Here’s the thing about being a free agent kicker — or a free agent in general: You always have to be ready. You never know when you might get the call. You have to constantly prepare your body and stay on top of your craft because your phone could ring at any moment.
But you also have to live the rest of your life like the call might never come.
Because it might not.
I remember when I got the call in December, 2014. It was a year, almost to the day, after the Saints had released me. I was down in the backwoods of South Texas on a hunting trip, about 15 feet up in a tree stand, looking to harvest some whitetail. It was mid-morning and there hadn’t been much action.
Then, I finally saw a buck about 250 yards away. Just as he caught my eye, my phone buzzed. It was my agent.
It had been a long morning of waiting for a target, but I had been waiting even longer for an NFL team to call. I kept my eyes locked on the buck and answered.
“I gotta call you right back,” I whispered. “I got one coming in.”
I set the phone down, raised my rifle, locked in on my target and squeezed the trigger.
Then I called my agent back.
“Did you take him?”
“Yeah, I took him. What’s up?”
“The Browns wanna bring you in for a workout tomorrow.”
I knew I was ready. I had been working out every day to stay in shape and kicking at least two or three times a week to keep my mechanics tight. At the same time, I had been cohosting a hunting show on the Sportsman Channel called Southern Chaos — the “still going on with the rest of my life” part of free agency. But wherever I traveled to hunt, I always brought my kicking shoes. If staying ready is Rule 1 of free agency, then — when you’re a kicker — always having your shoes with you is Rule 1A. If the call comes, it’s not like you can just run to Dick’s and check out the rack like, O.K., those look cool. I’ll go kick in those.
You might only have one chance.
You need your shoes.
But that day, I didn’t have my shoes.
There was a reason why I didn’t have them with me, and I’ll get to that. They were at my home in New Orleans and I needed to figure out how to get them to Cleveland in 24 hours. I texted Josh Galt, my hunting buddy and my cohost on Southern Chaos. He was about a mile away in a different blind and I told him about the tryout.
Josh came up big that day. He drove me to the airport in San Antonio that afternoon (after he checked out the buck I took) and called his wife back in New Orleans and had her overnight my shoes to the Browns’ facility. They were waiting for me when I arrived the next day.
The Browns’ kicker at the time had missed a field goal in five straight games, so they brought me and a couple of other guys in for a tryout to see what else was out there. Each of us got 10 kicks. That’s it. All that work, all that waiting, all that uncertainty and you get 10 chances to prove you can be the guy.
You’re probably thinking, That doesn’t sound like a lot of kicks … but that’s a standard kicking tryout. I had another tryout at Steelers camp in 2015 after Shaun Suisham tore his ACL in the first preseason game. That time, there were three of us, and we got eight kicks each, plus four kickoffs. I remember when we walked onto the field, the special teams coach, Danny Smith, told us point blank, “There’s three of y’all here and only one of you is coming back to Latrobe with us for training camp.”
That’s a kicking tryout.
At the Browns tryout, the conditions weren’t ideal. It was December, it was 40° in Cleveland and there was a mist — not rain, not fog … but somewhere in between — hanging in the air. Not easy weather to kick in. But I picked up my shoes at the front desk and took the field with the other two guys to take my 10 kicks.
When I’m kicking against other guys, if I have a choice, I like to go first — get it out of the way and then let the other guys do their thing. I don’t like to watch the others kick because it doesn’t matter. All I can control is what I’m doing, and at the end of the day, it’s either good enough or it’s not.
That day, I hit all 10 of my kicks.
Good enough, I thought.
The Browns told me it was one of the better kicking workouts they’d seen in recent years, but they weren’t ready to make a change. There were only three games left in the season. They said their plan was to bring me in that off-season.
So I took my shoes and went back to New Orleans.
Three days later, on Friday, my phone rang. The Browns’ kicker had injured his knee in practice. I flew up to Cleveland that night and signed a contract on Saturday morning. I had three games to show the Browns that I could be the long-term solution to their kicking problems.
My first game was Johnny Manziel’s first start at quarterback, so I remember thinking there would be a lot of extra buzz. I was excited to get on the field and reintroduce myself to the NFL after having been out of the league for a year. Spencer Lanning handled the kickoffs, and during the game, we didn’t score a touchdown. We never even got in position to line up for a field goal. We got shut out.
