This is a story about a kicker and a stockbroker, but that doesn't describe the half of it.
So let's begin by simply saying that a large part of the reason Nick Lowery, the 29-year-old kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, possesses the National Football League's all-time record for field goal accuracy (74.7 percent) is the help he has received over the years from Dick Johnson, a 77-year-old retired stockbroker who loves the art of kicking and loves Lowery even more.
"No doubt about it. Mr. Johnson understands kicking as well as anyone," says Lowery. "He stresses concentration and visualization. I guess you could call him my guru. He doesn't make any distinction between the philosophy of life and the philosophy of football. It's all one. Mr. Johnson gets me thinking positive.
"Mr. Johnson is good for my soul," Lowery says. The soccer-stylist from McLean has been clear-thinking enough to convert field goals from 58 yards and 57 yards, the third- and fourth-longest kicks in league history. Many NFL observers believe Lowery might have the strongest leg in the league today.
The kicker and the stockbroker reconvened at St. Albans School in the District last week for an ongoing lesson that began nearly 14 years ago on this same field. That first lesson took place in the early 1970s, about the time Dick Johnson retired after 20 years with Merrill Lynch and began attending St. Albans practices just to pass time. The St. Albans head football coach knew the stockbroker, knew he had coached kickers during his college days long ago, and invited him to help out. His first project was Lowery and, boy, did the stockbroker help.
Now, the kicker says he calls the stockbroker on the morning of every Chiefs game, just to talk. The record book says that these talks help splendidly. But the kicker and the stockbroker rarely meet for practice sessions now -- and soon there will be no more practices and no more game-day talks.
The stockbroker is dying.
"I think I've got a year or two at the most. I know I'm growing weaker all of the time," said Johnson. "I had this gallbladder operation about four years ago. When they operated, I got an infection. My blood was bad and I developed hepatitis. It's called Hepatitis B-1 and there is no cure for it. It's eating away my liver, and every time they take a biopsy, it's getting worse."
The stockbroker remains tough as any Merrill Lynch bull. "I just think about all of the wonderful times I've had," he said. "I had a wonderful family, wonderful parents, a wonderful life. When I was in the hospital the first time, back in '71, I guess, Nick was there every day, showing up with flowers. He was a sweetheart. You know, I didn't teach Nick to kick. He already knew how to kick when he came to St. Albans. All I did is give Nick a little lift when he was down. Do I derive pleasure from Nick? No. I derive Nick. He's the best kicker going now. He's got the records, you know."
The stockbroker is forever talking about kicking strategies. It's more than a hobby. It's nearly an obsession. He has written an unpublished 500-page manuscript solely on kicking, which he calls "What a Difference a Foot Makes" or "I Get a Kick Out of You."
"I haven't gotten it published because the only people who would buy it are my aunt and my mother," he said with a laugh. "A lot of people just stare out the window when they retire. I decided to work even if it kills me."
For the first time in more than a year, the kicker and the stockbroker held a one-on-one practice session at St. Albans last week. The kicker's foot was injured last offseason and he didn't get to practice with the stockbroker. Now, the stockbroker says he is growing weaker and it's getting difficult for him to make it to so many practices. But last week's practice was back to normal: kicking and kidding, kicking and kidding.
With each of Lowery's precise kicks, the stockbroker yelled, "That's it! Excellent! Excellent!"
Now it was time to kick a low-line drive. "What if I knock over your chair, Mr. Johnson?" said the kicker.
"Then I'll give you a baby doll," the stockbroker said. "And I don't mean a live one.
"Kick it straight! Lead with the heel! Follow through! We're not out here kicking in the blue! Don't bend over! Take advantage of your height!" the stockbroker said. And the kicker followed his every word.
"It's not right to call Mr. Johnson a grandfather figure because to me his spirit is so young," Lowery said. "He's more of a friend. He's like a grandfather, a father, an uncle and a brother to me. He's my mentor. He's done so much for me."
The stockbroker remains positively positive about life and that is what attracts the kicker to him. "I don't get depressed," the stockbroker said about his ailment. "It's just unfortunate that I'm the one who got it."
Just then, Lowery walked over, having collected all five footballs. "Is Mr. Johnson telling you lies again? Is he telling you about the time he dated Elizabeth Taylor?"
The kicker patted the stockbroker on the back. "You know," the stockbroker said, winking and smiling as though tomorrows last forever, "some nights I've gone home and cried the way this kid has upset me."
The first thing you have to realize is that Nick Lowery is very intelligent, if not slightly precocious. "I'm a hot dog," he said. He talks of how he and some friends moved the high jump bar and mattress into the St. Albans library as a senior year prank. "We put up a little sign," Lowery said, "that said that we think this represents a unique balance, a synthesis, that athletics and academics is a synonymous experience."
Anyway, Lowery graduated from Dartmouth with a 59.4 percent field goal accuracy rate, which was good, and a degree in government, which was fitting. After all, his father is a retired political analyst on Eastern European affairs for the State Department and his mother, raised in Egypt, helped coordinate the first Fulbright scholarship program in England. And, also, Lowery did grow up in McLean living next door to Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White, who also played a little football.
Lowery has worked as a legislative aide for numerous congressional committees in past summers. "Shakespeare wrote that once you're smitten with politics you stay smitten," Lowery said. He knows his drama, too. The kicker said he once considered being a drama major at Dartmouth and had roles in college plays such as "The Lover" by Harold Pinter.
