To his new employer, the New York Jets, Tony Meola brought no baggage. Literally. On Sunday, as the Jets opened training camp in Hempstead, N.Y., their other kickers and punters lugged around duffel bags loaded with various pairs of special shoes and training gear, but Meola stuck to one pair of cleats as he ambled about with a kicking tee tucked under his belt. Having established himself, at 25, as an internationally famous goalkeeper in what is internationally known as football, Meola is starting fresh in the Stateside brand of the game. "This is nothing against soccer," he says. "I'll keep playing soccer. This is about me living out my dreams."
Only 20 days earlier Meola and the rest of the U.S. World Cup team were continuing to awaken the U.S. public to soccer by playing bravely in a 1-0 second-round loss to Brazil, the eventual champions. As Cup play wound down, Meola expressed his longtime desire to kick in the NFL, even though the last time he had strapped on shoulder pads was in the eighth grade. So it was that on July 14, hours after meeting with executives of Perry Ellis clothing in Manhattan about a possible ad campaign, Meola worked out for the Jets at Hempstead's Hofstra University. Accustomed to booting a soccer ball some 65 yards downfield on goal kicks, Meola seemed to make the transition to football easily. He made about 80% of his field goals and boomed most of his kickoffs inside the five-yard line. "At that point," says Alan I Herman, Meola's agent, "[Jet general manager] Dick Steinberg came over to me and smiled. I knew we had something then."
New York was serious enough to give Meola a $7,000 signing bonus, a rarity for a player who has inked a one-year contract for the league minimum of $108,000. Meola was committed too: He will forgo about $100,000 in appearance fees over the next six weeks as well as at least one offer for a small role in a big-budget Hollywood movie. The signing got enough attention for Jet quarterback Boomer Esiason to begin his chat with the press after Sunday's lunch by saying, "If anybody asks me about Tony Meola, I'm going to kick him in the shin."
Meola's first day of camp consisted of going to meetings, playing catch, kicking on grass, standing around, kicking on artificial turf, shagging punts, stretching and signing T-shirts. Special teams coach Brad Seely began cleaning up Meola's shambling approach to kickoffs, which resembled his approach to goal kicks. "Right now, Tony needs to become consistent," said Seely. "This may just be a year of developing, maturing, but he's got as strong a leg as anybody in the league."
Meola also got encouragement—as well as tips on planting his foot and following through—from former Kansas City Chief kicker Nick Lowery, whom the Jets signed in the off-season. Said the 38-year-old Lowery, who has the highest field goal percentage in NFL history, "Tony has the ability to concentrate with intensity after waiting around all game and then make the big play. If there's one position in sports that requires this besides placekicker or relief pitcher, it's soccer goalkeeper."
If he comes along quickly, Meola may be used for kickoffs this season. The field goals will be left to Lowery. Nonetheless, toward the end of Sunday's practice, Meola tried a few 35-yard field goals against a live rush. He jerked two way left after bad snaps and drilled one through the middle, eliciting a roar of "Gooooooaaaal!" from some Jet teammates. Esiason shook his hand.
"This is no joke." Meola said afterward. "I'm out here to stay."