As Nick Novak stood in the Washington Redskins' locker room yesterday and began talking about the most important field goal of his life, his thoughts drifted home to West Lafayette, Ind., where a long-time family friend and neighbor, Annie Arth, is battling cancer, first breast cancer and now ovarian. He knew she was probably too ill to be watching, but as he tried to talk about her, his eyes filled with tears and he was overcome with emotion, too choked up to continue.
"I just wanted to get it through there for her," Novak said quietly a few minutes later, after composing himself in the team's training room. "That was for her."
That 39-yard field goal with 9 minutes 29 seconds remaining in overtime also provided the winning points in the Redskins' 20-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in front of the largest and loudest crowd Novak had ever seen or heard. It also marked the second straight game the undrafted rookie from the University of Maryland had won a game with his right foot, having kicked the deciding extra point in his team's Monday night triumph in Dallas 13 days earlier.
In the end, Joe Gibbs was on the sideline, kneeling in prayer as Novak's second field goal of the afternoon split the uprights. Too nervous to watch, Gibbs said: "I had my head down on that one. I was saying a prayer there.
"I've got to tell you, in our practices he has been very impressive. I think he has a good temperament. We made him kick two to win it [after a penalty nullified a first successful kick]. He's mentally tough. Who would have dreamed we'd wind up with a punter and a kicker out there we didn't even have at the start of the year? And a holder, too."
The holder on all the placements yesterday was punter Derrick Frost, who joined the team for his first practice this past Monday. "Let's see," he said when asked how many practices he and Novak have had to get their timing down. "This past Monday, day off Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, that's about it. I've done it before. Everyone wants something a little different. We're on the same page, but we still need to get to 100 percent so there are no doubts."
There may have been many doubts in the stands, especially after Novak's first field goal attempt, a 39-yarder midway through the first quarter, was blocked. Gibbs said the Seahawks' push up the middle, not Novak's kick, was responsible. Novak said he thought he hit that first attempt just fine, but had no idea what had happened because his head was down.
"After that block, I just wanted to go out there and make the next one," he said. "You have to have a short memory in the position."
There was more trepidation just before Novak made the winning kick. A referee's whistle blew as he was attempting a 34-yard game-winning effort in overtime, and the Redskins were called for a delay-of-game penalty. Novak nevertheless went through with that kick and nailed it cleanly, definitely a confidence builder, he said.
The whistle "gave me the opportunity to go through my routine," he added. "I hit a good ball [the first time.] I just needed to do the same thing."
The second time, of course, was more of the same, a game-winning kick he said afterward was bigger than any single field goal he made at Maryland, where he finished his brilliant career as the leading scorer in ACC history, making 80 of his 107 field goal attempts and 153 of 159 extra points.
"Oh, yeah, by far bigger, this is a whole new level," he said. "Seeing my teammates come up to you and congratulate you, all the great players surrounding you and giving you confidence. It's a great thing."
Teammate Jon Jansen thought so, too.
"What a great job of stepping up," he said. "Not only stepping up, but hitting two of them like that at the end. To be able to hit one, then have the mental letdown when we get called for the penalty, and then to come right back and win the game, that's something special for a young kid."
Novak, 24, was signed the week before the Cowboys game after the regular kicker, John Hall, was unable to perform because of a quadriceps injury.
Novak's pressure kick yesterday clearly will extend his career in Washington, and perhaps even shorten Hall's tenure with the team. Gibbs normally does not like to keep two kickers on his roster, and the team could be forced to place Hall on injured reserve or even release him.
"John Hall is a great kicker," Novak said. "A lot of guys would have made that [last] kick. I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunity."
Said Gibbs: "The good thing [Novak] did there was that he made a statement for himself. For his future, that was big."
Asked about Hall, the coach added: "It's something we'll have to spend a lot of time thinking about. John is not ready to kick off right now."
Novak is ready for anything. He spent training camp with the Chicago Bears and pushed veteran Doug Brien for a job. He said the Bears told him they kept Brien only because he was more experienced. Novak spent a few days in the Cowboys camp before getting cut, then went home and waited for another call in West Lafayette, where his parents are both professors at Purdue.
And where Annie Arth now surely knows that his last kick Sunday was for her.