How does it feel to stand there, shouldering it all? Your career, your livelihood, the happiness of your family, all at stake beneath a fluorescent glare? This kick can be glory for you, and it can be insufferable pain. “And then you feel like not only is it you and your family and your career, but you have the careers of all your teammates, if you’re going to make the playoffs, the coaches, the city,” says David Binn, the Chargers’ longtime long snapper. “You feel like the whole world is watching.”
When he lies awake at night, Ryan Longwell, ex-Packers and Vikings kicker, can still see the scene: the way the blades of grass looked before him, how the ball wrapped around his right foot at impact. He can still see it flying straight, the trajectory so pure, on his first career game-winner at Lambeau, against Philadelphia. He remembers how his plant foot stuck into the ground.
Ryan Succop, when he thinks of it, can still feel it. Monday Night Football on Nov. 12, 2012: his Chiefs at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, in a windblown rainstorm. Succop had made a 22-yarder earlier but also missed a 33-yard kick in the third quarter. The Steelers led 13-10 with two seconds left in regulation as Succop jogged onto the muck for a 46-yard try. The wind howled, and so did the fans. The MNF football logo was plastered on the end-zone wall facing Succop. He remembered his third-quarter miss, and the pressure amplified. But Succop’s plant leg withstood the slick turf, and he blasted the game-tying field goal. He had triumphed, if only for one kick.
Once would be more than enough for Mike Scifres. In the Chargers’ 2011 season opener against Minnesota, Scifres, San Diego’s punter and holder, paced on the sideline. The 2009 playoffs hadn’t sent Nate Kaeding disappearing into the ether. Kaeding made 82 percent of his field goals in 2010, and three of his five misses came from longer than 50 yards out. He was primed for another productive year in 2011 when, on the season’s opening kickoff against the Vikings, he tore his ACL. He was done for the year.
Scifres didn’t think Kaeding’s injury was too severe. At worst, he thought, he’d have to spell Kaeding on kickoffs. In the panic following linebacker Shaun Phillips’ interception inside the Vikings’ 10, special teams coach Rich Bisaccia grabbed Scifres.
“You’ve gotta kick the extra point,” Bisaccia said.
“Wait. No. Where’s Nate?”
“Nate’s in the back. He’s done for the day.”
Scifres stared. “What?”
He had never been nervous before a punt. This was different. After Mike Tolbert punched it in on third-and-goal from the 1, Scifres walked out to the spot of the extra point with temporary holder Eric Weddle. Oh, goodness. What’s going on here? I haven’t kicked a snap and hold since college. If I miss a 20-yard extra point … oh, man. I mean, I know I’m not supposed to make it. People on the outside aren’t expecting me to make it. I’m the punter, not the kicker. But you’ve gotta be able to make this. You’re in the NFL! You’re a punter in the NFL! You should be able to kick!
He made the extra point. Not too bad, Scifres thought. Maybe he could do this. At halftime Scifres visited Kaeding in the trainer’s room. Kaeding smiled. “Hey, just let it rip,” he said. “Just have fun with it, and swing as hard as you can.”
With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter and San Diego down three, a Chargers’ drive stalled in field-goal territory. Facing fourth-and-13, going for it was not an option. Scifres had made a second extra point (and he’d later make a third). Now he had to make a 40-yard field goal to tie the game. Wait a minute, he thought. Just don’t pull this thing into the tunnel of the locker room 50 yards away from the upright. Just get your foot on it and try to kick it. He got his foot on it. And he made it. The next week the Chargers brought in Nick Novak to replace Kaeding for the rest of the year. Scifres’ cameo was over.
“You feel, just for a minute,” Scifres said, “those nerves that those guys feel every time they go out for a big kick.”
He wouldn’t want to do it again, he says.
* * *
On solid ground there is self-belief. Kaeding was 4-for-4 in the 2008 AFC title game in Foxborough. He had made both of his postseason attempts in 2009. He was, during the 2009 regular season, the NFL’s best kicker, leading the league in scoring and and in field goals. He had, in Week 15, laced a 52-yard game-winner with three seconds left to beat Cincinnati. He had made 20 straight kicks to close out the regular season. He hadn’t missed in 69 career attempts from within 40 yards. On solid ground there is conviction. Maybe I’ll never miss another field goal again, he thought.
Beyond that solid ground, there is a precipice that gives way to an abyss.
