Kyle Kaiser during last weekend’s IndyCar race in Phoenix. (Photo by Rick Scuteri, AP)

LONG BEACH, Calif. — There was a time in Kyle Kaiser’s life when he thought that coming home as a professional athlete to perform in front of friends and family would mean slinging the pigskin around Candlestick Park.

Football, the Santa Clara, Calif., native and lifelong 49ers fan admits, was among his first loves. Racing, of course, was a love, too, and he managed to keep the wick burning with both flames throughout much of his childhood. Half the year was filled with go-kart races, the other half honing his dual-threat skills with quarterback gurus.

It wasn’t until halfway through his high school career that Kaiser realized the hard truth that if he was going to pursue one sport seriously, he’d have to sacrifice the other.

“That was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Kaiser, 22, remembers. “It was two things that I love. … But when I thought about it, racing was something I could see myself doing after high school. Hard as it was to admit, I couldn’t say that about football.”

Inevitable: IndyCar’s veterans are figuring it out, which should be a surprise to absolutely no one

IndyCar goes Hollywood: SPM looks to stay hot, while Pagenaud hopes to bounce back as IndyCar hits Long Beach

There will be bumping: Foyt teams with Byrd, Belardi, Hollinger to make James Davison 35th entry into Indy 500

Never blessed with prototypical quarterback size and competing for snaps with eventual Washington recruit at UCLA transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels, Kaiser decided ahead of his junior year that it was time to hang up the spikes.

Looking back, the Juncos Racing driver has no regrets. After all, he’s reached the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing, the Verizon IndyCar Series. Still, there was always a part of him that longed to test his skills on an NFL field — a wish he thought he’d never get to fulfill.

But a few years ago, Kaiser saw then-IndyCar drivers Josef Newgarden and Sage Karam were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, conducted annually in Indianapolis, to run the gamut of drills reserved for evaluating NFL prospects.

“When I saw that,” Kaiser remembers, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so jealous. I have to get to IndyCar, so I can do that!’ ”

Kyle Kaiser at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

Three years, five Indy Lights wins, 18 podiums and a championship later, and Kaiser has made it to IndyCar. Last week, Kaiser debuted at ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix, where he delivered an impressive performance in qualifying (14th) before finishing 21st in the race. This weekend, Kaiser will drive in front of dozens of friends and family members, who are making the trip down from northern California to see him compete on the streets of Long Beach. Kaiser is thrilled to be able to show off his driving skills, but maybe not as thrilled as he was in February when he got to take advantage of his newfound status as IndyCar driver.

Still an avid football fan, Kaiser knew the combine was coming back to Indianapolis, so he sent an email — OK, more than one, he admits — to IndyCar PR to see if the series planned to take part.

They hadn’t for years, he was told, but would look into it. For weeks, Kaiser waited. It wasn’t until opening day of the combine that he finally received the email he’d been anxiously awaiting.

“We got something put together if you want to come out,” Kaiser remembers it saying.

“I’ll be there,” he replied immediately.

Beyond excited, Kaiser met up with an Arizona Cardinals scout who guided him through a host of drills — the 40-yard dash, the L-cone, the shuttle dash and the broad jump. You’d better believe he remembers how he did. Kasier’s broad jump came in around 8 feet, 11 inches — which would have put him 12th among quarterbacks, a couple inches ahead of expected first-round pick out of USC, Sam Darnold.

However, what Kaiser can be most proud of is the 4.83 40-yard dash he posted. While not exactly Michael Vick level, it would have made him the eighth quickest quarterback at the combine, ahead of heralded dual-threat signal-caller Baker Mayfield (4.84) from Oklahoma.

“I was really happy with my performance,” Kaiser said. “I wanted to put some numbers down that I was happy with. Obviously, as drivers, we’re not training for the combine, but I think I did pretty well.”

For Kaiser, taking his shot at the NFL combine was the thrill of a lifetime, but of course his primary focus remains on his day job. Fortunately, his IndyCar debut was almost as impressive as his combine stint, said a friend and former Juncos Indy Lights driver.

“Qualifying at Phoenix was a huge moment for him,” said Conor Daly, who will race against Kaiser at the Indianapolis 500 this year. “So impressive. He out-qualified (Scott) Dixon, a couple Andretti (Autosport) guys and a bunch of other fast guys.”

Daly knows all too well how important it is for young drivers to deliver results immediately. Fail to flash early in your career and you might never get another opportunity.

“I just told him to enjoy it and learn,” Daly added. “Rookies are so harshly judged in this series now. I think the rookies who get their chance, whether its (Zach) Veach or Kaiser, this is a tough game to learn, so when you have those golden moments in Phoenix, that’s huge for your stock as a driver.”

Kaiser’s aware of how much pressure there is on him to deliver results — especially since his deal with Juncos this year calls for just four races. Having spent three years in Indy Lights, Kasier saw more than a couple of his friends and former colleagues wash out of IndyCar.

It also doesn’t make Kaiser’s job any easier that fellow rookie, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens, is making the adjustment to IndyCar look like a piece of cake.

“They need to change the way they refer to rookies,” Kaiser said with a laugh. “Like they do in football. A guy with as much experiences as (29-year-old) Wickens is like a red-shirt rookie. I’m a true rookie. Not to take any credit away from Wickens, because he’s been incredible his first two races, but I don’t consider him a true rookie.

“For me. being with a rookie driver on a new team, we’re just trying to be competitive and learn as much as we can. We’re not going out there to expecting to win right now. Just getting that experience, running as many laps as we can and showing we have a competitive car is our biggest goal.”

Ayello writes for the Indianapolis Star, a USA TODAY Network property