Redskins-Seahawks: Rookie kicker Kai Forbath helped power Redskins’ run to the playoffs

January 1, 2013

Kai Forbath chose the life of a kicker, and for the first five weeks of this NFL season that meant unemployment. He lived off the money he made last year on the Dallas Cowboys’ injured reserve. He paid no rent, living at home with his parents in Los Angeles and staying some nights at his girlfriend’s apartment. Forbath worked out with a trainer and practiced kicking three days a week, a college friend holding the ball for him. He played golf many days and cooked dinner with his mother most evenings.

Forbath spent the last 12 weeks of the NFL regular season becoming one of the most accurate rookie kickers in league history and a crucial part of the Washington Redskins’ push to the NFC East title, a breath of fresh air after years of kicking misadventure at FedEx Field. For two years, Forbath could not get a job. Now that he has one, he virtually cannot miss.

Before he drilled a 37-yarder off the right upright Sunday night, Forbath made more consecutive field goals to start a career than anyone in league history. When he lined up for the 17th attempt, in Philadelphia, long snapper Nick Sundberg looked at him and said, “This kick is for the record.” Forbath shrugged and said: “Yeah, I know. Just another kick.”

“He doesn’t even hear the stadium,” said Susy Forbath, his mother. “He’s in his own calm place all the time. I don’t know how.”

Forbath, 25, brings peace to a pressurized craft and an even keel to a maddening profession. After he watches his kicks sail through, even the ones that win a game or set a record, he barely smiles. As he waited at home for his chance, he put in his work and never worried.

The Washington Post’s Mike Jones breaks down the Redskins’ win over the Dallas Cowboys last night for the team’s first division title since the 1999 season. (The Washington Post)

“I just kind of kept telling myself the opportunity would come,” Forbath said. “I’m pretty good at staying positive when tough things happen. When I miss a kick, I’ve always been good at coming back and making the next one. I’ve always stayed with that mentality in my career.”

Before Forbath won a tryout and replaced Billy Cundiff, the Redskins had employed 18 kickers since 1994, five more than any other team but too few to find a solution. Drives that sputtered across midfield led to discouragement rather than three points. Narrow victories turned into losses. Forbath has not been along for the Redskins’ magic carpet ride. He has helped fuel it.

“He’s been doing stuff that we’ve been needing for a long time,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said.

One prerequisite to becoming an NFL kicker is being one of the best kickers ever. Kicking clinics, coaching specialists and refined techniques have turned a gridiron afterthought into a cottage industry and transformed modern kicking. Twenty-five of the top 33 all-time leaders in field goal percentage, including 11 of the top 12, are active. Kickers have converted 83.9 percent of their field goal attempts this season, which would make the average NFL kicker in 2012 the 12th-most accurate of all time.

Held to the standard they created, kickers became victims of their own success. Jan Stenerud, the only full-time kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, made 66.85 percent of his field goals. Kickers are no longer allowed to be so bad. Only one kicker this season – Mason Crosby of the Green Bay Packers – has taken more than 20 attempts and been worse. All NFL kickers are, simultaneously, among the best to ever play and in imminent danger of losing their jobs.

And one of the best ever may not find a job at all.

“It’s crazy,” Forbath said. “That’s why I don’t take anything for granted. This is a week-to-week job for me right now. I’m trying to make it last as long as I can.”

Outsize passions

Forbath’s Hawaiian first name means “the sea” and, in the native language of his biological father, the word Kai evokes turbulence. Calm in demeanor but outsize in passions, Forbath pushed limits in any activity he chose.

“From the time he could walk, he didn’t just walk,” Susy Forbath said. “He climbed to the top of the treehouse.”

Other 25-year-olds may dump Prego on noodles. Forbath makes seafood risotto. The more intricate the dish, the more he likes it. He and his mother send recipes back and forth by text message.

Forbath follows fashion trends, and spent time over the holidays choosing a new wardrobe with his mother, sister and girlfriend. “He will outshop any woman,” Susy Forbath said, laughing.

Growing up, Forbath never asked his parents for toys, only sports equipment. He played all the sports he could, and he was good enough to compete against kids an age group older. He surfed and golfed and played football – as a running back, not a kicker.

His best sport was soccer. By high school, Forbath played for an elite travel soccer team that demanded seven days a week in the fall. He told the football coach at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks that he could no longer sustain both soccer and football. When the coach exploded at him for quitting, Forbath placated him by asking if he could kick.