It’s January 17, 2010, the AFC Divisional round in San Diego between the Jets and Chargers. Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, Kaeding jogs out for a ho-hum 36-yard attempt. He will put the Chargers on the board and get them rolling. He might never miss again.
A good snap from Binn, a good hold by Scifres. Kaeding thumps it. His torso drifts left after impact, his left arm limply striking his lower back, all following the same direction of the listing ball. Wide left.
Kaeding walks to the sideline, his unbuckled chin strap hanging beside his left cheek. He turns his head and looks at the uprights. How did that miss? “Shades of you know what,” says Josh Lewin, the Chargers radio play-by-play announcer, and the KIOZ 105.3 audience knows what is what.
Kaeding reaches the sidelines. F---. “A shock to his system,” he says. His goal before this season, just as it was in each of his first five seasons, was to make every attempt after a miss. That is the kicker’s lifeblood. Kaeding tries to encourage himself on the sideline, readjust himself to the new challenge of flushing this unexpected mishap. He can’t.
With six seconds left in the first half, the Chargers leading 7-0 and stuck near midfield, coach Norv Turner sends out Kaeding. His second attempt is 57 yards, which would match his career high. Kaeding misses short and wide right. It is not an egregious miss, of course, but it’s another miss nonetheless, and now he has compounding failures in the most important game of the season. He has inched closer to the precipice.
The Jets, as they did in 2005, seize control. They lead 17-7 with fewer than five minutes to play in regulation. The Chargers face a fourth-and-2 at the Jets’ 22. They will send Kaeding out to make it a one-score game. Kaeding stands on the sideline, arms crossed, chin strap dangling like his optimism. He stares ahead.
On the Jets sideline, Rex Ryan radios up to the rest of his coaching staff in the Qualcomm press level. “He’s already missed two,” Ryan says. “Three strikes, homeboy, and you’re out.”
Good snap from Binn, good hold by Scifres. Another thump. Another twist of the torso, snap of the left arm. This time the ball goes right, and everything is equally wrong. Turner taps the top of his head with his laminated play-calling sheet.
“He missed it,” Turner says, incredulously.
“He missed it!” Jets lineman Marques Douglas says, emphatically.
“HE MISSED IT! HE MISSED IT!” Ryan says, euphorically, his arms skyward.
Douglas turns to Chargers guard Kris Dielman as he walks off the field. “Hey,” Douglas says. “Y’all gotta get rid of him.”
Lewin finds a coda. “A nightmare for Nate the Great,” he says. Three hours before, it had been a dream season.
Kaeding returns to the sideline. The cameras capture that picture, the one that says this pain should be forever. Binn walks up to his teammate. “We’ve still got a chance,” Binn says. “We’re still in this. We’re gonna get another crack. We still need you.” The Chargers were still in it, and they would score a touchdown with 2:14 left to cut the deficit to three. But Kaeding wouldn’t get another crack. San Diego’s defense couldn’t get off the field.
It didn’t matter, as Binn says, that there were plays nobody mentions anymore—the penalties, the missed tackles, the drops. It is of little solace to Kaeding. It never was. “I knew that if I would have done my job, then perhaps the result, the score, would have been different,” he says years later. And so he stares.
“Just the beginning moments of internalizing that kind of turn and the new narrative,” Kaeding says. He thought of letting down his teammates, disappointing the people he cared about most. “I think anybody in that situation would have a s----- look on their face,” he said. “I challenge them not to.”
Then there was the matter of tomorrow.
“The trick as a professional athlete,” he says, “is not letting your profession, what you do for a living, intertwine with your identity and who you are as a person. But I think it’s impossible not to let it sort of do that. Whether that’s ego or whatever it might be, it kind of becomes your narrative and your reality. Especially when you’re in the middle of an NFL season: You’re all in, everyone’s immersed in that stuff, and that’s all you know. And here you’re going down one track, and then three hours later the narrative is now something entirely different. That takes some time to absorb.”
This time he didn’t retreat. He met a few days later with Binn and his psychologist friend. He talked with teammates. He had kids now, too, and Jack and Wyatt blunted the pain somewhat. He hopped a plane for Miami and the Pro Bowl and hit the practice field. Soon he pulled his groin and returned home to Iowa City for an MRI. It was an injury, but not an insult. Going through the misery before, he said, had girded him.
“Nate took football seriously, don’t get me wrong,” says David Bradley, a friend and former teammate of Kaeding’s at Iowa. “More than anyone else, he wanted to make those kicks. But also at the same time, the thing that I’ve always admired about Nate is that he has a lot of different interests. And those kicks aren’t going to define his career or his life.
