Jess Atkinson says he never did like that word "vagabond," even though he knows it fits him perfectly right now. He's a fidgety rookie kicker who has been cut by two NFL teams this year and now sits on a shaky branch with a third, the St. Louis Cardinals.
"It's a tough way to get the entire NFL Collection, isn't it?" Atkinson said.
To Atkinson, it was tolerable when New England cut him in training camp, because they simply liked veteran Tony Franklin more. The hurt was deep, however, when the Giants cut him two weeks ago. He had made 10 of 15 field goals, including seven in a row, as a replacement for the injured Ali Haji-Sheikh.
Plus, Atkinson ran 14 yards for a touchdown on a fake field goal. But his kickoffs were poor, coaches said, and he missed two field goals (42 and 39 yards) in his last game against New Orleans. Giants General Manager George Young said, "He's a nice kicker, but he wasn't getting the ball in the end zone (on kickoffs) and he was missing some field goals."
So the Giants opted for another vagabond. They signed Eric Schubert, a former U.S. Football League kicker making $36 a day as a substitute high school teacher in Wanaque, N.J. Schubert has made all six of his field goal attempts with the Giants and now collects the $3,400-per-game check that used to have Atkinson's name on it.
"I'm happy for Schuby," Atkinson says.
Atkinson used to break accuracy records at the University of Maryland. He made 17 of 20 field goal tries as a senior. However, he has missed all three of his field goal attempts (45, 42 and 45 yards) since being signed to replace Neil O'Donoghue two weeks ago. That makes five misses in a row, which is unprecedented for him, Atkinson said.
After one miss, Atkinson shook his head. After another, he buried his head. After another miss, every Cardinals fan thought O'Donoghue was back. Only shorter.
"I hesitate to call it a slump I'm in, but it is something that is upsetting me because I was doing so well and feeling so comfortable," Atkinson says. "I ought to be able to say to myself, 'Just keep your head down on the ball and you'll be out of it.' But it hasn't been like that. That's the hard part.
Each night, Atkinson says, he returns to his cramped $600-a-month hotel room, just a couple of blocks from Busch Stadium, to call his girlfriend, his parents, Maryland Coach Bobby Ross, somebody, anybody.
At 2 a.m. last Tuesday, following the Cardinals' 21-10 Monday night victory over Dallas, Atkinson was slurping on chili, the strains of the "Mission Impossible" theme coming from his TV set. The room has a refrigerator, but it was empty. Underwear and cold medication were on the table.
"I live on the phone," said Atkinson, 23 and back to $3,400 a game, for the time being. "It gets lonely. I mean you look at this room and you wouldn't figure it's the NFL, would you? Maybe you'd think it was the room of a college music student staying for a festival or something."
Atkinson figured he needs to get his head straight before he can get his kicks straight. Yesterday, he was back in Washington on the Cardinals' off-day to work with his mentor, Dick Johnson, the 77-year-old retired stockbroker who has helped guide Kansas City kicker Nick Lowery to fame and who has instructed Atkinson for several years.
"They can defeat you," Johnson told Atkinson yesterday, "but you can't defeat yourself. You're pressing too hard, Jess. You've done it so many times before."
In a soft rain, Atkinson kicked for one hour at St. Albans School. Johnson corrected the flaws ("You're dropping your shoulders! You're wrapping your foot!") and, subtly, tried to correct the damaged ego, as well. Atkinson's strides splattered mud on his holder, his father Jerry, who owns a computer company in Camp Springs.
Back in St. Louis, a team official confirmed that the Cardinals gave tryouts to several kickers yesterday, young whippersnappers seeking the holy grail: Atkinson's job. After Atkinson had missed two field goals in a 16-0 loss to Tampa Bay Sunday, Coach Jim Hanifan didn't exactly give him a supreme vote of confidence during his Monday press confidence.
"I haven't made any determination to a change in kicker," Hanifan said.
So it wasn't surprising that Atkinson said after yesterday's workout at St. Albans, "Maybe I ought to call St. Louis before I go back tonight, just in case.
"Maybe I'm naive, but the toughest part of all of this is realizing that you don't count as much as what you do. But I guess that acceptance comes with performance.
"I thought I had a little cushion (before his last game with the Giants). I thought I had one grace game. But as a rookie kicker, you're scrutinized. Every field goal means something. I don't like to compare kickers, but Rafael (Septien of Dallas) missed four in one game. There wasn't a big deal made of it. Granted, he's got the past that would warrant not getting uptight about it. But that's the pressure on a rookie kicker."
The voice of Dick Steinberg, player personnel director of New England, now seems like a cheer from a distant balcony: "Jess has got a great disposition," he said. "Nothing bothers him, including the psychological warfare that veterans will play on rookies. (Veterans) do things like just avoiding you, or ignoring you or trying to correct your kicking. Jess blocked all of that out. He never had a bad day with us. But Franklin was coming off a good year . . . "
Atkinson tells stories like Jack London used to, only with a few "cool dudes" added. When he was with the Giants, he lived in the basement of a New Jersey townhouse. The rent was $325 a month and "I came in through the garage."
Atkinson ate most of his meals two miles down the road, at the Meadowlands Diner. Every morning, he'd order a No. 4 for breakfast: one egg ("scrambled, usually"), bacon, home fries, milk, juice, "and it got nasty after a while.
"It's the same place Coach Ross used to go on recruiting trips. I told him about it and he said, 'You mean the place with the big yellow sign?' I said, 'That's the one,' " Atkinson said. "I didn't have a phone, so I'd make my calls from the diner. I'd be there for an hour a night."
His search for an apartment in New Jersey wasn't easy. Atkinson said his father recommended one potential apartment he found in a newspaper ad. When Atkinson checked it out, along with Giants punter Sean Landeta, he found "some place run by a dude named Bronco Billy. He had a hairy chest and wore all these gold chains. He said they had luxury suites. We looked and saw that they had carpeting on the walls and ceiling. And they had mirrors on the ceiling over a super king-sized bed.
"Sean says, 'How much a month?' Bronco Billy says, 'We don't rent by the month.' Sean says, 'How much a week?' Bronco Billy says, 'We don't rent by the week.' They were renting by the night, the hour. This guy was running some kind of prostitution ring or something," Atkinson said. "Oh man, what a place. Plus, he had these three Dobermans he loved . . . "
Atkinson likes St. Louis. "It's slower," he said. "The malls here have nice stores, but no place to walk. Everyone walks slow here. Back home at the Iverson Mall (in Hillcrest Heights), you gotta walk fast or you're a dead man."
Atkinson dreams fast these days. "This is the time I'm really being tested. If I can last this year, then two, three or four years, I might be engaged by then . . . I guess I'm paying my dues to get there. I might not even be with St. Louis. I don't know if I'll be with the Raiders or if I will be at all. It's that uncertain of a future. There's no guarantees."