Kicked around: Inside football's loneliest position.
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.