‘The Kicker’ Finishes A Father’s Journey
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Roberto Aguayo sets the football at the 23-yard line. This is not by accident. He begins each workout with 10 warmup kicks, each one the distance of the extra point in the league that will soon employ him.
On a March afternoon in Florida State’s indoor fieldhouse, he’s not just warming up his right leg. He’s visualizing making the kick in an NFL game. He’s taking a mental snapshot of how narrow the goalposts look from this distance. The snap would be at the 15-yard line; the hold at the 23; the total length 33 yards. Aguayo nails one, two, three … all 10 of ’em, drilling them through the middle of the uprights.
“Any guy can hit a ball straight down the middle, but can he hit it back to back to back?” Aguayo says. “That’s the big thing with my position: We have to bore people with our consistency.”
NFL teams are desperate for that boredom. That’s why, next week, Aguayo has a good chance to become the first kicker selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2005, when the Jets used a second-round pick on Mike Nugent. Another Seminoles kicker set a new precedent 16 years ago, when Al Davis (in typical Al Davis fashion) used a first-round pick on Sebastian Janikowski. No one expects that to happen again, but Aguayo says NFL personnel evaluators have told him he could go as early as the second round; a handful of league executives surveyed say the third round is realistic.
Teams don’t routinely invest high-round draft picks on kickers. Nor is it common for a specialist to leave school early for the NFL. But in three seasons at Florida State, Aguayo was the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, making all but nine of his 276 kicks. He considered coming out a year ago, after his redshirt sophomore season, but waited.
His timing couldn’t be better. The 2015 NFL rule change to move extra points back from the 2 to the 15-yard line turned a nearly automatic play into one that caused consternation in cities like Buffalo, Houston, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh. NFL placekickers missed 71 PATs last season, the highest number since 1979. Meanwhile, Aguayo never missed a college extra point and was perfect on field goals inside of 40 yards.
A second rule change for 2016 might add even more value. The day the NFL voted to move touchbacks from the 20 to the 25-yard line, Aguayo was working out privately for the Raiders. Special teams coordinator Brad Seely promptly asked Aguayo to show him high hang-time kickoffs aimed within a yard or two of the goal line. Some teams may try to adopt a strategy of trying to pin a returner deep instead of going for the touchback, something that Aguayo says Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher asked him to do on about 70 percent of his kickoffs.
Jalen Ramsey was the headliner at Florida State’s Pro Day last month, but plenty of NFL talent evaluators were also buzzing about “the kicker.” That's something you don’t usually hear this time of year, but it’s fitting because Aguayo’s path to the NFL is far from typical.
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Whenever Aguayo is drafted, he will celebrate not just the dream he’s had since he was a junior Pee Wee football kicker in Florida, but the one his father had when he crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States 30 years ago, in search of a better life for his family.
Roberto Aguayo, Sr., certainly didn’t have the NFL in mind back then. Growing up on a ranch in Capellania, a town in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico, his outlook was limited. At that time, his family didn’t have electricity, running water or the resources to look beyond the day to day. When he was 18, Aguayo, Sr., made the decision to trek a few hundred miles north to the U.S. border with the simple goal of working to send money back to his parents and his brothers. He also thought, if he had a family one day, he wanted his children to be able to do two things he couldn’t do in Mexico: Finish schooling, and be part of a soccer team.
“The economy in my country is very hard, so I never made it,” says Aguayo, Sr., who learned English after he immigrated to the U.S. “But America is a country where if you want to do something, you can do it. This is what I tried to teach my sons.”
His sons listened. And they played soccer, first. Roberto, Jr., could boot a soccer ball with his right foot by the age of three. When he tried the American kind of football, he played offensive guard, wearing No. 70, until he was old enough for the Pop Warner rules to include place-kicking. The coaches lined all the players up, and gave them each one try to see if they could make an extra point. So at age 8, he stared down his first high-stakes kick. He nailed it.
In the backyard of their home in Lake County, near Orlando, Aguayo, Sr., built H-shaped posts out of PVC pipe—it doubled as a soccer goal on the bottom, and field-goal uprights on the top. Roberto, Jr., and his younger brother Ricky, now a freshman kicker at Florida State, would kick until it was too dark to find the balls they had booted into the woods. After their dad’s 10-hour shifts at a local tree farm, he’d meet the boys at soccer or football practice, keeping them late to run extra laps. They grew up understanding hard work—and the risks their father took to come to the U.S.
“He came over illegally, and there are a lot of people who do that, but they do that for a better life,” Aguayo says. “There was no money over there. My uncle [living in Mexico] will work and make about $10 a day, and that’s not enough to support the family. My dad wanted to have something better for my family.”
