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This story appears in the Aug. 26–Sept. 2, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

The waitress high-steps through a gantlet of carry-on bags, maneuvering her way to the four young men dressed in sweats bearing their college logos. Two kickers, a holder and a long snapper are piled into vinyl seats. Here, in the crumb-lined booth of an airport Chili’s, is where their journey ends.

It’s the first Sunday in May, and the four are waiting for their afternoon flights out of O’Hare. They’re among the many specialists who have left Halas Hall empty-handed, save for a Bears nameplate peeking out of an unzipped backpack atop a pile of duffel bags just outside the restaurant’s entrance. Between sips of beer, Spencer Evans, one of the kickers, mentions that the competition seemed strange from the start. Long snapper Luke Idoni wonders—and, sometimes, still does—if those three days in Lake Forest were all a weird dream.

The state of confusion grew out of the early stages of a kicker search the likes of which none of the participants could have anticipated, marked by unyielding pressure, conspiracy theories, cryptic analytics, unfamiliar Doppler technology, a bizarre air of secrecy and a coaching staff’s obsession with the final, heartbreaking moment of last season.

Over beers and greasy appetizers the quartet reviews the week’s events in hopes of answering one overarching question: What the hell was that?

Moments after the final selection of the 2019 NFL draft was announced last April, Emmit Carpenter’s phone rang. It was Chris Tabor, Chicago’s special teams coordinator, inviting the former University of Minnesota kicker to rookie minicamp for a tryout. Carpenter gladly accepted, and a few hours later, when the mad dash to sign undrafted free agents had died down, he texted a couple of fellow kicking prospects he’d gotten to know during the predraft process. Where are you going? He asked Evans and Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon. The responses from both: Chicago, how about you?

Before the draft began, the Bears already had three kickers on the roster: Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry. Sources around the league typically say four, maybe five kickers is the maximum teams bring in for an open competition. After the text exchange, Carpenter believed he’d be one of six. He was wrong.

When Alex Kjellsten, a kicker-punter out of McNeese State, arrived at Halas Hall, he went directly to the equipment room to get fitted. He didn’t notice anything strange until he walked into the cafeteria: kickers, everywhere. He saw a few he recognized from their YouTube highlight videos. There was the Minnesota State kicker with the long blond hair (Casey Bednarski) and the San Diego State guy (John Baron II).

Holy crap, Kjellsten thought. They are really serious about finding a kicker.

Last January, the Bears’ season came to a screeching halt in a 16–15 wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles, when Cody Parkey’s potential game-winner from 43 yards was tipped at the line before hitting the left upright, then the crossbar. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth coined it the “double-doink,” and the heart-wrenching sound still echoes through greater Chicago.

Treyvon Hester got a finger on the kick, and chaos has ensued ever since.

Treyvon Hester got a finger on the kick, and chaos has ensued ever since.

The Bears released Parkey in March; they will pay more to have him off the roster ($3.5 million) than if he played this year. Thus, they’re looking for a kicker who is good and cheap. But the size of the group they initially brought in suggested less a kicker competition and more the formation of a K-pop band: nine kickers in all, six rookies and three veteran free agents. (And zero NFL games among them.)

“Nine guys is ridiculous!” says Mike Westhoff, a long-time special teams coordinator for the Jets and Saints. “It’s not that I wouldn’t look at nine guys—I would—but I wouldn’t look at nine guys in a pile. That makes it a sham.”

Adam Vinatieri, the Colts’ likely Hall of Fame kicker, is 46 and entering his 24th NFL season. He says the most competitors he ever faced in training camp was four, before his rookie season in New England. He reflects for a moment, then chuckles. “Nine guys? I don’t know... ”

Normally, kickers—like all the specialists—spend camp toiling in seclusion and, often, relative anonymity. It was immediately clear this wouldn’t be the case in Lake Forest. During his first meeting with the 80-something rookies, coach Matt Nagy introduced himself and his staff, then cued up a video. Highlights from Chicago’s wildly successful 2018 season flashed across the screen to a rap beat . . . until the 43-yard miss and the aftermath. The team mascot, Staley, falls to the ground. Parkey hangs his head. All-Pro defensive tackle Akiem Hicks looks around, confused. Nagy’s mouth is open in shock, his face frozen, his eyes darting back and forth as if searching for an alternative ending.

“Look, we’re not hiding from what happened last year,” Nagy told the new players, according to multiple players who were in the room. “We’re going to run up into the face of the problem and fight it.”

Nagy’s message set the tone, but it wasn’t new information. The kickers had all seen the double-doink, and knew the situation they were tiptoeing into. The video, and the process in general, seemed unnecessarily theatrical to some. “The way it is being run,” says Yoon, “there is too much going on in order to make the media happy.”

