- Seven years ago, high school football coaches in a Chicago suburb watched a tennis player drilling field goals at a pep rally and convinced him to join the team. Now, Jake Elliott’s right leg has taken him to Super Bowl LII
LA GRANGE, Ill. — In Week 3, Carson Wentz promised his game check to a rookie kicker if he made a 61-yarder at the end of regulation to beat the Giants. Jake Elliott coolly nailed the longest kick in franchise history. Football fans around the nation were stunned, except for those in one Chicago suburb.
It was Week 7 of the 2011 season, Homecoming Saturday. Lyons Township High, 2-4 on the season, trailed Oak Park 14-13 with 4.5 seconds left. Lyons head coach Kurt Weinberg had tried a Hail Mary from the 35 on the previous play, but nothing was cooking. So he called on his junior kicker, playing his first season of organized football, to try and win it with a 52-yard kick. It was the best of a bunch of bad options.
“He’s made a lot of kicks now, but if you go back to his high school years, there was a lot of pressure on that moment for the Homecoming game,” Weinberg says. “I thought there was hope, but it was a dicey situation. I never saw him bat an eyelash at a pressure situation. Pressure doesn’t seem to bother him like I’ve seen it bother other guys.”
Jake Elliott made it. Players rushed the field as coaches stood in disbelief. Then, one week later, Elliott did it again, hitting a 47-yarder against York in the closing seconds to win it, 29-27.
Add those kicks to an adolescent athletic resume that included narrowly missing out on the Little League World Series, shooting in the 70s in golf despite going months without picking up a club, bowling in the high 200s, winning most of his ping pong matches and being the No. 1 tennis player, as a freshman, at his 4,000-student school.
And it all began with a couple of 30-yard field goals during a freshman-year pep rally in high school, a journey to Super Bowl LII even more improbable than that kick that beat the Giants.
Elliott was a natural at tennis. He got involved in the local circuit as a kid and dominated the under-10, under-12 and under-14 tournaments in the area. He was good at baseball and soccer, but tennis was his bread and butter.
But, because of his other sports loves, Elliott didn’t devote the kind of time to tennis that other ranked players did. Marc Veverka, the head tennis pro at Salt Creek Club in Hinsdale where Elliott played, estimates that if some of the top kids practiced 20 hours a week, Elliott might have practiced for six. But it never mattered. He had natural skill and could turn it on whenever he wanted.
“I remember when he was in a 10-and-under tournament and this kid from the city was kicking his ass in practice,” Veverka says. “I said, ‘Jake, you’ve got to be better.’ And he said, ‘Coach, when I play him in a real match I’ll beat him.’ And three weeks later Jake kicked his ass.
“I’ve often wondered what could have been, if he had committed to tennis. At the state tournament in the final 16, I was beside a coach who said, ‘Wow, there are 15 kids who are committed to tennis, and Jake Elliott.’”
It’s unclear why the pep rally involved a kicking competition from crowd participants. It’s also unclear how Elliott got selected in the first place. But Weinberg and assistant coach Jason Brauer still remember the thumping sound generated by Elliott’s foot on the ball. It sounded different than anyone else kicking at the pep rally and, frankly, anyone on their team. Brauer approached Elliott after the rally to let him know they’d love for him to come out for football. Sorry, Elliott told him, that would really cut into tennis training in the fall.
Brauer would joke with Elliott for the next year-plus until the start of Elliott’s junior season. Lyons Township was less than a week from starting the regular season and their kicker was spraying balls all over the field. So Brauer made one last effort and walked to the nearby tennis courts to ask Elliott if he’d consider kicking for them that season.
That thought had clearly been on Elliott’s mind. Sophomore year, after tennis practice ended around 5:30 or 6 p.m., he would go to the football field and kick while having his school tennis coach, Bill Wham, shag the balls for him.
“I said, ‘Jake, this is a skill. Take a shot,’” Wham recalls. “It was really just for fun for me. I enjoyed it. I didn’t know he could do it and he got into it where he wanted to practice.”
Elliott joined the team. He was given jersey No. 83—the season was about to start and everyone had already chosen their numbers and, of the numbers left, Elliott had to find one that was a size medium. (He’s 5' 9" and 173 pounds as a professional athlete, so one can imagine his size as a 16-year-old.)
Elliott made an immediate impact with those two game-winning kicks and was named first-team all-state by the Chicago Tribune. In helping the Lions go 7-5 in consecutive seasons and hitting 15-of-21 field goals his senior year, Elliott earned a scholarship to kick at Memphis (coincidentally, also the alma mater of Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski).
The Bengals drafted him in the fifth round last spring but cut him after camp in favor of veteran Randy Bullock. When Caleb Sturgis injured his hip in September, the Eagles signed Elliott off the Cincinnati practice squad. He went 26-of-31 on field goals and hit all but three extra points this season.
“It speaks a lot to the situations he was put in early,” Weinberg says. “Those two field goals in two weeks as a junior, brand new to football and didn’t hesitate at all. There was no sense of nervousness on his part.
“I think he walked out there thinking, Yeah, I’ll make this no problem. He’s definitely got a confidence and he knows he’s good. His combination of physical ability and his cool under pressure makes him what he is as an NFL kicker.”
Weinberg will be watching Sunday from his home, where he’s long had a two-room setup: one for the folks who want to chit-chat, the other for no-nonsense football heads. Brauer will be at the game after buying tickets from a friend of a friend. They both imagine watching Elliott’s final kick to win it all. And, if that scenario plays out, they’ll have a lot more confidence in him than they did seven years ago, just before their prayers on Homecoming day were answered by the foot of a tennis player.
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