By his junior year, even as he received college scholarships to play soccer, Forbath focused all his attention on place kicking. He earned a full ride to UCLA, and in 2009, his junior season, he won the Lou Groza trophy, awarded to the best college kicker in the country.

“We always joked he was going to be the first kicker to win the Heisman,” said Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen, Forbath’s teammate at UCLA. “Mr. Ice Water Through His Veins type guy.”

Forbath expected his career at UCLA would convince an NFL team to draft him in 2011. Only one kicker, Alex Henery, was chosen. Slighted and motivated, Forbath trained harder. With the league shut down and players locked out, he could only wait and kick.

By the time the lockout ended in August 2011 and the Cowboys signed him, Forbath had developed a strain in the quadriceps of his kicking leg. The Cowboys carried Forbath on their non-football injury list, hoping he would heal in time to compete with fellow rookie Dan Bailey in preseason.

But Forbath’s injury lingered, and he learned first-hand the nature of competition for NFL kicking jobs: Bailey converted 27 of his first 28 field goal tries and, in his first two seasons, has made 89.6 percent of his attempts. He is the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history.

The Cowboys no longer needed a kicker, and they waived Forbath on April 16. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him the next day as insurance while they negotiated a contract with their kicker, Connor Barth. This preaseason, even with Barth in the fold, Tampa Bay coaches let Forbath kick five field goals. He made them all, including one from 55 yards. They still chose Barth.

“I’ve seen other guys kick,” Barth told Forbath after the Buccaneers released him. “You can do this.”

Thirty-two jobs, none open

Forbath chose a profession with 32 job opportunities, none of them open. He headed home and kicked on Tuesdays, Thursday and Sundays, mimicking a routine that would enable him to immediately step in for an NFL team. His friend Jeff Locke, UCLA’s current punter, held for him and provided camaraderie.

“It was a little frustrating,” Forbath said. “But it happens every year, where an injury or something happens. I was just trying to stay positive until that time came.”

“He always takes things in stride,” Susy Forbath said. “It was probably more stressful for me than it was for him.”

On Oct. 8, a Monday morning, Forbath was sleeping over at his girlfriend’s apartment. He woke up at 6 a.m. when he heard his sister, who lived nearby, yelling for him to wake up through the window.

He checked his cellphone and saw he had missed 15 calls. He wondered what had happened.

At 4 a.m. – 7 on the East Coast – his agent had received a call from the Redskins. The day before, Cundiff missed a 31-yard field goal, his fourth miss in six tries. Coach Mike Shanahan determined a change was needed, and he wanted Forbath to try out.

But Forbath had switched his phone to silent and never heard the calls from his agent and his mother. He hustled home and packed one suitcase; it was just a tryout, after all, and he did not want to get his hopes up. His parents were frantic. He was stoic.

Forbath didn’t get ready in time to catch a morning flight, and his cross-country flight did not arrive until 1 a.m. He needed to report to Redskins Park at 7 a.m.

“I wasn’t awake,” Forbath said. “But when you get out there and that’s about to happen, that wakes you up.”

The Redskins pitted Forbath against Olindo Mare and Josh Brown, two veterans with 26 combined years of experience. Each kicker took one kick from 15 designated spots on the field, from 30 yards out to 50. Scouts and coaches lined up behind them.

“I’m probably the underdog here,” Forbath recalled thinking. “I got nothing to lose. I might as well go out and not let nerves or anything get in the way. I’m just going to kick it.”

Forbath made more kicks than either Brown or Mare. After he waited an hour in a lounge, someone came in and told him a scout needed to talk him upstairs. Barely 24 hours after he was awakened in Los Angeles, still unemployed and waiting, Forbath was an NFL kicker.

“If he would have been 0 for 4, I think we would have been second-guessed along the way,” Shanahan said later. “But you take your chances on guys you think have an opportunity to do what he’s done.”

What he’s done is help win games. Twelve of Forbath’s field goals have been longer than 40 yards. Ten have come in games decided by seven points or less. One gave the Redskins an overtime win.

“Nothing gets to him,” Sundberg said. “He doesn’t think about anything. He just goes on the field and he shuts off his mind, and he lets his body react. I think that’s his biggest upside – not thinking.”

Said Forbath: “You can’t take any kick too easy. You got to stay focused. Because guys are out there making the majority of their kicks. There’s guys that are waiting for that opportunity when you mess up. I know. Because I was one of them waiting.”

On Sunday, the Redskins’ first home playoff game since 1999 could depend on the right foot of a surfing, shopping, stoic kid from SoCal. Forbath will trot on to the field. He will take three steps back. The stadium will go silent and he will swing his leg, like any other kick.

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