Kansas City Placekicker Nick Lowery still gets an occasional needle having to do with the kicker's apparent life of ease, or the unmanliness of ending a game with a clean uniform. Most of the Chiefs call him Nick the Kick; his closest friends on the team prefer Slick Crowley. "Crowley" comes from a misprinted apartment mailbox label. "Slick," explains an ex-Chief, "because he's so slick with the ladies, or thinks he is."
It's friendly ribbing, the kind that almost every kicker learns to live with. And it's the kind that gets friendlier and friendlier as Lowery's kicking gets better and better. In 1980, his rookie season, he made good on 20 of 26 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder that tied for the third-longest in NFL history. So far this year he leads the AFC in scoring with 63 points and has hit on 13 of 19 field-goal tries for the 6-2 Chiefs, who are in first place in the AFC West and getting better and better themselves.
At the start of last season, however, the kidding wasn't so friendly. Then Lowery was known only as an upstart free agent with an Ivy League background and a big mouth who had done the unthinkable—stolen a job away from 13-year veteran and frequent All-Pro Jan Stenerud, a popular man with players and fans and, along with Center Jack Rudnay, one of the two holdovers from Kansas City's Super Bowl IV championship team.
Lowery, 25, had been an NFL gypsy for the two years before that, ever since graduating from Dartmouth and failing in tryouts with eight teams. When he left his family home in McLean, Va., outside Washington, D.C., for the Chiefs' camp last June, he told his parents that this tryout would be his last. Persistent Nautilus workouts, along with aerobic dancing and karate classes, had made his right leg stronger. He had also spent two hours a day for a month working with his high school kicking coach, Dick Johnson, a 73-year-old retired stockbroker.
Lowery arrived in camp along with another challenger to Stenerud, a Mexican named Josè Guzman. Neither one seemed a threat to the then 36-year-old Stenerud. But Lowery soon moved ahead of Guzman and, in the words of Coach Marv Levy, "just kept getting better. He had better height on kickoffs than Jan did, and he was exceptionally good at our gimmick kicks—the squibs, onsiders, the bouncers." After Lowery kicked two field goals against St. Louis in Kansas City's third preseason game, Levy cut Stenerud.
"I was the holder then," says Quarterback Steve Fuller, "and it was evident to me that Nick had a live leg and would probably do a better job for us, but the guys were upset that Nick was given a chance to kick for Jan's job while Jan, more or less, had to sit back and watch." One Stenerud partisan wrote to The Kansas City Times, "I hope Lowery misses every kick he attempts and the Chiefs go 0-16."
Lowery would have gotten a better reception if he hadn't always insisted on telling everyone just what was on his mind. He recently told Gib Twyman of The Kansas City Star, "Last year I had made up my mind to do three things: to keep my mouth shut, keep to myself and be humble. Somehow it just didn't come out right."
Moreover, Lowery's rèsumè wasn't exactly of the kind to win the approval of his teammates. At Dartmouth, Lowery had majored in government and minored in drama, his roles including that of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. He had spent time abroad (his father, Sidney, was a career man in the State Department, and in college Nick studied French culture for a term in Blois, France), and his last job before flying to Kansas City had been as a research aide to Senator Bob Packwood (R., Ore.) and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. His idea of a pro ballplayer was his next-door neighbor in McLean, Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White, who last played in 1941.
As many rookies have, Lowery found his bed turned into a cow-pie sandwich. And he heard the jokes about kickers, about Ivy Leaguers and about fancy-pants people from Washington, D.C. Where Lowery went wrong was in always having a comeback. Not to be arrogant or to get anybody mad, but because that's his nature. The veterans were not in the least amused. "The basic idea," says Guard Bob Simmons, "is to keep quiet and take it."
The 33-year-old Rudnay is the Chiefs' team leader (and their oldest player by a full three years). He is an individual himself, as in rugged. When he chooses, he can be intimidating. He so chose with Lowery. "Nick got the same as any rookie," Rudnay said recently, "but then he chose to give everybody more ammunition." Like the time Lowery stepped on Wide Receiver Henry Marshall's toes in the shower. "All right," said Marshall, "that's worth a song." But instead of Men of Dartmouth, Lowery made up his own version of the Beatles' Michelle that went, "Henri, ma belle/ Sont les mots qui vont...."
