Pitching, Kicking, and Gostkowski’s Head Games
Welcome to Baseball Week. As training camp approaches and baseball takes a break for its mid-summer classic, The MMQB presents a week of stories on the crossover between hardball and football.
Stephen Gostkowski parked his beat-up truck in the players’ lot. He grabbed his bag and looked toward the field, which was still calm and quiet for a gameday morning. As he walked toward the locker room, he looked up at the flagpole and took a mental note of the direction the American flag was blowing. Before greeting his coach with even so much as a hello, Gostkowski eagerly delivered the day’s wind report. The wind is blowing in, I’m going to have a good day today.
Early in the game, a teammate noticed Gostkowski was still preoccupied with the way the wind might affect the ball. He delivered an urgent message: “Forget about the damn wind. Just pitch.”
Gostkowski nodded at the reminder. And once his catcher was back behind the plate, he toed the rubber, went into his wind-up and unleashed a fastball.
Before he was the New England Patriots’ all-time leading scorer, Gostkowski was a kicker and a pitcher at the University of Memphis. Kicking in Memphis’s notoriously blustery Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, he was conditioned to be hyper-aware of the direction of the wind. The habit stuck whenever he took the mound. “The other two weekend starters, they didn’t even worry about the wind,” says Daron Schoenrock, Gostkowski’s baseball coach at Memphis. “Finally, I said to him, You’re such a typical kicker. He just learned to really focus on wind through kicking and it carried over to every start.”
Gostkowski pitched with the mindset of a kicker, quirky weather obsession and all. But the two roles are so mentally similar that the opposite would also be true—he kicked, and still kicks, with a pitcher’s mindset. “Pitching, if you have a bad start, a lot of the blame is put on you and then you have to sit around and think about it all week,” he says. “And the same thing with kicking. You either make it or miss and no one is going to make excuses for you. The mentalities of the two are very comparable. When it is your time to perform, you have to be able to mentally focus and concentrate to get the job done.”
“Both are team sports, but really, [pitching and kicking are] one-man games,” says Tyson Helton, Gostkowski’s special teams coordinator at Memphis. “You are in your own battle, and it’s a battle against yourself.”
“I enjoy the challenge,” Gostkowski says. “There is something inside, the way I was made as a person, to be able to deal with it.”
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Gostkowski arrived at Memphis in the summer of 2002 on a baseball scholarship. A 6' 2", 200-pound right-hander, his fastball velocity typically sat in the high-80s or low-90s, touching as high as 94. His self-scouting report: “I threw a good fastball and changeup, but a below-average curveball. That was part of the problem, I didn’t have that out pitch. I would always get through the order the first time pretty clean, and then it was about the fifth or sixth inning where I would give up the runs. That was my M.O.”
Along with starring on his high school baseball team as a pitcher and a centerfielder, he’d been a successful kicker at Madison Central high school in Mississippi until his senior season, when the pressure of landing a college football scholarship broke him. When he missed a field goal the negative thoughts came flooding in—I’m going to ruin this—causing him to miss more kicks, until he lost his starting job. Football offers dried up, leaving baseball as the only sport that could take him to college. Once at Memphis on a partial baseball scholarship, Gostkowski walked onto the football team and begrudgingly gave kicking one last shot, with the hopes of earning a full ride. He also handed himself an ultimatum, “If I don't start my freshman year, I'm not going to play.”
Gostkowski won the starting job and a football scholarship by the first game of the season, but he was far from the polished product he is today. “When he first got there, the ball could go anywhere,” says Tommy West, head football coach during Gostkowski’s career at Memphis. “You didn’t stand on the other side of the line because he literally could hit you with the kick.”
Playing football meant Gostkowski missed out on valuable fall baseball development. On more than one occasion he tried to squeeze in a little baseball before football practice. “He’d be throwing the baseball around and we’re fixing to start the football practice. I’d yell at him, Stephen, put the dang glove away, man!” Helton says.
