There isn’t another job like it in all of professional sports. Outside the locker room, there have been a thousand jokes aimed at place-kickers, all of them poking fun at the fact that on rosters stuffed with behemoths, it’s the guys who look like golf pros who often decide who wins and who loses.
On Dec. 3, 2005, Jay Feely did a smart thing: He didn’t tune in to “Saturday Night Live” that night. So he missed a bit called “The Long Flight Home: The Jay Feely Story,” with comedian Dane Cook playing Feely, in the hours after Feely missed three potentially game-winning field goals the previous week for the Giants, in Seattle.
In the skit, one of his teammates growls: “We’re out there getting punched in the face, you’re over there kicking a mini-football into a butterfly net.”
The audience roars. It’s easy to kick dirt on kickers.
“I can laugh about that now,” Feely says, and as proof, he laughs about it.
Kickers learn to laugh, and they learn to block out the noise, they build tough enough skin to keep the jokes from hitting too close to home and they thicken their nerves so they won’t go crazy week-to-week, game-to- game, kick-to-kick.
“Every day you go to practice, you know your job is on the line,” says Feely, who made 332 field goals — 24th on the all-time list — in a 14-year career that included stops with both the Jets and Giants. “Every. Single. Time.”
Kickers are in the news this week, all across the NFL. The Bears are still feeling the aftereffects of Cody Parker’s double-doink in last year’s playoffs.
Adam Vinatieri, who may be the best there ever was, who’s made 583 field goals and twice won Super Bowls thanks to his immortal leg, missed two field goals and a PAT for the Colts this week, and the Colts lost in overtime.
In the crazed final minutes of Saints-Texans on Monday night, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn nearly provided a buzzkill anticlimax by missing the go-ahead PAT with 37 seconds to go (he was bailed out by a roughing penalty and converted the do-over) — and then watched New Orleans’ Wil Lutz boom a 58-yard game-winner at the gun.
And, of course, there is the continuing dramedy surrounding the Jets, for whom Kaare Vedvik missed a PAT and badly botched a routine 45-yarder in a game in which every point proved platinum in a 17-16 loss to the Bills.
“It’s the oldest story in football,” says Nick Lowery who, when he retired in 1996 after 17 seasons with the Chiefs and Jets owned the career record for field goals (383) and percentage (.799) and made 562 of 568 extra-points. “A lot of fans and too many coaches, too, don’t understand how valuable a kicker is until he’s gone.”
Or, as Feely says: “Wouldn’t any Jets fan give anything to have Jason Myers on the team?”
The Jets created this saga. Myers made the Pro Bowl out of nowhere last year, making 33 out of 36 field goals and 30 of 33 PATs. When the Seahawks gave him about $5.5 million in guaranteed money, the Jets let him go. How hard is it to replace a kicker, after all?
Except Chandler Catanzaro was so spooked by the job, he quit the game entirely after a week. Taylor Bertolet was signed, missed five field goals in two weeks. Then came Vedvik, who struggled so badly in Week 1 they were planning to hold American Idol-style tryouts Tuesday, and signed Sam Ficken to kick next week against the Browns.
“And here’s the sad thing,” says Lowery, whose final season was the 1-15 Rich Kotite calamity in 1996, “the Jets aren’t the terrible organization they were when I left there. I think it’s a well-put-together operation now. I think they have the right head coach. Everything is in place for success …”
His voice trails off; he doesn’t add what’s obvious: “Almost everything.”
Lowery and Feely are perfect examples of the gig’s peripatetic essentials. Feely kicked for seven NFL teams and two arena league teams. Lowery was cut 11 times by eight different teams before finally sticking with the Chiefs in 1980.
“The biggest tool,” Feely says, “is fortitude. You have to overcome failure because you’re going to fail, like cornerbacks or [baseball] closers.”
Lowery, though, points out: “There are no backup kickers. If you fail, you don’t get benched. You get cut.”
Feely: “When [Catanzaro] quit, I understood it. You can reach a point where you say: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m done.’ It’s not easy to go back into the arena everyday, for you, for your family.”
Lowery: “You need to be Billy the Kid, the one who always has to draw against the bad guy and come out ahead. It’s not for everyone.”
It is a limited fraternity, a unique one. Feely believes even if fans and some coaches don’t see kickers as real football players, the other players do. A lot of kickers are named captains. There are more kickers who serve as player reps than any other position. And a week after the SNL lampoon, Feely booted a game-winner against the Eagles, “and my teammates all had my back. They were thrilled for me.”
But there are other emotions. Marty Schottenheimer parted ways with Lowery after the 1993 season. Two years later, Lowery found himself in a Wichita sports bar as a glorious 13-3 Chiefs’ season was vaporized in a 10-7 loss to Indianapolis thanks in large part to three missed field goals by Lin Elliott from 35, 39 and 42 yards.
“I don’t want to call it the brotherhood of kickers, and revenge is a wasted emotion,” Lowery says. “But I do believe in the empathy of kickers. Because I knew what his life was about to become, and I felt bad about that.”
Feely is asked to take us all inside a place-kicker’s brain. He laughs.
“That’s a dangerous place to go,” he says. “And sometimes you don’t return.”