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Kicked around: Inside football's loneliest position.

By Michael Leahy
Sunday, December 12, 2010; W12

Christmas Eve, 2005. A man's job was on the line.

Dallas Cowboys place kicker Billy Cundiff trotted onto the field for a field goal attempt, late in the final quarter. It was a short kick to tie the game. A miss on a very long field goal attempt could be forgiven by coaches, but if you missed a short, routine kick, especially one that cost your team a win, you looked inept, Cundiff knew. The coaches might cut you from the team that very day to protect the franchise from any more of your blunders.

And now here came a blunder. As he kicked the ball, Cundiff realized that he had jerked his head up to steal a glance at a fierce rush. Bad things usually happen when a kicker does that. "I didn't have a good feeling the moment I hit it," he remembers.

With less than two minutes to go in a road game against the Carolina Panthers, the Cowboys were battling to stay in contention for a playoff spot. Cundiff, who had struggled since returning from a quadriceps injury, already had missed a field goal attempt that day. Now, the Panthers bore down on him to block his kick.

"It was like an out-of-body experience," recalls Cundiff, who to this day can still see the bodies flying. He hurried the 33-yard kick, pushing the ball to the right of the goalposts. An official signaled it was no good. But luck intervened: A diving Panther ran into Cundiff an instant afterthe kick, resulting in a penalty that gave a first down to the Cowboys, who capitalized on the break to score the winning touchdown.

The Cowboys had averted a crushing blow, but Cundiff's career in Dallas was finished. In the locker room afterward, Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells looked at him, and Cundiff knew what the glance meant. "Parcells gave up on me in that moment," Cundiff says. "I could tell by the way he was talking to people in the locker room and looking at me."

When a team loses confidence in a kicker, no one else in the American work force receives a pink slip more quickly. In the NFL, they even fire on Christmas Day. The morning after the holiday, the news became public: The Cowboys had released Cundiff. He was 25. "I mean I had kind of prepared myself for it," he remembers. "But still when it comes, it hits awfully hard."

Cundiff, now the place kicker for the Baltimore Ravens, knows all about the NFL roller coaster. For the Cowboys, he had been so hot at one stretch that he tied what was then the NFL record for field goals in a single game. During a Monday night encounter against the New York Giants, he booted seven field goals, including a tying 52-yarder in the final seconds of regulation and the game-winner in overtime. Afterward, the NFL placed his kicking shoe in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Cowboys' gruff Parcells, famously known for his scant praise of players, told him that if he kept it up, he would be kicking for 20 years.

And then, in 2007 and 2008, Cundiff found himself out of football altogether. His view of a kicker's life nowadays leans toward language that sounds lifted from "The Godfather." "This is the profession we chose," he says in front of his Ravens locker, adding, "It can be hard on families. I think it's been most difficult for my wife. I'm so thankful for her. She has had to take care of our two children and do everything else while encouraging and worrying about me. It's a lot for anybody."

***

Nicole Cundiff arrives early with the couple's two children at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium to watch her husband play against the Denver Broncos. Once a full-time attorney, she is analytical and makes a habit of scrutinizing her husband's doings on Sundays. It was not always like this, Nicole concedes. During Billy's four seasons with Dallas, she viewed a game principally as an opportunity to mingle with the wives and girlfriends of other Cowboys players. "I'm much more involved in just watching the games now," she says. "Now it's tricky, more serious. I recognize our livelihood is at stake."

At 11:30, a full 90 minutes before the game, she is in her seat, her sleeping six-month-old, Luke, pressed to her chest. She watches her husband begin his warmup. Nicole is not only studying his form but also looking for any sign of physical problems. She knows something the public and press don't: Billy's right knee has been bothering him.

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.

Gano misses.

"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.

"For the young kickers now, it's tougher than ever," Moseley says. "I don't know if I could've made it today. I don't know if I'd been kept around long enough to prove myself."

Moseley's era arguably produced the most talked-about kick in the sport's history, a game-winning, last-second 63-yard field goal in 1970 by New Orleans' straight-on kicker Tom Dempsey, until then best known for succeeding despite having a clubfoot. To this day, no one in the league has kicked a field goal farther.