“This isn’t like a Varsity Blues thing where, you know, ‘48 minutes for the next 48 years of your life.’”
* * *
Somewhere there must be proof of why Kaeding missed. The pressure was too much, surely. Kicks Ass Except During Important NFL Games, remember? A psychologist from Palm Beach thinks he has the answer: Maybe Nate and Samantha had a spat before the game, and it lingered with him onto the field. Kaeding laughs when he hears this. He doesn’t understand, if it were true, how it would prevent him from kicking a field goal.
It wasn’t the pressure, he said. He had made six straight playoff kicks before January 2010, and he would have liked another stab at the postseason. Binn wanted to see it happen, too. Maybe another few years, another few late-round games, and the KAEDING acronym would stand for something more triumphant. “I’d like to think if I had more chances that it would get back toward the norm,” Kaeding says. “But I don’t. And that’s just the way the numbers are always going to be, right?”
But this is what we need, Kaeding says: a reason, even a gross oversimplification. Blaming a kicker isn’t so much spite, perhaps, as it is a way to dispense with the uncomfortable hows and disappointing whys without closer inspection.
“When you’re out there and you’ve got 1.3 seconds to get a snap and a hold and a kick off and through a pair of goalposts at the end from 48 yards and the wind’s blowing sideways and it’s 22 degrees outside,” Longwell says, “it’s not quite as easy as it may seem with a remote in your hand, you know?”
There are some elements that can’t be felt from the warmth of a living room or a press box. In Green Bay, Longwell sometimes aimed eight yards outside the uprights to accommodate gusts from Lake Michigan. In the 1990 NFC Championship Game, the Niners iced Giants kicker Matt Bahr with a timeout before his game-winning attempt. It was a gift. The Candlestick Park grounds crew had recently laid down new sod between the hash marks. During the timeout, Bahr and his holder, Jeff Hostetler, surveyed the turf around them and noticed a seam in the field where Bahr would have planted his left leg. They moved the spot of Hostetler’s hold out of the depression, and Bahr made the game-winner. Or, as Bahr would say, Bahr and Hostetler made the game-winner.
“The thing I believe in my heart of hearts is that kicking is probably the most team-oriented aspect of any play in football,” Bahr said. “Think about it: The defense has to win the ball. The offense has to drive the ball down into a scoring position. Then the nine guys in front of you have to have good blocks. If every one of them doesn’t make their block, then you have no chance of making the kick. It has to be a good snap, it has to be a good hold. The last thing in all of that is the kick.
“Consequently, I always say, ‘We made the kick. We made the field goal. We won the game.’ I think kickers get way too much credit for making the field goal. By the same token, the blame is all deserved, because everyone did their job right, and you failed in your job.”
Kaeding, Binn and Scifres operated much the same way: They were a unit, all serving roles of equal heft. Sometimes game film would show a slightly turned ball from the snap, or a missed spot, or an almost inscrutably tilted hold. Kaeding never saw any of it. “The ball was there,” he’d say. “The ball was on the ground. I made contact with the ball. It’s my fault.”
“I’ve heard about kickers that will blame the holder or the snapper, or really kind of look for excuses that way a lot,” Binn said. “I mean, sometimes, yeah, maybe it is. But Nate never blamed anything on us, whether we did or not. He always took responsibility, never looked for any excuse. That’s what makes Nate, Nate. That’s part of the integrity he has, and it’s part of his professionalism. And that’s probably why he was so good, but also why I think he took a lot of those games so hard.”
“My answer was always, ‘I missed a kick, and I’m just focused now on figuring out ways to get better and make the next one,’” Kaeding says. “And that’s really it. Because why even fight that battle with people? What am I going to do, sit here and dive into the reason why? No one gives a s---. All they care about is whether you make it or miss it. “And the fact that they don’t give a s--- is very evident in their response.”
I hope he dies in his sleep tonight … You sorry motherf-----, you. Never mind that Kaeding says he took failure as hard as anyone. It went in, or it didn’t, and everyone could spout a diagnosis. Even a spousal one.
* * *
The end often comes suddenly.
Bahr was cut by two teams he kicked to the Super Bowl, the Steelers and Giants. He landed with the Patriots at the end of his career and in 1996 shared placekicking duties in training camp with an undrafted rookie from South Dakota State: Adam Vinatieri. New England released Bahr at the end of camp, and his career ended.