It is the only time in my six-year NFL career that I went through an entire game without ever setting foot on the field.
When a team is evaluating a kicker, the kicks you’ve made in the past don’t matter. I learned that when the Saints released me in 2013. I made a lot of kicks for New Orleans — a lot of big kicks, too. I was a perfect 13 for 13 as a rookie in 2008, and I hit a 40-yarder in overtime of the 2009 NFC Championship Game to send us to Super Bowl XLIV. Then I went 3 for 3 in the Super Bowl, all from 40-plus yards, to help us to a 31–17 win.
But in 2013, when I missed three straight field goals for the first time in my career, and then had one blocked against the Rams in Week 15 followed by a missed 26-yarder in the fourth quarter — a kick that I probably subconsciously hurried so it wouldn’t get blocked — the kicks I made in the 2009 playoffs didn’t matter. The Saints were getting ready for the playoffs, and what mattered was whether or not they had confidence that I could make the next kick, and the kick after that, and so on.
The Saints didn’t have that confidence in me anymore. The Tuesday after we lost to the Rams, they cut me.
I knew my season was likely over because it was already Week 16. Nobody except the Saints was looking to make a change at kicker that late in the season. But I thought I had a good chance to get picked up in the off-season.
But when that didn’t happen, I just kept kicking, waiting for a phone call.
I kept hunting, too. That’s as big a part of me as kicking. I was six years old when I fired a gun for the first time (my dad was a Marine sniper) and I started hunting in high school around the same time I started kicking. I think hunting has helped me handle the pressure of kicking. It’s like my heart beats 20 times faster when I have my finger on the trigger with a chance to harvest than when I line up for a big kick. And if you pull the trigger and miss, you don’t get another shot. That target is gone. All you can do is wait for your next opportunity, if you get one.
Same with lining up for a big kick. You get one shot, and you either get three points or you get zero. There’s no consolation prize, no second chance.
Kicking is as mental as it is mechanical. From the timing of the snap-hold-kick to the repetition of your steps, motion and follow-through, everything should be the same, every time, whether you’re lining up for an extra point or a 55-yarder. It’s muscle memory at the highest level.
But the most difficult thing is to keep your mental approach the same for every kick — especially if your last attempt was either missed or blocked. If you’re thinking about anything else besides making the kick, odds are, you won’t make it.
That’s another thing about being a kicker: If you’re going through a difficult time off the field, whether it’s something in your personal life, or a contract dispute, or whatever, it can be hard to shut it out and focus on the task at hand — on making your kicks. That’s what separates the guys who can kick consistently at the highest level from the rest of the pack. There are a lot of guys out there who have all the talent in the world, but they can’t mentally lock in when it’s time to make a big kick. And it’s not like you’re the quarterback and you can distract yourself from your problems by filling your head with the offensive gameplan and breaking down the defense. No … when you’re a kicker, you just stand there, watching, your mind free to wander wherever it decides to go while you’re waiting for your next opportunity. When you get out on the field, it’s more of the same. It’s just you, alone inside your head. And no matter what’s going on up there, it’s on you to focus and execute.
When the Browns signed me, I had more off-the-field stuff weighing on my mind than I had ever had in my life.
My girlfriend had been pregnant that fall. A couple of weeks before the Browns signed me, around Thanksgiving, complications arose and doctors rushed her to the hospital for an emergency C-section. She was just over seven months into her pregnancy.
We lost our daughter that day.
Her name was Hinsley Rose Hartley.
I won’t even try to describe what it feels like to lose a child, especially one you never even got the chance to meet or to hold or to kiss. All I’ll say is that I take solace in the fact that she’s in God’s hands now, and I know that one day down the road we’ll learn why He decided to bring her home so early.
To make an already unthinkable situation worse, my girlfriend suffered from internal bleeding after the C-section. She was given a 10% chance to survive. She spent six days in the ICU and three more confined to a room at the hospital in New Orleans.
Thankfully, she survived.
As her condition improved and the most trying time of our lives seemed close to passing, my girlfriend suggested I call Josh and go on a short two-day hunting trip. Something to take my mind off everything we had just been through. So I went down to the backwoods of South Texas with Josh to chase some whitetail.