But the mystique surrounding that feat obscured the general unreliability of kickers in the late '60s and early '70s, when the league average for successful field goals attempts was not much above 50 percent. Most of the kickers, like Moseley, booted in a straight-on style, which presented less room for error than the emerging soccer-style approach, in which the ball came off the instep. The best of the new kicking breed was Norwegian native Jan Stenerud, whose brilliance with the Kansas City Chiefs in the '60s and '70s, before he moved on to the Packers and the Minnesota Vikings, would lead to his induction into the Hall of Fame, the only pure place kicker ever to have received the honor. Straight-on kickers found themselves sharing the stage with a burgeoning vanguard of soccer-style wunderkinds slowly pushing conventional kickers out of the game.

Moseley, who entered the league in 1970 and had a lifetime mark of 65 percent, observes: "Now, if you don't hit 85 percent or higher, you're not going to be even in the top 10 [among kickers in the league]; you might not even make a squad. ... There's no patience. They just cut people; it's rougher than ever."

In the modern game, coaches' expectations are soaring, inflated by three decades of kickers' increasing proficiency. "There are only 32 regular positions for 32 teams for guys to kick field goals, but everybody knows there are a lot more kickers than that who can kick well," says Tim Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback who is now a football analyst for ESPN. "If you're a kicker, you're all alone. ... It still comes down to those one or two kicks in a game. And if one guy fails, there's always somebody else to take over."

The latest wave of specialists have been honing their craft since high school, beneficiaries of youth kicking camps, personal lessons and a greater understanding of the soccer-style techniques introduced in the '60s. Even middling collegiate prospects generally make more than 70 percent of their field goal attempts, while grizzled NFL outcasts await second chances that come only when established kickers are on the brink of losing their jobs.

Few observers were surprised earlier this year when a veteran kicker, the New Orleans Saints' John Carney, was cut after missing a single short kick. And, in November, Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed was quickly let go after missing a 26-yarder in a loss to New England. Shaun Suisham, the former Redskins kicker who had earlier won Cundiff's Cowboys job only to lose it himself, took over Reed's spot.

No one else on a football team -- or in major professional athletics for that matter -- is so easily disposable. A starting NFL quarterback, a prince in modern American sports, thrives for years off dreams about nothing more than his potential. For many teams, a young, interception-prone quarterback is a possible Hope diamond. Even a receiver can suffer a long spell of bad hands and at least hang on through the season. By contrast, kickers are accessories, utterly interchangeable.

Non-kickers typically express little sympathy for the kickers' odyssey. "They don't have to do the same things as other players do," Hasselbeck observes. "When a lot of team meetings are going on, I've seen those guys in the equipment room shopping online or playing cards or video games." He chuckles. "They work very hard, but you also have to remember they have a lot of time to work on nothing but their craft. They just have that one thing to do: kick. The basic feeling of guys on a team, I think, is that kickers are supposed to make their kicks."

Especially when things go wrong, chagrined coaches and announcers often refer to kickers merely by their position. After the Redskins' Gano missed what would have been a game-winning 47-yarder at the end of regulation against Tennessee, Sonny Jurgensen fumed: "He choked -- the kicker choked!" As it turned out, Gano won the game with a 48-yarder in overtime.

Moseley sounds befuddled by the modern state of kickers. "Teams think they can find kickers anywhere now," Moseley says. "I thought I had it tough."

Moseley, a late-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, went to his first training camp to discover that the Eagles' coaches had brought in more than 300 kickers to compete against him. "Some of the guys were right off the street," he remembers.

He won the job but lasted only one season in Philadelphia. Cut during the 1971 preseason, he failed in a tryout in New Orleans and then was off to Houston, where he lasted two seasons. Released again, he found himself with no tryout invitations anywhere. He found himself in jobs that included servicing septic tanks, and was out of football for most of two seasons. Just as he was beginning to conclude he might never have an NFL opportunity again, he received an invitation to attend the Redskins' 1974 training camp and compete for a job. On his first day, he recalls, head coach George Allen asked him if he knew why he was there.