Rudnay twice cautioned him to "get his act together." Levy's advice was to keep his eye on the target and let what he did speak for him. It did. In the second game of 1980, Lowery made good on kicks of 50, 23 and 57 yards in a 17-16 loss to Seattle. Seahawk Coach Jack Patera noted after the game that the 57-yarder probably would have been good from 70 yards out. When Kevin Mannix of The Boston Herald American asked Lowery what had happened to the guy who had been unable to reach the 20 on kickoffs with New England two years before, Lowery replied, "All I've done is have a foot transplanted from an aborigine, and it's working out quite well now." At least he didn't respond in French.
Lowery's personal turning point didn't come until the eighth game, when he beat the Lions 20-17 on a 40-yarder with 1:19 to play. Says Kansas City Defensive Line Coach Don Lawrence, who was then in charge of the kickers, "That's when Nick himself started believing that he was an excellent kicker. You could just see it." That was also when Rudnay made his peace, telling Lowery after the game, "You and I are from different worlds and I know I've given you as hard a time as anyone, but you do your job and I respect you for it. God bless you."
Rudnay said recently, "Nick comes from a different background than most of us. A government brat is what he calls himself. But he paid his dues and was a good sport about it all, and now he's more like a member of the family."
Lowery's background will always make him stick out from the NFL rank and file. His father is a retired political analyst on Eastern European affairs for the State Department who has just finished helping with the research for Forrest C. Pogue's biography of General George C. Marshall. Lowery's mother, Hazel, was born and raised in Egypt—"a child of the British Empire," she says—and met Sidney in London in 1949. She was coordinating the program for the first Fulbright Scholars, and Sidney—along with Daniel Patrick Moynihan—was in that group.
"Nick began his kicking career prenatally," says his mother. The Lowerys were stationed in Munich when she was carrying Nick and his twin sister, Ann, who now works in New Zealand as assistant film editor of a production called Battle Truck. In Mrs. Lowery's words, "Ann was then, and still is, absolutely quiet. But the other side of my protuberance was infinitely more active. I knew there was something there with extraordinary leg power."
The Lowerys moved to McLean in 1962 and have lived there ever since, except for a four-year stint when Sidney Lowery held a post in London. It was there, when Nick and Ann were in the fourth through seventh grades, that Lowery learned to kick, playing rugby and soccer at St. Paul's Junior School, where he was known as Swanky Yank. He also tried out as a cricket bowler but couldn't adjust to the rules against bending the arm. In St. Paul's annual cricket distance throw, where no such rule held him back, he set an all-school record of 70 yards that still stands.
Lowery returned to McLean with a leg up on his peers in soccer and in kicking footballs. By the eighth grade he stood 6'1", and he began imitating the kicking style of Stenerud. Their styles are still similar. (Stenerud now kicks for Green Bay.) Both have a smooth motion, more like a golf swing than the short, choppy motion of smaller kickers such as Garo Yepremian.
It's said that nobody really knows how to coach kickers, which is one of the reasons why they circulate around the league like umbrellas. Lowery says that the soundest coaching he ever got came from Johnson, who describes himself as "a gray old buzzard." Johnson once pitched Class A baseball for the Portland Pilots and was a Golden Gloves boxer, but his only association with football between his college days and his retirement from Merrill Lynch 11 years ago came in 1937, when the Redskins moved from Boston to Washington and he enlisted to help sell season tickets. He sold 105 of the first year's total of 310 (at a package price of $6.60 for six games) and has had 50-yard line Redskin seats ever since.
Lowery began listening to Johnson's kicking theories when he was a freshman at St. Albans, a Washington private school whose football practices Johnson, who had just retired, watched to pass the time of day. Most of Johnson's ideas about kicking and punting are original. (He has since written about 500 pages of manuscript on the subject, which he titles, depending on his mood, What a Difference a Foot Makes, or I Get a Kick Out of You.) He gave Lowery drills to improve his concentration, including one in which the kicker rotates his hands slowly while timing the motion and concentrating on the muscles involved and another in which he sits on the top row of a bleacher with his legs hanging limp in space, rotating his feet. Last year at the Chiefs' training camp, such drills were, just one more reason to look askance at Lowery.
