Still Kicking

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I heard a knock on my hotel room door at 6 a.m. Usually I’d ignore that kind of early morning call, but this was training camp, and a knock at that hour could only mean one thing: Someone was getting the boot.

I was staying with a roommate, and of course he didn’t wake up. I had to drag myself out of bed, and the whole time I was thinking, I hope it’s not for me. I was with the Giants at the time, and I had performed well in the preseason, so I had a good feeling. I figured they must have been coming for my roommate, which was unfortunate, but at least it meant I would survive to see another day with the team.

My stomach dropped when I found out I was wrong. They were standing there in the doorway and they asked both of us to bring our playbooks in. Both? I was still half asleep, but I shook my roommate awake and a few minutes later we were sitting in Tom Coughlin’s office, getting told that we were being released.

I’ve become accustomed to that feeling now. I was let go from two different teams before I finally stuck with the Broncos for most of the 2014 season. It’s a difficult business being a kicker, but that’s kind of the way it goes. There are only 32 teams out there and many more strong legs. You’re constantly kicking for your livelihood in this league.

Everyone thinks that being a kicker is a lonesome position. In many ways, it is, because most of the time you’re on another field with the punter and the long snapper and the special teams coach. Even more jarring than the isolation is the fact that as a kicker, everything is so black and white. You either make or you miss. Coming close doesn’t get you signed by a team.

It’s an odd profession in that your job performance is very public. When most people have a rough day at work, it’s not broadcast for the entire world to watch and judge. But every person knows whether I made or missed my kick. It’s on Twitter and Instagram. It’s posted immediately by ESPN. Everywhere I look I can see the aftermath of my performance. Sometimes the entire outcome of the game is between me, that leather ball and two yellow uprights standing 18 feet, six inches apart.

It’s an odd profession in that your job performance is very public. When most people have a rough day at work, it’s not broadcast for the entire world to watch and judge.

That’s a pretty scary thought when you do the math. When Denver released me last year, I was 9-for-13 on field goals. Two of my misses were from 50-plus yards and the other two hit off the uprights. Eighteen feet, six inches apart, and if you hit one of them, it’s worse than missing completely. You never want to be at the mercy of the balance of those poles, but those two near misses could have been the difference between me staying and going.

It took some time for me to even get that opportunity to stick with the Broncos. I didn’t always want to be a kicker. I was a soccer player growing up, and even though I loved watching the Eagles with my dad, I didn’t start playing football until middle school. In soccer, I had a strong leg. I was always the guy on defense who kicked it the full length of the field and I took all the penalty kicks. When I went out for the football team in middle school, I played quarterback and safety, but it was only natural that I was also the kicker. I realized that I actually kind of liked kicking, and by ninth grade I was a starter for the high school team. At that point, I was hooked. I dropped all other sports in 10th grade and became a kicker for life.

Back then — I guess it was six or seven years ago now — it was pretty uncommon for a kicker to get a college scholarship. I was one of the lucky ones.

At Temple, I set career records for field goals made and punting average, but I went undrafted coming out of college. I thought I deserved to be invited to the NFL combine, but instead I did some individual workouts at Temple and the Colts signed me to an undrafted free agent contract.

It was pretty crazy because my first taste of kicking in the NFL came side by side with a future Hall of Famer, Adam Vinatieri. He was 41 years old at the time and an absolute legend in his own right, and here I was, just this young kid with a big leg. It was clear that this wasn’t the first time he had to face competition, because he handled it like a professional and we became good friends. I hit a 50-yarder against the Giants in the preseason, which was my best kick with the Colts, but they still released me after the third game. A few months out of college, like many of my peers, I was without a steady job.

There was a lot of a waiting around after that. Unfortunately that’s the nature of the kicking business. You find yourself sitting with your hand hovering over the phone a lot, hoping for the call that’s going to give you another shot. I had a brief stint competing for a spot with the Giants, but that 6 a.m. knock on the door sent me packing again.

This is your job, and in the back of your mind, you know how many other kickers are out there on the street waiting for you to fail.

I drove home to Philadelphia after leaving New York to rethink things a bit. I knew a lot of teams had questions marks at the kicker position, so it was only a matter of time until I got another call. It turned out that it came pretty quickly, because I was eating lunch that same day when my phone rang with a New Jersey area code. I figured it must have been my grandmother calling to make sure I was ok, but it was the Giants front office again. Something had changed since 6 a.m. that morning, because they told me that instead of releasing me, they were trading me to the Broncos. My flight was in two hours.

Two hours.

My clothes were still thrown in the trunk of my Toyota Avalon, all wrinkled from the long road trip. I had to shrink my suitcases up to pack one big bag, and then my parents came down to pick up my car and take me to the airport. It was a whirlwind transition, but just two days after that disappointing early morning wake up, I was kicking in the Broncos’ last preseason game.

In Denver, it looked like I had a legitimate shot of sticking. With Matt Prater out on a four-game suspension, the front office was putting its hopes on me, at least for the start of the season. We got to the third game and I had only hit three short field goals, but I was one of the leaders in kickoffs and touchbacks. I guess the Broncos saw some potential, so they cut Matt Prater before he could come back, and now all of a sudden the future was riding on my leg. I definitely felt a lot more eyes watching me all the time. People were questioning me, thinking that I hadn’t proven myself yet. Maybe some of the doubting got in my head, because I went through a rough patch in the middle of the season, and when Week 12 came around, Denver cut me.

Back to square one — I was sitting on my couch watching the Broncos play the following Sunday night. Connor Barth, the kicker who replaced me, had five field goal opportunities. Five. In one game. It was excruciating to watch knowing that I had been let go after only 13 tries in 12 games. I felt like I hadn’t had the chance to fully prove what I could do. On my couch in front of the TV, I was powerless.

Everything happens for a reason, and eventually the Broncos realized that they were missing a strong leg. That same week, they called me and said they wanted to sign me back to the practice squad. At that point, I was humbled by the many disappointments, so I made the most of my second chance. Two days after they signed me, I was activated to the roster to handle the kickoffs.

My NFL career is just beginning, but I’ve already experienced so many peaks and valleys (I’m hoping for a streak of peaks now). I’ve been able to move beyond the negatives in large part due to my mentality every time I take the field for a kick. It’s always disappointing to miss a field goal, and you can’t help feeling angry at yourself. This is your job, and in the back of your mind, you know how many other kickers are out there on the street waiting for you to fail. If you’re not performing, someone else will. I think facing that reality is the hardest part.

There are inevitably times when you do everything perfectly, but you miss the field goal anyway. As a kicker, you have to have a short memory. You won’t be in this league long if you’re always dwelling on a negative thought. I have to remind myself of that. A kicker makes such an obvious impact on the game, and everyone knows when we succeed or fail. I think that’s what shapes people’s perception of us. Some might look at that as a burden. Now, I see it as an opportunity.

Proving Myself

Everyone remembers Malcolm Butler’s interception to win the Super Bowl this past year, but I’ll never forget the play right before it.

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