Gostkowski’s baseball teammates tailgated all the football home games and formed a large cheering section for their pitcher (they were there to watch electrifying running back DeAngelo Williams too). And when it was baseball season, Helton would take a break from work at the football office and walk over to Nat Buring Stadium to watch his kicker take the mound for a few innings. “You could see he took the same exact approach in both pitching and kicking,” Helton says. “How he became serious about it, how he locked in, the timing he had, how if he threw a bad pitch, he was able to clear it and get back.”
Gostkowksi was named to the Conference-USA All-Freshman team in football and baseball, still the only athlete in conference history to pull off that feat. But after his freshman year on the mound, he found it increasingly difficult to keep up with baseball competition that played the sport year-round. “Man, what if we could have had him year round with baseball?” Schoenrock wonders. “There’s no telling what we could have done. He could have been a pro pitcher.”
By his junior year, he had evolved from a pitcher who also kicked, into a kicker who also pitched. Gostkowski was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s top college kicker, and a first-team all-conference selection in football. Schoenrock watched football creep into his pitcher’s baseball routine. “Wherever we were on the road for baseball, we took a bag of footballs with us on the bus,” says Schoenrock. “He was our Saturday starter so he’d get his kicking in on Sunday morning and then we’d go to the ballpark.”
During a late-April game his senior season, Gostkowski sat in the dugout with his cell phone next to him, waiting for a call. It rang in the middle of the fifth inning, and Gostkowski ran back behind the dugout to take the call. It was Bill Belichick on the other end of the line, selecting him with a fourth-round pick. “When he came back into the dugout he was white as a ghost, grinning from ear to ear,” Schoenrock says. The entire Memphis team cheered so loud for their teammate that Schoenrock had to walk over and explain the ruckus to the opposing coach. “Hey, look, sorry we had the big eruption, but my Saturday starter just got drafted by the New England Patriots.”
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Though Gostkowski’s accuracy needed work at the start of his college football career, West noticed a couple things that set his kicker apart.
“He’s not a kicker,” says West, “he’s an athlete who kicks.”
Then there was his mental resiliency. Gostkowski didn’t pout after a miss, and he was always locked in when it was time to perform. “I’ve been in this business for almost 40 years and I don’t know that I have been around another kicker quite like him,” West says. “One that makes you say, the game is on the line, and I want this guy kicking a field goal.”
Says Rusty Clayton, Gostkowski’s long snapper at Memphis: “I just remember after a miss—which was rare—Stephen seemed to be emotionally neutral. I don’t recall him being frustrated or throwing his helmet down or completely secluding himself on the sidelines.”
That short memory is essential to the survival of both pitchers and kickers. “I would try to stop the bleeding as soon as possible,” Gostkowski says. “If you worry too much about the negative repercussions of something that you have done, you won't survive much longer than a game or two.”
In his 12-year NFL career, 190 games including postseason, Gostkowski has missed multiple kicks in the same game only three times. “I’ve always been able to move on and contain,” he says. “I get mad, I get frustrated. No one gets more upset when they miss a kick than I do. But I have to be able to get over it for the sake of the team and my own job.”
Due to his professional success (albeit in the other sport), St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, a three-time MLB All-Star, might be Gostkowski’s closest contemporary in the Pitcher/Kicker Combo Club. Wainwright was an All-Region placekicker at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga., with a career-long of 48 yards (he says he once hit a 60-yarder in practice). He understands the unique pressure of the two roles. “The pitcher is the only guy on the field where, if he has a bad day, the game can be over in a matter of minutes,” he says. “And if you’re a football team and you’re playing against a tough defense and your kicker has a bad day, you’re probably going to lose. I remember the Ravens, they used to win games 9-3, 9-6, 12-9. They never gave up touchdowns, they never turned the ball over and they made their field goals, so they won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback.”