The next day the kickers began working on their own field (typical kicker stuff). After a couple of hours, the battalion of specialists was marched down a dirt path to join the rest of the team. The kickers were told to stay warm, so they did high knees and stretched and swung their legs on the sideline. Because there were no kicking nets at that field they couldn’t practice with an actual ball—as they would on the sideline during a game—so Carpenter assumed they were just there to run post-practice sprints with the rest of the team.

A half hour later, Nagy blew his whistle, but not to signal the end of practice. He called up Fry for a 43-yard attempt with the full field goal unit in place. The symbolism didn’t require an explanation. To layer additional pressure, the loud music that played throughout the day stopped and no one spoke. The effect was an eerie stillness Nagy dubbed Augusta silence, an idea he’d picked up watching the Masters.

Fry missed. He walked back to the sideline, and Nagy carried on with practice. A few minutes later, he asked all the kickers to line up at the 50-yard line: four on the right hash, four on the left. (Kjellsten, the kicker/punter, punted and held for field goals but did not take any kicks the first day.) They each attempted a series of field goals, again, from 43.

“It’s the whole team, the whole coaching staff, the whole front office, all the media watching,” says Carpenter. “There was a weird feeling about the kick, just because the spot we were kicking from.”

They went in numerical order. Blewitt missed. Bednarski missed. Jones missed. Carpenter missed. Ultimately, the group went a combined 2-for-8 from what Evans referred to as, “the Parkey Spot.”

Idoni, one of three long snappers brought in to handle the workload, remembers the staff acknowledging the unique circumstances, as well as setting some ground rules, at the first special teams meeting. So, there are nine kickers, and this has never done before. There is going to be a lot of media attention. Don’t talk to the press, stay off social media, don’t post your stats anywhere.

But it wasn’t long before the search took on a sort of Rube Goldberg feel—an unnecessarily complicated approach to the kind of position battle that happens across the league every year. It went beyond the Augusta silence kicks and the constant reminders of Parkey.

Jamie Kohl, a well-known independent kicking coach, joined the team as a consultant to help Tabor narrow the search. The two charted field goals and recorded extra data like apex, ball speed, distance traveled and launch angle using TrackMan, a radar system widely used by pro golfers to analyze their swings. (Chicago is the first NFL team to use it to evaluate kickers.) After encountering it at a kicking camp earlier in the spring, Tabor reached out to the company to rent the system and two TrackMan employees to manage the complicated software for the Bears’ three-day camp.

On the morning of the second day of rookie camp, the kickers gathered around the whiteboard outside the locker room, studying a sheet of paper taped next to the special teams depth chart. It was a table of scores and a ranking of how each had performed on day one.

They did some mental math to decode the scoring system. The prevailing hypothesis: One point was awarded for a made field goal, with those from long distances worth more. Some kickers thought another point was added for good ball rotation, but they weren’t entirely sure. Still confused, they pulled out their phones and snapped pictures of the results, hoping to figure it out later from the privacy of their hotel rooms.

“Some of us were getting together like, Hmmm, I thought you made three more kicks than that...” Evans says. “We are all paying attention like hawks to each other. We know who missed, we know how many. Were they taking off points if they thought it was going to get blocked? Did they do that for all of them? It was a very weird deal.”

The leader from day one was Fry, the rare success story from the Alliance of American Football: He’d been a perfect 14-for-14 in field goals with the Orlando Apollos before the league abruptly ceased operations. Each kicker had a comment typed up in capital letters next to his field goal score. In second place, CASEY BEDNARSKI, 15 [points], BALL TRAJECTORY IS A MAJOR CONCERN.

The comments were highly specific, often referencing data points recorded by the TrackMan radar panel set up on a tripod behind the goal posts. JOHN BARON, 13 [points], IMPROVE FG AND MPH OFF THE FOOT.

“Why does [mph] even matter?” asks one kicker, who requested anonymity for fear of hurting his chances to latch on with another team. “If it’s going in, it’s going in. I think they are overanalyzing it. Find a kicker, bring him in. If he does well, keep him going. If he cracks, then let him go.”

When asked during training camp what the range of velocity is for a good kicker, Tabor told reporters, “Oh, it varies by kicker.”

The confusion of the score sheet on day one (top) didn't get much clarity on day two.

The confusion of the score sheet on day one (top) didn't get much clarity on day two.

Outside of using the data to establish coaching points with each kicker, Chicago did not share the TrackMan measurements with any of the competitors. Increasing the miles per hour or the rotational speed of a kick is an obscure request already; without data to gauge progress, it proved even more difficult.

The public scoring reminded many of the participants of Kohl’s Kicking Camps. Kohl kicked at Iowa State from 1996-98 and appeared in three preseason games with the Seahawks before he turned to molding kickers. His national rankings, which include only those who have attended one of his clinics or camps, have become almost a prerequisite tool for any kid seeking a college scholarship. Because most NCAA coaches don’t know how to evaluate kickers, they lean on Kohl's rankings for recruiting. Kohl will remain on Chicago’s staff throughout the season.