"I'm here to win a job as the kicker, Coach," Moseley dutifully replied.

There was more to it than that, said Allen, who explained that Moseley was there because the team required a kicker especially reliable on the Redskins' notoriously soggy home turf.

Back in 1971, when you were with the Oilers, you kicked two field goals against my Redskins at RFK Stadium in a rainstorm, Mosley remembers Allen saying. "I need a kicker I can depend on, in any kind of conditions. I think you're the man for the job. Now, all you have to do is beat out those other 12 kickers we've put on the roster, and the job is yours."

The 62-year-old Mosley leans back in an office, where he works as a Five Guys Burgers & Fries director of franchising, and sighs with amazement over all he survived. By the time he was finished in Washington, he was recognized as the Redskins' greatest kicker ever, renowned for game-winning field goals and streaks of flawlessness. During the strike-shortened season of 1982, he made 21 consecutive field goal attempts, then an NFL record, en route to winning the league's Most Valuable Player award, the only time a kicker has taken home the prize. Several of the Redskins' victories that year resulted from critical Moseley field goals, making possible a playoff run that culminated with a Super Bowl victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Still, Moseley's career was not devoid of slumps. "In 1980, I think I missed 10 of my first 14 kicks," he recalls. "Nowadays, I'd been gone with those misses. Gone. ... But I tell people: That's kicking."

***

After Cundiff's release by the Cowboys, suitors were fickle. Tampa Bay signed him before the 2006 preseason but cut him long before training camp, when the club re-signed its regular kicker. New Orleans signed him late that year but turned to him to handle kickoff chores only.

By the end of the season, New Orleans had said goodbye to him, too. Over the next two years, he had 15 unsuccessful tryouts with NFL teams. Eventually, he couldn't even bring himself to watch games on TV.

He and Nicole had moved to Phoenix, and Cundiff occupied himself by taking MBA courses at Arizona State and working for a venture capital firm. Only in his late 20s, he wondered whether he had already been pegged as washed up. Then while working out on a football field at a community college in 2008, he exchanged hellos with a well-known local kicking instructor named Gary Zauner.

A former special teams coordinator for the Vikings, Ravens and Arizona Cardinals, Zauner had built his reputation as a kicking consultant for a half-dozen teams. As he puts it: "Golfers have swing coaches -- kickers need swing coaches, too; they get out of whack sometimes, all of 'em, even the best."

The Wisconsin transplant had declared an end to his coaching days, happy to bask with his wife in the Arizona heat and to give lessons to young dreamers and struggling veterans alike. On the side, Zauner ran annual kicking combines, or showcases, for NFL rookie and free agent kickers, who paid him for the privilege of competing. The combines gave the kickers a chance to show off their skills and provided scouts an opportunity to size up new and old talent.

Cundiff told Zauner that he needed another pair of eyes to study his form.

"Billy's swing was off -- I could see that in a hurry during our lesson," Zauner said. Cundiff's biggest flaw was his "crunching," said Zauner, who demonstrated, looking like a man doing a sit-up. "At impact with the ball, Billy was keeping his head too much down and back. It had him bending and crunching his body a lot, which made him push the ball to the right. Then, when he tried compensating, he hooked the ball badly to the left. We worked to get him to ... develop a nice relaxed upright torso. It made him straighter on the target line."

But Zauner's most important contribution to Cundiff's career came at the end of their two lessons together. Zauner suggested that Cundiff join about 30 other kickers at his March 2009 free-agent kicking combine. Scouts from 26 NFL teams would be present, as well as others from football's minor leagues, the lower-profile, unglamorous United Football League and the Canadian Football League.

Cundiff resisted. "They already know who I am," he said.

A blunt man, Zauner replied, "People aren't beating down your door, Billy."

After his agent pushed, Cundiff relented. He performed well at the combine. Five months later, during the 2009 preseason, the Detroit Lions called, and Cundiff briefly filled in for their hurt place kicker, Jason Hanson. Cut upon Hanson's return, Cundiff was off to Cleveland to temporarily replace the Browns' injured veteran, Phil Dawson. His short, successful stint in Cleveland earned him a call from Ravens officials, who, discouraged by the struggles of the team's new place kicker, Steve Hauschka, soon signed him.