Succop, the 2009 draft’s Mr. Irrelevant as the last overall pick, became the most accurate kicker in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009 to ’13. In his final season in K.C., Succop missed a potential game-winning field goal late in the Chiefs’ Week 17 loss to San Diego. (The Chargers won, with a winner from Kaeding successor Nick Novak, in overtime.) It was the Chiefs’ fifth loss in seven games, and Succop was 4-for-7 during the skid. Kansas City would implode in the Wild-Card round against the Colts, in spite of Succop’s 3-for-3. At the end of training camp in 2014, and a week before the regular season began, the Chiefs cut Succop in favor of undrafted Brazilian rookie Cairo Santos, who had a stronger leg and a lighter salary. Succop signed with Tennessee the day after, and seven days later he landed in Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the season opener. Succop went 4-for-4, Santos missed one of two attempts, and the Titans won.
Longwell didn’t receive a contract offer from the Packers when his contract expired after the 2005 season. He signed with Minnesota, where he sustained his deft form. But his accuracy slipped to 79 percent in 2011. That year he got along with Mike Priefer during the special teams coordinator’s first season in Minnesota. Longwell had researched Priefer, who had coached in Denver and Kansas City and worked with younger kickers. He was a hands-on instructor, Longwell a hands-off veteran. The Vikings drafted Blair Walsh out of Georgia in the sixth round in 2012. Longwell thought he would have a chance to compete with Walsh, but two weeks later Minnesota released Longwell. “As good as the career was, in a matter of two weeks it was over and done with,” he says. But he understands. His performance wavered, and his coach had other designs. “When those stars align against you, there’s really nothing you can do about it.”
But sometimes it ends well. Longwell grew up a manic Seahawks fan in Puyallup, Wash., going to games at the Kingdome with his dad and idolizing Steve Largent and Jim Zorn. In the 2013 playoffs, Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka injured his calf during a Wild-Card win in Washington. Seattle signed the unemployed Longwell for the divisional round against Atlanta. He made all four extra point attempts, though he didn’t have any field goal attempts in Seattle’s 30-28 loss. “I don’t think it unceremoniously ended with the Vikings cutting me,” Longwell says. “I think it was a crescendo with the Seahawks when I got that job out there for a week. That was the fireworks going off at the end of the movie for me.”
The end credits for Kaeding were far less theatrical. He had the season-ending ACL tear in 2011, but he came back healthy in 2012, going 7-for-7 in his first three games. Then he tore his groin. San Diego placed him on IR, and they soon released him. He signed with Miami and closed out the year with the Dolphins, appearing in two games and making one of three field goal attempts. In 2013 he signed as a free agent with the Buccaneers, went down to Tampa Bay to train and tore his groin again. Imaging at University of Iowa Hospitals revealed microtears in the groin of his kicking leg. Doctors told him he’d likely run into recurring issues. Kaeding decided it was time.
“By risking a lot, and the embarrassment for myself and my family when you screw up in front of a bunch of people, and the adversity that kind of comes with that, the reward for me is so much infinitely greater than that,” he says. “To be able to go through and have the sort of memories as a skinny little kid from Iowa playing in the NFL, going to Pro Bowls, playing for nine years, making money beyond how I’d ever imagine trying to do, and have that be part of my life, screwing up and being a part of our team losing games—the reward of taking that risk far outweighs the negatives of it.
“I wouldn’t mind if my kids kicked. I would never encourage my daughter to marry a kicker. I honestly think that’s probably harder.”
Kicking was more relief than joy, Kaeding and Bahr say. They didn’t celebrate with the same euphoria as teammates, leaping around the field or partying at clubs. “You’re like, ‘I can go home, and I did my job,’” Kaeding says, “and I don’t need to feel like s--- because I f----- up.’”
And yet there is joy elsewhere. The ecstasy of celebrating with teammates, said every kicker interviewed for this story, is unmatched. Nothing like returning to a festive locker room and fist-bumping and hugging and slapping high-fives with teammates.
“I love being a part of a winning team, and I love contributing in a significant way,” says Tucker, who has a Super Bowl with Baltimore. “You look at any level of football, your leading scorer is likely your kicker. And that’s something that I’ve always loved about my job description—that while I might not have the same number of snaps as my teammates, every time I trot out there, it’s important.”
“That feeling of hitting kicks in a game, that adrenaline rush that you get?” Succop said. “You can’t get that a lot of other ways. That’s a cool feeling when you go out and perform the way you want to. It is fun. Yeah, there are times when it’s tough, but you do it because you love it, you know?”