It’s obvious when a pitcher or a kicker has a bad day because the results are so black and white (a kick is good or no good, an opponent scores a lot of runs or scores few). Gostkowski actually preferred to play another sport with more of a gray area when it came to success. “Soccer was probably the most fun game I’ve played because I never walked away feeling like I had a bad game,” he says. “If you play a position in soccer where you can out-hustle or out-work or out-prepare somebody, it is a lot easier to walk away from the game and say, I gave it my all. I could always try. I could always hustle.”
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Gostkowski has learned to empty his mind before heading out onto the field to kick, but sometimes he might be too relaxed. “The hardest thing for me throughout my whole career is just having random brain farts at random times,” he says. They’re not always random. They tend to show up during lopsided games, like the first three quarters of Super Bowl 51. With two minutes left in the third quarter, Gostkowski missed his extra point attempt after the Patriots’ first touchdown. His kick hit the upright and bounced off, meaning New England trailed by 19 instead of 18. It hardly seemed consequential at the time.
Gostkowski compares kicking in a lopsided game to pitching in a relief situation. “You’re just kind of out there picking grass and you get thrust into the situation,” he says. “A lot of it is on you to get yourself going. The coach doesn’t talk to me during the game. There’s not much going on, and you’re responsible for you.
“There are [baseball] closers that don’t pitch as well when they aren’t in a save situation. Sometimes you're not always into the flow of the game. It’s a lot easier to get into the game, mentally, when it’s tight and back and forth.”
An NFL kicker’s professional life is monotonous. “As awesome as it is to be in the NFL and be on a great team, kicking can get boring,” Gostkowski says. “The amount of hours I have put in, in exercise and practice, just to kick a ball, it just seems crazy.”
Pitching and kicking mechanics are developed through repetition, and all of those mind-numbing reps make the skills automatic. Dr. John Sullivan is a sports psychologist who has worked with several NFL players and teams (Sullivan’s professional ethics code prohibits him from discussing individuals and teams he’s worked with; Gostkowski says Sullivan has worked with the Patriots). Sullivan says that conscious thought isn’t required to complete a highly practiced skill like throwing a fastball or making an extra point. Any amount of overthinking can interfere with the process. “When a pitcher or a kicker gets anxious, they start to think because we have a brain that allows us to,” Sullivan says. “If we start to think about it, our efficiency goes down. We get a little nervous and we can’t think ourselves back to high performance because it is stored in a place in the brain that is only accessible if we are calm.”
Sullivan estimates that 80% of kicking is everything aside from the actual kick, the majority of which is the time spent waiting for the offense to cross the 50-yard line. “There is a lot of sitting around and doing nothing, a lot of time to dwell on stuff,” Gostkowski says. “Same thing with pitching, if you give up a big inning, you have to sit around while your team bats.”
He has his routine when it’s time to take the field. Seconds before Gostkowski raises his right arm to direct his intended path for the ball, he begins to sing. Never out loud, just silently in his head. It’s always the same song (one that he refuses to identify, not even the genre). His snapper and holder work in concert with him to perform each kick perfectly, but even they aren’t privy to the concert inside Gostkowski’s head. “I keep it a secret,” he says. “It's an up-tempo song, something with a little bit of rhythm.”
Humming along to the mystery song helps Gostkowski stay calm and on beat as he makes his approach to the ball, a strategy rooted in his pitching background. “Kicking is very rhythmic, just like pitching,” he says. “Your windup, if something goes off with that, just like the snap, the hold, the kick, the timing of it is very rhythmic, so singing the song in my head kind of helps me relax and feel smooth.”
Gostkowski leans back in his chair in New England’s media room. He’s been detailing his thought process behind kicking and pitching for almost an hour now, which has made him slightly uncomfortable. He isn’t the type of athlete to seek out a sports psychologist, or read books about positive self-talk. He’s afraid of creating a problem that he doesn’t already have. “I feel like if I talk about it too much,” he says, “then I am already thinking it about it too much.”
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