Aguayo, Sr., first crossed the border in 1984, and was soon deported back to Mexico. He tried again in 1985, and was deported 10 months later. In between trips, he had to save up money to hire a coyote, or guide, to lead the way. Undeterred, he tried again for the third and final time in 1986. He was a migrant worker, traveling between cucumber season in Ohio and strawberry season in Florida. Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed in November 1986, provided amnesty to different groups of illegal immigrants who had either been living continuously in the U.S. or working in seasonal agriculture. This was a pathway, Aguayo says, for his father to earn permanent residency in the U.S.
Immigration policy is a complicated and polarizing issue in America. Aguayo does not want to politicize it—he’s sharing his dad’s journey, because it has become part of his own journey. His dad told him stories about crossing the Rio Grande even though he was not able to swim, and how the water was barely shallow enough for him to walk across. He traveled as part of a group, living off of jugs of water and corn tortillas, but the rations ran dangerously low during one of his passages.
“Sometimes when I go back home and see my dad, I ask him to tell me the stories again,” Aguayo says. “My dad has told me, if things would have been a little bit different, I wouldn’t be here today. It was humbling and many people don’t see that. That’s how we’ve come to grow up; we know what he has been through. In situations when I am struggling in life or in class or football, I think if my dad could have made it through that, being close to death in many situations, I can get through it.”
Much of the journey was subject to chance. Aguayo, Sr., ended up in California on his second trip. They had hoped to hop a passing freight train running east, to Florida, where some friends from their hometown were living. But all of the trains were traveling west instead. One of the trains they hopped was transporting automobiles, so they opened the car doors and climbed inside; on other trains, there was no shelter from the cold and wind so they huddled together. On his third journey, a friend drove him from Texas to Florida. He had a cousin there who helped him get the job at the tree farm and introduced him to Martina, the Mexican-American woman he would soon marry. In 2004, he took a test to become a U.S. citizen. Roberto, Jr., then in elementary school, helped his dad study by quizzing him from the list of 100 civics questions.
Aguayo, Sr., still works at the same tree farm, where he is now a foreman. Martina works at a charter school in food services. After they got married, they made a habit of sending $100 each month back to his parents in Capellania, plus boxes of the boys’ hand-me-down clothes and shoes for their cousins. They’d stop at the post office once a month after sports practice, but there were some months when there wasn’t any extra money to send. When that happened, Roberto, Jr., would always ask, “Don’t we need to send Grandma money?” The rest of the family’s resources, and time, went into the boys’ athletic pursuits.
Each morning, Aguayo, Sr., would wake up his sons with the same greeting: “Buenos días, mis campeones del balon pie.” Good morning, my champions of the football. The football he referred to, of course, was the kind they played with in Mexico—a soccer ball. Roberto, Jr., played both sports until his freshman year of high school. He suffered a bone bruise on his knee at the start of soccer season, and couldn’t kick for three months. That was his last soccer game.
“My dad tells me, it is just a different ball now,” Aguayo says. “It’s a football, instead of a soccer ball.”
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At first, Aguayo learned to kick a football by pretending it was a soccer ball. Then, he tried mimicking the steps of David Akers and John Carney, the NFL kickers he’d watch on TV: Two steps back, and three to the side. By the time he got to Florida State, the rhythm and routine of his swing had turned into a precise science. Making good on his dream to attend “Kicker University,” he won the Lou Groza Award, college football’s top honor for placekickers, as a redshirt freshman.
He was a campeon, individually and as part of the Seminoles’ national championship team. He missed only one kick all season. The following year, in 2014, he missed only three kicks. Afterward, he seriously considered turning pro. Life-changing money was within his grasp. He sat down with Fisher three times to talk about his decision.
Aguayo decided to stay, and fulfill one of his father’s other dreams for his children: Earning a college degree, in criminology, last December. But 2015 was his toughest year on the field. Aguayo missed five field goals—he still went 21-for-26—and one of his misses was a blocked kick that was returned by Georgia Tech for a game-winning touchdown as time expired.
“The first two seasons, they were kind of a breeze,” Aguayo says. “I had never gone through an early miss in a season, or something like the Georgia Tech game, where I felt like a loss was my fault. It was definitely eye-opening. But I’d rather it happen here than in the NFL. It was a year of growing and becoming more mature.”
Hearing Aguayo’s mental catalogue of his missed kicks, as rare as they have been, underscores why he’s the best kicking prospect NFL teams have seen in a decade. He remembers, for example, all the details of the first miss of his college career, a 43-yarder wide right in a 59-3 rout of Wake Forest. The wind was blowing right to left, so he aimed a little bit to the right, but he misjudged how much the wind would carry the kick. He’s still irked by the 41-yarder he missed against Syracuse last season, because he overswung and “flat-out missed,” never giving the kick a chance. In the block against Georgia Tech, he continues, he lined up for the potential 56-yard game-winner and wanted to hit it on a low trajectory so that it would be have a better chance to cut through the wind blowing right to left across the field and make it the full distance. The tradeoff, though, was that a lower kick could more easily be blocked.