“I would say ‘rewarding’ is the right way to put it rather than ‘fun,’” Kaeding says. “There probably will be nothing in terms of pure reward and enjoyment that could trump the feeling of being in the locker room after the game you played a part in winning, and seeing all of those guys, being part of that at the highest level. Yes, that part of it is fun. It’s super rewarding. It’s awesome.”
Maybe it was the appropriate amount of fun. There is little difference between a kicker’s zenith and his nadir.
“If you talked to all of these great guys,” Longwell says of football’s best kickers, “there is a quiet confidence in all of them and all of us, but there is a humility to all of these guys, that we all understand how hard but how fragile the job status is of this position. I think the best of the best understand that and are willing to fight through that, but they’re also not going to stand up in front of a microphone and say, ‘I’m the best ever.’ No one’s going to do that, because they understand the fragility of the job. They understand that the next kick may be the biggest kick of the game, and it may not go your way… False bravado or overconfidence, you don’t see that in the great kickers. You see a sense of humility.”
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* * *
A cab driver from Cedar Rapids who goes by JJ turns more formal, even reverential, when he learns a reporter has come to see Kaeding. “Ah, The Kicker!” JJ says, and for once “the kicker” is uttered with a tone of reverence rather than ridicule. JJ’s smile stretches his scraggly beard into a gray crescent. “Tell him that the yellow cab driver John Bean says hi, and that Iowa City still loves its local hero, Nate Kaeding.” He enunciates The Kicker’s name the way a Christian devotee might say Jesus.
Here is another picture. Nate Kaeding strolls down a sunlit path along the Iowa River. A soft summer breeze nudges the back of his plaid button-down, and the glint from the water’s edge bounces off his sunglasses. The dull buzz of a college town in the summer echoes downstream. He’s animated as he talks of the change, all positive, that has come to the university and town—more resources, more amenities—since he left as an undergrad. He raises his arm and points to a skeletal building on the riverbank. It is the new music school, replacing the old one that had been destroyed in the 2008 floods. The return of harmony to Iowa City, and to Nate Kaeding.
The local hero came home with Samantha after his uncooperative groin ended his playing career. They’re raising four kids, just down the Iowa River from where they took classes together at the education school. Kaeding is a guest speaker, and sometimes guest lecturer, at the university. In April 2015 he became the coordinator of retail development in Iowa City’s downtown district, recruiting clothing stores and restaurants and theaters to build a community rich in arts and culture. He has, in the downtown’s success, both vested and invested interest: equity in Tailgate, a college T-shirt shop, and several restaurants. A square red sign on an under-construction East College Street property urges interested tenants to call Nate Kaeding.
The Kicker, on this morning, says hello to no fewer than a dozen people. There are the two women manning the counter at Tailgate. There’s an incoming Iowa freshman at Pullman Bar & Diner, an upscale eatery on Dubuque Street that Kaeding part-owns. “Don’t forget to make time for your studies,” Kaeding says. Two young women seated at an outdoor table wave to him when he walks past. “Did you get the burger?” Kaeding asks. They did. “Good,” he says, smiling. He asks a woman entering Prairie Lights, an independent bookstore, how that event went the other day, and she smiles and says it was wonderful. The kids even wrote her thank you notes, she says.
No one in San Diego was in a gracious mood six Januarys ago.
“The biggest takeaway for me was just learning the importance of empathy,” Kaeding says at Pullman, having finished the Frisco Melt, a cheeseburger on garlic toast. “You do something in front of a bunch of people, and there’s a variety of different things that go into what you do, but everybody has this gross oversimplification of it. You learn to interact with other people, whatever it is in life, whether it’s a parent of another kid that your kids are in school with, or a coworker, or someone that works for you, or someone you meet in the street and talk to. They all have a story. They all have different things that go into their life, not just a little end result or end product. And I don’t know if I’d have that same sort of perspective in life if I didn’t do what I did previously. It’s kind of higher-level philosophical stuff, but being a kicker in the NFL kind of forces you to be that way a little bit.”
There is San Diego, where the vitriol was so forceful it practically reverberated off his Del Mar home. And here is Iowa City, with its warm embrace and an affection that is not entirely based on how Kaeding used his right foot to lift a ball through the air.
In the midst of his NFL travails, Kaeding came across the following quote: “Criticism is a lot like walking in the rain. Once you get wet, what’s another drop matter?”
“You kind of realize how good life can be,” Kaeding says, “when it’s not raining all the time.”