That was the trip when I got the call from the Browns. The reason I didn’t have my shoes with me is because — for those two days — I didn’t want to think about kicking. I didn’t want to think about anything. I wanted to get lost in a good hunt for a couple of days and get back to my girlfriend in New Orleans so we could sort out funeral details and celebrate our daughter’s brief life.
The Browns knew about my situation when they signed me. I practiced with the team for a few days after my first game and then flew home to New Orleans. That Friday, I delivered the eulogy at my daughter’s funeral. The next day, I was on a plane to Charlotte to meet my teammates for a Week 16 game against the Panthers. This time — for the first time in a calendar year — I got to step on an NFL football field and kick.
I got two opportunities — one from 43 yards out, the other from 31 — to show the Browns that I was their guy.
I hit both.
The one thing I remember from those kicks is that I didn’t celebrate. I didn’t raise my hands in the air or pump my fist. I just looked up at the sky, knowing that I had an angel looking over me.
I hit one more field goal for the Browns the following week. All told, I went 3 for 3 in three games with the Browns. We didn’t make the playoffs, so our season was over.
That following May, a few weeks into OTAs, I was feeling great. I had hit something like 18 of 20 kicks in practice, with both misses coming from beyond 50 yards. I was locked in, and I was kicking much better than the two young guys they’d brought in to kick with me.
But then, the Browns cut me.
I was blindsided. I had rented a house in Cleveland thinking I was going to be there for a while. But like I said, it wasn’t about the kicks I had made at the end of the previous season or the kicks I’d made in OTAs. It was about whether or not the Browns thought I could make the next kick, and the ones after that. And I guess that, for some reason, they didn’t think I could. So I packed up my belongings into a U-Haul, put my two dogs — my English bulldog, Gordo, and Gunner, a black lab — in the cab with me and made the 16-hour drive back home to New Orleans. Back to my routine of working out, kicking, hunting … and waiting for the phone to ring.
I got a call a few months later during training camp — that Steelers tryout I told you about. I got eight kicks at that tryout and I hit seven of them. The only one I missed was 50-something yards out, and I hit it on the second try. It was good enough to win the job.
I went 4 for 4 that preseason, making three kicks from beyond 40 yards. I was dialed in.
I was back, I thought. This time, to stay.
Then, in the final preseason game, I suffered a Grade 2 hamstring injury — a partial tear. The Steelers put me on injured reserve, and that was that. My 2015 season was over before it even began.
I was flipping channels at home recently and I caught a replay of the 2009 NFC championship game on NFL Network. I still remember it like it was yesterday. In the fourth quarter, I was standing on the sidelines watching Brett Favre lead the drive that eventually tied the game, and I felt a tap on my shoulder pads. It was John Carney, my friend, teammate and — as far as I’m concerned — a kicking legend.
“Hey G. You need to start getting ready because this is gonna come down to you.”
When we got down into field goal range late in overtime, he came to me again.
“Take your time, don’t rush it and follow through. You got this.”
I remember taking slow, deep breaths as I walked on the field — and not being able to hear anything. By the time I lined up and set up for the kick, it was like I had blinders on and the only thing I could see was my holder, Mark Brunell. He looked back at me and I gave him the nod that I was ready, then I took one last deep breath just as the ball was snapped. Mark caught it and put it down, and the second it came off my foot, I knew we were going to Miami. It was probably one of the best balls I hit in my career.
It’s one of my favorite memories — that and the Super Bowl. But even when I see those highlights or I think about those games, I don’t ever catch myself thinking, I’m the guy who hit the game-winner in the NFC championship game. I’m the guy who hit three 40-yarders in the Super Bowl. How do I not have a job? I don’t think think like that because it’s not about what I’ve done. It’s about what I can do for a team moving forward.
I got my first tryout of the 2016 season recently when the Giants brought me in. I was kicking against a couple of other guys, like I’d done before. And I hit 7 of 8 kicks, like I’d done before.
This time it wasn’t enough to land the job.
But that’s also a part of life as a free agent kicker. Just because you get a call and you have a good tryout doesn’t mean you’ll get the job. But you can’t let it get you down. You have to go back to Rule 1 of free agency and stay ready to capitalize on your next opportunity.
There are only 32 job openings in the world for what I do. That’s a tough market. But I know I still belong. Now I’m just waiting for my next chance to prove it to an NFL team. And when that team calls, wherever I am, I’ll have my shoes with me, and I know I’ll be ready.