He comes to the NFL with a toolbox larger than many other kickers’. For example, Aguayo mastered six different kickoff techniques in college, which have him primed for whatever strategy NFL coaches will ask him to execute. Aguayo guesses that about half the teams in the league will alter their strategy on kickoffs based on the new rule. Some will play it safe, not wanting to risk giving up a big return or putting the opponent at the 40-yard line if a kickoff goes out of bounds. Others will be enticed by the prospect of pinning returners deep, as Fisher did.
Last season Aguayo ranked 30th in the NCAA in kickoff distance, and 20th in touchback rate, last season, but that was by design.
“We kept him from kicking it out,” Fisher says. “If it’s at the 20-yard-line [for a touchback], I don’t mind kicking it out. But if you’re going to give that extra five yards, as a play caller, I know the difference that means.”
Fisher usually asked him to try to drop his kickoffs in a pocket right by the goal line with a hang time of more than four seconds so the return team would have time to get down the field and corral the returner. At his Pro Day, scouts watched him boom several kickoffs out of the end zone, and also timed the hang times of his high kicks. They were pleased that he consistently broke four seconds. What stands out about Aguayo is that he has both distance and accuracy.
Fisher says the secret to Aguayo’s success is his balance. He means his physical balance, which he believes helps him keep his swing consistent and powerful each time he kicks. For that, he can thank his dad for the soccer training. But the Florida State coaches also told NFL teams that Aguayo has a very good mental balance as well. Dad has a little something to do with that, too.
After the Georgia Tech game, like he does after every game, Aguayo called his dad. Deported twice before gaining residency in the U.S., Roberto Sr. knows something about not getting thrown off course.
“What matters is how you bounce back and how you keep your poise,” Aguayo says. “You’re not going to go 100 percent in your career. That's what the scouts want to see, when they come and see me here live. If you miss a field goal, how do you react? Do you spaz, do you get flustered? When we call a timeout right in front of your face and yell, are you going to stop, are you going to shank it? I feel like that's what I have that separates me from other kickers, just that poise.”
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What makes a kicker worth a high-round draft pick? Janikowski is the longest-tenured active NFL player, tied with only Tom Brady, still with the team that drafted him. (That was 16 years ago, in 2000, when Aguayo was only six years old and had never attempted a field goal). That pick panned out.
Recent history shows it doesn’t always work out that well. In 2011, the Eagles drafted Alex Henery, whose NCAA accuracy record Aguayo broke, in the fourth round. He lost the job in 2014 and is currently a free agent. On the other hand, the Patriots have gotten a decade of (relative) peace of mind in the kicking game after using a 2006 fourth-rounder on Stephen Gostkowski.
Longtime special teams coach Mike Westhoff, now retired, was the driving force behind the Jets’ using the second-round pick on Nugent in 2005. Head coach Herm Edwards, he admits, “was not totally on board with this.” But the Jets were just coming off a crushing end to the 2004 season, when Doug Brien missed back-to-back kicks that would have sent the team to the AFC Championship. The wound was still fresh.
“We didn’t have a kicker that could win the game for us, so I was on a search for the Holy Grail, and we drafted him,” Westhoff says. “To be honest with you, it was maybe a round higher than it should have been, but our need was so great.”
Nugent was injured in his fourth season with the Jets and supplanted by Jay Feely. He bounced around the following year, but is still kicking in the NFL, now for the Bengals. The combination of talent and need that drives the NFL draft could very well make Aguayo a Day 2 pick. In addition to Oakland, he’s had private workouts with the Saints, Falcons and Jets. Westhoff points to a team like the Steelers, who burned through four kickers last season and preseason, spurring head coach Mike Tomlin to adopt a two-point conversion policy for a time.
“You could make the real good argument that Pittsburgh desperately needs a guy like [Aguayo],” Westhoff says. “Pittsburgh might be able to win two more games a year if they had a guy like that, compared to who they had last year. There’s a real value, because how many times when New England has the ball, do you already know they have three points? He would be another scoring weapon for that offense.”
Tomlin, as it turns out, was front and center at Aguayo’s Pro Day. He’s close with Fisher, from their days coaching together at the University of Cincinnati, but he took a keen interest in Aguayo. He’s the one who called the timeout at the end of his field-goal workout, “freezing” him on a 50-yard attempt. Aguayo kicked it anyway, and made both. Afterward, Tomlin shook his hand.
“Those guys watching him kick today, a lot of guys said that’s one of the best ones they've seen in a long time,” Fisher says. “But we've known that.”
In 2004, when Roberto Aguayo, Sr., earned his citizenship, the family celebrated quietly. They just went out to dinner. The same will go for when Aguayo is drafted into the NFL. Short on hoopla, long on meaning. “My dad is the cover story for what many people do, coming here for a better life,” Aguayo says. “He’s always proud of me and my brother, and what we are doing, and I think that’s how we pay…” His voice trails off. That’s how they pay him back.