uvaydov, Mikhail has grown to love the game of football.
“Neither of us knew anything about the game at all,” Uvaydov said, “but he likes it more than soccer now. He enjoys seeing me contribute and score points. I know he’s proud of me.”
Uvaydov is excited to take his game to another level as a senior and hopes to get on the radar of more schools by the time his prep career comes to an end.
“It would mean a lot to both of us if I was able to get the opportunity to play somewhere, especially if it’s kind of close by so my dad can come watch me.” Uvaydov said. “I know he would love it.”