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Kicked around: Inside football's loneliest position.
The 30-year-old Cundiff speculates that it's because this is the first time in six seasons he has had a kicking job at the start of the season, and his leg is unaccustomed to the rigors of so many field goal attempts and kickoffs so early on.
But he kicks well in the game. He booms several kickoffs so deep into the end zone that they're unreturnable.
In the first half, he has a short field goal attempt, a 37-yarder. And while a rapt Nicole finds that her heart pounds harder on long attempts, these chip shots have a way of rattling her nerves, too. "The ramifications of missing a short one are much worse," she says.
Most of the other 31 active kickers in the league are grappling with their own tensions at that moment. Around Nicole Cundiff, the floating voices of radio announcers can be heard, reporting on other games that day where some kickers are coping with pressure-filled kicks more successfully than others. Thirty miles away, the Washington Redskins' Graham Gano gets ready to attempt a game-tying 51-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers, with about 6 minutes remaining in the game. Nowadays, there is not a kicker in the league who hasn't made a 50-yarder, and expectations have correspondingly grown.
"You gotta make that," groans Redskins radio analyst Sonny Jurgensen, the Hall of Fame quarterback whose career spanned 17 years and who played in an era where a successful 50-plus yarder was a rarity, out of reach for all but the elite kickers. A few minutes later, Gano has another attempt to tie the game, this time from 45 yards.
"He wouldn't dare miss two in a row," Jurgensen says, just before the ball is snapped. Gano's kick is good, and the kicker escapes further wrath, culminating his day by booting a winning field goal in overtime. It comes after Green Bay's kicker, Mason Crosby, raises eyebrows by missing a 53-yarder at the end of regulation that would have won the game. The ball hits the right upright, a miss of about six inches.
That thin line between triumph and catastrophe preys on professional athletes, to the point where some of them admit to vomit-inducing tension before they take the field. But if there is a surprising trait among elite kickers, it's how much of an adrenalin rush they take from their all-or-nothing moments in the spotlight. "The pressure was what I missed when I was out of football," Cundiff says. "You have to want to go out there with the feeling that all eyes are watching you."
"I lived for those moments," says former Redskins great Mark Moseley, who kicked in Washington for 13 consecutive seasons, starting in 1974. "I'd put myself right there next to [Coach Joe] Gibbs," Moseley remembers, laughing, "and he used to tell me to move, to get out of his way, get out of his way. But I just couldn't wait. I think most good kickers are like that. I wanted the game to come down to me."
But when he didn't come through, there was one comfort, he says. "All the good kickers develop short memories."
Still, there is unremitting pressure.