The Washington Redskins always have held a special place in Jess Atkinson's heart, but as the New York Giants prepare for Sunday's game against their Eastern Division rivals, the former Maryland kicker might not get his wish to play against them.
"I've always felt like I wouldn't have arrived as a kicker until I played against the Redskins," he said. "Being from the area, that would be special, there's no doubt about that."
But Atkinson finds himself on the verge of being jilted for the second time this season. Signed four weeks ago, Atkinson has hit nine of 12 field goal attempts and on nine of 10 extra point attempts. In addition, he scored his first touchdown in "13 or 14 years" on a fake field goal last week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Despite Atkinson's accomplishments, there is a strong possibility that the Giants' regular kicker, Ali Haji-Sheikh, will return for Sunday's game, depriving Atkinson of another chance to compete against Washington. The kicker was cut by New England just before the team traveled to RFK Stadium for a preseason game against the Redskins.
"And here it is again," he said. "I guess all I can worry about is my kicking. If I keep that as my focus, I can't get into too much trouble, so I'm preparing as if I'll be out there Sunday. That's the only way to deal with it."
Atkinson already has become enmeshed in the nomadic existence that is as much a part of a kicker's game as rubber tees. While Maryland was just a chip shot from Temple Hills, where he starred in soccer at Crossland High School, training camp with the Patriots took him a little farther afield.
That was brought home when Atkinson received a $900 telephone bill, mainly from calls to his family and girlfriend. "I can talk cavalierly about moving around, but it's really tough," he said. "The loneliness gets to be more distracting than the kicking -- I've done that well."
During his term with the Giants, Atkinson has also had to deal with the nuisance of a $500 fine for not wearing a sports jacket on the plane to Cincinnati and having his car broken into while parked at a Newark train station.
The fact that Atkinson has produced despite the distractions means very little: teams usually elect to go with incumbents. That was the situation Atkinson faced with New England, where he said he would have made the team only if Tony Franklin "had fallen on his face."
"I loved it for three weeks, but that last one was tough because I saw it (being cut) coming and I couldn't keep my mind on my work. Yet being there is the reason that I'm here now. (Giants Coach Bill) Parcells used to coach with the Patriots and they recommended me."
Parcells has been noncommital about Atkinson's future, saying he will make the decision Saturday. "We're letting Sheikh kick this week and we'll see," he said.
In the event that Atkinson is asked to move on, there are two things he knows will accompany him. The first is the memory of his touchdown against the Bengals, a 14-yard run after a pitch from holder Jeff Rutledge.
"I was a fullback before high school but I don't think I'd touched a ball since then," Atkinson said. "I found myself in the end zone and I didn't know what the hell to do. I didn't even get to celebrate too much because it dawned on me that I still had to kick the extra point and I was thinking that it would be a shame to score a touchdown and then miss the extra point."
And Atkinson knows he'll take with him the confidence that, if he has to, he's capable of finding a job somewhere else.
"As long as you kick good, how can you lose?" he asks. "I've got faith in the system, that if you kick good there will be a job for you. If that's here, that's fine, if it's somewhere else, that's fine, too.
"You might say that it's not fair for me to kick well and still get cut, but when are things ever fair? If you see where people are coming from before you get into something; if you know that it's not gonna be fair but you can still say 'I'm gonna end up somewhere,' then you're not going to be hurt or disappointed in the end."