In hopes of enhancing his concentration and confidence under pressure, Cundiff had long before turned for help to a sports psychologist. "He works with a lot of military guys," Cundiff says. "Special Forces types. It's an approach that gets away from that California hot tub stuff. ... I think it's done quite a bit for me. ... You look for everything you can do, every edge."

Joining the Ravens last season during week 11 of a 16-game NFL schedule, Cundiff made 12 of 17 field goal attempts for the team, just over 70 percent, with his longest field goal coming from 46 yards. The stats were unremarkable, but in November he made the most important kick he had attempted in four years: a short game-winning field goal in overtime against the Ravens' tough divisional rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nicole was exultant, but Cundiff knew better than to celebrate. "Let's be honest," he says. "I needed to make that kick just to stay on the team."

***

Gary Zauner exits his house in a Phoenix suburb, on his way to a kicking lesson. He glances at a few snake skins that have been shed in his garden, then wheels around, having caught a glimpse of something moving. A skipping roadrunner, as cute as its namesake cartoon character, scurries across his driveway, disappearing behind a cactus. "You know what those cute things do?" he says. "They take that beak of theirs, ram it right down on a rattlesnake's head, knock it out and then eat it. Cute has nothin' to do with it. They're tough. ... Dominance. Dominance wins. It's tough out there. My guys have to see that, too. Only some will make it."

At 60, Zauner is proudly old school when it comes to attitude and discipline. If a student misses a series of kicks, the last thing he wants to hear from the guy is that he's just having a bad day. "A bad day? You can afford a bad kick, but you can't afford a bad day," he says. "You have a bad day, and you'll never get a job." He doesn't want to see someone going through the motions at one of his lessons, either. He has his lines ready, the way other people carry around canisters of Mace. "You know what, man? Practice ... doesn't ... make ... perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect." He regularly points at the half-dozen or so footballs that, having been kicked down the field, now need to be retrieved. "Go get the balls," he tells his students cheerfully.

For this, along with two days of lessons and videotape reviews of their performances, the dreamers pay him $1,200.

And it has been worth it, in many cases. Some of the game's most gifted young kickers have come through these doors. Just the week before, in early October, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Josh Scobee, who to that point in the season had not missed a kick, publicly praised Zauner for helping to refine his kicking stroke. The Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski sought Zauner out two years ago, after which, coincidence or not, his accuracy rate soared again, leading later to a $16 million contract.

It's a long ways from the offseason camps that Zauner helped run in his native Wisconsin during the 1970s, when he would join forces with a couple of established NFL kickers whose names lured young starry-eyed campers. Amazed and amused, he watched the extraordinary Stenerud struggle to explain to kids how he did what he did. Zauner tells the story while imitating Stenerud's Norwegian accent. "Stenerud would shrug," Zauner remembers, "and look around at these kids and say, 'I take two or three steps this way, and I take one step this way, and I just kick the ball.' That really hit me. It made me realize a lot of good athletes can do it, but they can't explain it, not at all. They do it completely by feel. ... I thought, There's a need for somebody to really teach this. And so I studied and broke it down."

On this day, Zauner's student is 25-year-old Clint Stitser, once regarded as a prodigy -- a high-school All-American kicker from Reno and next a star kicker at Fresno State. But Stitser hasn't made a professional team. After two years out of football, he attended Zauner's free agent combine last March, performing impressively enough to win an invitation from the Jets to attend one of their preseason camps. He had a bad first day there and was soon on a plane back to Nevada. Late in the preseason, he kicked in a couple of games for the Seattle Seahawks before being released.

Stitser has told Zauner that he would be willing to kick anywhere for the time being, including in the Canadian Football League or the United Football League, and Zauner has tried to get a read on the job market for him. When a CFL coach called Zauner for recommendations, Zauner mentioned Stitser. The coach responded that somebody connected with the Jets had told him that Stitser hadn't fared well at their camp. Zauner called Stitser and said, "Clint, when that kind of rumor starts going around, that's not good.' "

"I just had a bad day with the Jets," Stitser protested.

