Everybody used to tease Nick Lowery. At St. Albans School, they called him a crazy guy because he carried portable goal posts in his car. In college, they called him "Twiggy" because his legs were skinny. In the pro football camps, they called him a three-piece suit, an Ivy League guy.
But now, in his second year with the Kansas City Chiefs, most people call Nick Lowery one of the best place-kickers in the National Football League.
Lowery, who grew up in McLean and attended Dartmouth, is the leading scorer in the NFL. He has 99 points and is fourth in the league in field goal accuracy, one of the major reasons Kansas City is 8-4 and tied with Denver for the AFC West lead.
"I try not to think about the success we're having," Lowery said yesterday in a telephone conversation from Kansas City. "I know it's great and fantastic. But there's enough pressure without thinking about that specifically. I know we will make it to the playoffs."
Three years ago, Lowery was only concerned with making the team. Any team.
He was never drafted after graduating in 1978. He tried out with seven pro teams and was cut by all of them, including the Redskins twice in one week during the 1979 season. Then he tried out with Kansas City last year and caught on, although he initially encountered hard feelings among several veterans because he was replacing the legendary Jan Stenerud.
That ended when he made 20 of 26 field goal attempts last year and 22 of 29 so far this year, including 16 of 16 inside the 40-yard line. Last year, his 57-yard field goal against the Seahawks was equal to the longest of the NFL season (Fred Steinfort of the Broncos also kicked a 57-yarder). This year, Lowery's best effort is 52 yards.
But Lowery knows there is no job security in kicking. "So many guys are flash-in-the-pans who have one good year and that's it," Lowery said. "I don't want that to happen. I think I can get better, I really do."
Lowery's childhood was unlike that of most NFL players. His mother, Hazel, once coordinated the Fulbright scholars program in London. His father, Sidney, spent a career as a European affairs analyst for the State Department. Nick, who was born in Munich, spent part of his youth in Europe. He also lived next door to Supreme Court Justice Byron White, and went to Dartmouth after graduating from St. Albans in 1973.
The Ivy League jokes don't sting any more, and nobody calls Lowery "Twiggy" because his right leg is one of the strongest of any kicker in the league. But not much else has changed. He still comes home every spring and practices the basics of kicking on St. Albans Field with his tutor, Dick Johnson.
Johnson, 73, is a retired stockbroker. He has never played organized football, but took an interest in kicking many years ago and has been tutoring local kickers -- high school and college -- since 1971.
"Nick comes back every spring and starts kicking from scratch," Johnson said yesterday. Lowery still follows the regimen Johnson set down for him as a teen-ager.
After Lowery goes through unorthodox visualization exercises to improve concentration -- such as walking a yard line with his eyes closed -- Johnson has him kick field goals between flag poles atop a baseball backstop. "That backstop is 2 1/2 times higher than any goal posts," Johnson said. "Nobody can ever say my kickers can't get the ball up quickly."
Perhaps that's why Lowery has never had a kick blocked at Kansas City, and has missed only one extra-point attempt in 78 attempts.
At St. Albans, Lowery's practices were also a bit unusual. Bob Brown, the St. Albans baseball coach, said he often saw Lowery practicing "right in the middle of my infield." If that spot wasn't available, Lowery would drive to an open field elsewhere and set up his portable goal posts, which he carried in his trunk.
"Nicky took a lot of harassing, and it was difficult for him to take it at first," said Gary Gardner, longtime St. Albans football coach. "But I knew he would make it. There are a lot of gifted kickers, but he's got the right mental aspect. That's what separates him from the others."
Says Johnson of Lowery: "He wouldn't quit when he should have. That's what I admire about him."
Lowery says he misses Washington. But he isn't ready to play for the Redskins yet.
"My parents have lived in the same house since 1962, and hopefully, I'll be home for Christmas," Lowery said, forgetting about a probable Kansas City playoff appearance. "I'm interested in government and the media because they're such intregal parts of society.
"Kansas City is one step removed from government and politics. We don't have the constant deluge of news or the crisis frame of mind that I got used to in Washington. From time to time, I miss it all. I worked for (Missouri state senator) Richard Bolling in the offseason, and I might like to get into politics somewhere down the line.
"But playing in Washington, for the Redskins? I think it would have been too much pressure to have started my career in Washington. It would be great, somewhere down the line, though," said Lowery who, although a soccer-style kicker, admires the Redskins' Mark Moseley, who kicks straight on.
For now, Lowery will settle for fishing, playing the drums and making the playoffs. And maybe helping Johnson write a book.
"I've already written 500 pages of a book on kicking," said Johnson, who is considering What a Difference a Foot Makes or I Get a Kick Out of You, for a title. "The only ones who are going to buy this thing will be my mother-in-law and Nick.
"And Nick's got an obligation."