Two weeks after Lowery's high school career ended with a dramatic 43-yard field goal that beat St. Albans' archrival with two seconds to play, he received a letter from former Redskins Kicker Charlie Gogolak that began, "Dear Nick: It has come to my attention that you are a bright young man with an educated and powerful toe..." and went on to urge him to consider a college career at Princeton, Gogolak's alma mater. Instead, he chose Dartmouth, where he hit 59.4% of his field goals, including 49-and 51-yarders in losses to Harvard in 1975 and '76 and a 40-yarder with six seconds left that beat Holy Cross 17-14 in 1977.
Lowery had been a four-sport man in high school and he pitched his first two years at Dartmouth, but in college he found other outlets for his energy. While in high school he played with a group called Moonshine that performed in the summer at Mr. Henry's, a Washington watering hole. He played the bongos in two Dartmouth musicals and once announced himself to a date at Smith College by climbing a tree outside her dorm and starting up a racket. Last year, after Kansas City's second victory over Denver, Lowery celebrated in the lounge of the Holiday Inn across the street from Arrowhead Stadium, where he persuaded the drummer to let him sit in for a set.
Despite his success as a college kicker, Lowery wasn't drafted by the pros. Shortly before graduation he signed as a free agent with the Jets, but was cut during training camp. By the start of the 1978 season he was back in Hanover waiting on tables at the Bull's Eye restaurant when he read in a newspaper in mid-September that John Smith of the Patriots was sidelined with a thigh injury. After working the lunch shift he borrowed a friend's car, drove to Foxboro and, with Coach Chuck Fairbanks holding, won himself a job.
In two games with New England he made seven conversions but fell short on a 45-yard field-goal try and did poorly on kickoffs. "Strictly a mechanical problem," he insisted at the time, but the Pats brought in David Posey, and Lowery headed home to McLean.
The following spring he worked on the staff of Senator John Chaffee (R., R.I.), doing research, mostly on the environment. That summer he went to camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, who sent him home with two weeks left in the preseason. Two days later, Washington invited him to its camp because Kicker Mark Moseley was having problems with a recurring thigh injury. The Redskins signed Lowery on a Thursday, cut him the following Monday, re-signed him on Friday when a kicker they had traded for didn't show up, and then cut him once again on Monday.
Those three axes in a two-week period were followed by four more unsuccessful tryouts during the '79 regular season—with the Colts, Saints, Buccaneers and Chargers. That's a record of futility Lowery jokes about, but privately he is proud he persevered.
And so is his neighbor, Justice White, who has taken a keen interest in Lowery's kicking career. He was one of just 16,941 who sat through a meaningless Chiefs-Colts game in Baltimore in the final week of last season, enduring blustery conditions and 24° cold for the chance to see Nick kick. "I think it's quite admirable that Nick wasn't discouraged when he wasn't immediately successful," said White the other day, "and I think he's improved himself immensely with his willingness to try and try again."
Lowery is now as secure in Kansas City as any NFL kicker is ever going to be. (Ten teams have changed kickers since the start of last season.) He shares a suburban apartment with second-year Cornerback Paul Dombroski, a Hawaiian of Polish-Japanese descent who came to Kansas City by way of Linfield College in Oregon. The team has come to accept Lowery's exuberance, even to respect it. "It amazes me sometimes," says Fuller. "He can go anyplace and walk right up to somebody and start talking, and not even think about it. I don't know what you'd call it, but I've never been able to do it."
Lowery is looking forward to another off-season appointment like the one he had last year with Congressman Richard Boiling (D., Mo.), which he hopes might lead to a career in government.
"But I don't ever want to get too comfortable," Lowery says, "and start taking things for granted." He still remembers the look on Stenerud's face after Stenerud was released. "I just hadn't thought of getting cut affecting someone whom I'd admired for so long the same way it had affected me. That's a feeling I hope I never lose, that empty feeling of getting cut, because then I might work out a little less, lose some concentration and sooner or later mess up. And I've worked too hard to blow it like that."