"Clint, you know how I feel about a bad day," Zauner replied. "What have I said? You can't afford a bad day."

Later, he meets Stitser at a high school field, and they get to work, zeroing in on Zauner's gospel. "What I want you to do is not keep your eyes down and back as you come through the ball," he tells the right-footed Stitser. "I want you to let your eyes follow the ball in the air as you kick it. I want you to see and feel the kick, but let your eyes follow the ball and feel the skip of your [left] plant leg as you kick and move forward."

For many athletes, who have been told all their lives to keep your eye on the ball, the advice is counterintuitive.

"A lot of coaches know nothing about kicking," Zauner says. "They don't know. It takes time to know. It's not like I pulled this stuff out of my butt."

Stitser is a quick learner. He begins by kicking 25-yard field goals, chip shots that he booms between and over the goal posts, over the end zone, over the green field, and over a running track in the distance. The balls carom off a fence.

Zauner moves the balls beyond 40 and then 50 yards, all the while delivering his mantra: "That's it. Feel the kick, eyes follow the ball, feel the skip, walk forward, grab a ball. Do it again."

At the end of the workout, instructor and student review the videotape of Stitser's performance. After Stitser leaves, Zauner says he has hope: "Clint has a chance to be a good steady kicker. You need to be steady. Steadiness: That's more important than distance. I told Billy the same thing."

Zauner is enormously happy for Billy Cundiff, but still, he says, Cundiff has to be careful. "He works very, very hard, but Billy can be streaky," he says. "It can turn pretty quickly, and it can be hard to figure out then. This is not like some perfect science. That ball sometimes does funny things."

***

As Game 10 ended for the Ravens, Cundiff's 17 field goals placed him a highly respectable ninth in the NFL in that category, and his field goal percentage stood at 85 percent, well above his lifetime average. He was showered with compliments from Ravens officials, including special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who declared, "He has given us exactly what we had hoped for."

"Exactly what we had hoped for" did not necessarily mean an extension on his one-year contract of about $1.2 million. The Ravens would still need to see more.

What had made Ravens' coaches happiest about Cundiff's performance were his kickoffs. His 29 unreturnable touchbacks at that point led the league. His average kickoff of 72 yards -- which translated to a ball landing two yards deep in the end zone -- bested the average of the next closest NFL kicker by about three yards. "That makes it so tough for opposing kick returners," said Ravens kicking coach Randy Brown. "Our opponents start deeper in their own end. So Billy really is a defensive weapon, too."

Beaming with confidence, Cundiff says, "Every time I go out there now, I'm feeling good."

In a tight game at home against the Browns, Cundiff came on the field to attempt a 51-yarder, a distance that he knew some observers would view as a test of his ability to make a long kick. A breeze required extra calculations that day. With the wind blowing left to right across the goalposts, Cundiff decided to aim for the farthest left quadrant between the goalposts, quite close to the left goalpost. If the wind pushed the ball right, as he expected, the kick would end up straight down the middle.

He took a last look at the flags. Still swirling left to right. Ready.

When the ball left his foot, it felt good. A kick that felt so good was almost always a made kick. But in the next instant, Cundiff saw something that struck him as extraordinary. He had hit the ball so hard, so pure, that it was fighting off the wind, an oblong missile boring in on that left quadrant. "I thought, It's not supposed to do that, not with that wind," he recalls. The ball hit the left goalpost. No good. "You have strange kicks that you just can't explain sometimes," he says. "Things like that just happen."

Two Sundays later, sitting in the stands with their infant son at the Broncos game, Nicole Cundiff feels the uncertainty pressing down on her. Other spectators offer congratulations on her husband's earlier field goal. But that kick is already long behind her. Her neck perpetually craning, she braces herself for the moment when he will need to jog out and prove himself worthy yet again.

"It's always about the next kick."

Michael Leahy is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at leahym@washpost.com.

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