These were the sorts of disclosures that had Kansas City veterans wondering about this kicker, when he beat out the Chiefs' Norwegian legend and Super Bowl hero, Jan Stenerud, in 1980. Lowery recalls how several of the veterans filled his bed with cow manure during his first training camp, just to keep the rookie in his place.
"I came into the room, sensed the smell and wondered, 'Hmm, what's wrong with the air conditioner?' " Lowery said. "Then I picked up my sheets."
Lowery had had harder times. By his own count, he had been cut 11 times by eight teams before hitting the big time with the Chiefs. He was cut twice by the Redskins within a seven-day period in 1979. In his one exhibition game with the Redskins, Lowery missed two extra points. He's missed only two of 170 extra points since.
In 1979, Lowery kicked in two regular-season games for New England, but was cut because his kickoffs were not long enough or high enough. It was during these times, especially, that he sought the advice of the stockbroker.
And now that things are going well, things haven't changed.
Get one thing straight: the St. Albans football field is the stockbroker's turf. Surrounded by a commotion caused by a jillion adolescents kicking soccer balls, the stockbroker seems to know every one of the screaming meemies and they, him.
Not only that, but once the vice president of the United States came to jog at St. Albans and, upon seeing the stockbroker in his favorite red director's chair and wearing his favorite red Kansas City Chiefs cap (a gift from you know who), George Bush stopped by to say hello.
The stockbroker has not charged any of his kickers a nickel for their lessons. "My happiness comes in just seeing the boys succeed," he said. He said his two most prominent pupils are Lowery and Jess Atkinson, who finished his career at the University of Maryland last year and has signed as a free agent with New England. Both Lowery and Atkinson recently brought a friend, younger kickers in search of help with the mental approach to kicking, to see the stockbroker. As always, the stockbroker obliged.
The stockbroker, who still lives with his wife in the District, moved to Washington in 1937, the same year George Preston Marshall moved the Redskins here from Boston. In fact, the stockbroker said, he was asked by Marshall to help the team sell season tickets and the stockbroker proceeded to sell 105 of the 310 season tickets the Redskins sold for that first season. "You know how much they cost back then for a whole season (six home games)?" said the stockbroker. "Only $6.60. And they wonder why people can't afford to come to games today."
At last, the stockbroker returned to his favorite subject: the kicker. "Nick has not only developed himself by hard work, but he's one of the most supple kickers I've ever seen. Nick has taken aerobics and everything else. It's paid dividends. And you know, kicking is 70 percent from the shoulders up," Johnson said.
"It's no secret that Nick had a lot of guts not to quit after he was cut by all of those teams. We had some fine talks from a psychological standpoint then. You know when Nick kicked that 58-yard field goal (against the Redskins at RFK Stadium in 1983), I wasn't there. But don't tell him because he thinks I was there. I was too weak to go to the game."
In 1984, the stockbroker was honored by the National Football Foundation and the Hall of Fame for outstanding contribution to amateur football. Some of the stockbroker's kickers say that this award is a great source of pride to him. So, they say, is the fact that the St. Albans baseball team has dedicated this season to him. It is his turf, after all.
"You know if Nick had missed his first couple of field goals in Kansas City, they would have run him out of town there, too," the stockbroker said. "Don't tell him I told you, but do you know some of the guys were so angry at Nick being the kicker that they put manure in his bed. Can you believe that?"
In 1974, his senior year, Dominic Gerald Lowery was in a public speaking class at St. Albans in which the final exam was to pretend the year was 1984 and to explain to a banquet-room audience what you had been doing over the past decade.
"I was talking about how I had been a professional football player. I thought it was a possibility," Lowery said. "Everybody else thought that I was crazy."
Lowery has converted 112 of 150 field goal tries in nearly six NFL seasons, which serves as a constant source of embarrassment for teams such as the Bengals, the Patriots, the Jets and the Redskins (twice). But then again, how were these teams supposed to know that this guy really would be a professional football player still kicking in 1985?
"If you put me back in 1978 and told me that by 1985 I would be the most accurate kicker in NFL history in terms of percentage -- you know, just put me in the transporter room with Captain Kirk -- well, let's say the feeling (of failures) I had back then is something I don't ever want to forget now," said Lowery.
"Mr. Johnson has helped my whole outlook get better. Here's a guy who has literally faced death and come back. His stories about that helped me to appreciate my situation a lot more and not to get down on myself as much.
"His health has always been a key upon which he draws lessons of life. To stand at the end of your life and to feel that you could have done things otherwise and why didn't you do things otherwise . . . One thing that Mr. Johnson always says is 'You've got to appreciate life. You think you've got it bad. What about the kids on the football teams at the Model School (for the Deaf) and the kids at Gallaudet College? They line up and they have a big bass drum on the sidelines pound out the One-Two with (the players reacting to) the vibrations. You don't have to do that.' And he's right.
"Mr. Johnson talks about kids who never tell their mother and father that they love them. He asked one kid if he ever had told his mother that he loved her. The kid said no and went back and told his mother that he did love her. The mother called Mr. Johnson and said, 'Mr. Johnson, you don't know who I am, but I want to thank you. I want you to know that I cried for an hour. My son had never told me that before.'
"Believe it or not," the kicker said, "the next day that woman was killed in an auto accident."
The kicker moved toward the stockbroker, another half-hour kicking session at an end. The kicker would be heading back to Missouri for another season in a few days. The stockbroker likely will return to his St. Albans turf to pass time by helping a few young kickers.
The stockbroker picked up his red chair. He was ready to leave. The kicker, who was wearing 1982 Pro Bowl shorts, put his arm around the stockbroker's neck and said, "I'll call you before I leave to go back."