In Nick Novak's perfect world, he never sees the football sail through the uprights. He has already picked a target and, at the peak of his mechanics, Novak can feel success the moment his foot swings through the ball. His eyes remain focused on the ground and the screaming crowd is but a secondary indication that his kick is true.
Novak, 24, approaches each kick in the same way golfers address the ball and follow-through, establishing a routine that has taken him to the NFL. The sequence worked to perfection Sunday -- the biggest day of Novak's brief professional life -- when his 39-yard field goal gave the Washington Redskins a 20-17 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks seconds after his 34-yard kick was negated by a penalty.
"If you pinpoint a target," Novak said, "when you bring your head down and approach the ball, studies have shown that your mind will remember exactly where that target is. So I just kind of taught myself to keep my head down on contact, even keep it down when my leg comes down after the ball until it's to the uprights and kind of feel a good shot, rather than trying to get that instant gratification by looking. I've really tried to train myself to keep my head down as long as I can, and most of the time when it comes off my foot I can tell if it's going to be good or not going to be good."
Novak, a Maryland grad who was signed Sept. 13, had his first NFL field goal attempt blocked Sunday -- through no fault of his own, coaches said -- then nailed two field goals against the Seahawks. He has converted all four extra point attempts. While still far from establishing himself as a kicker at the NFL level, he has impressed coaches and his emergence could soon result in the departure of injured veteran John Hall. This Sunday afternoon will provide another opportunity for Novak to respond -- this time in the kicker-friendly altitude of Denver -- and make another statement about his intent to stick around.
"He seems to handle everything so well," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who generally prizes experience among his specialists. "We start him out there with a blocked field goal there -- the first one we've had this year -- and he seemed to handle all that real well. Who would have thought you get somebody off the waiver wire and he ends up winning games for you? That's a great story."
Novak came late to kicking. Soccer was his first love -- his older brother, Andrew, and fraternal twin, Chris, played Division I soccer -- and he grew up idolizing legends Diego Maradona and Dennis Bergkamp. Novak never struck a football until his sophomore year of high school, but quickly realized that it would become his best option for athletic success in college. He never disavowed soccer -- Novak was excused from football practice twice a week at Albemarle High School to travel from Charlottesville to Richmond to play for an elite club team -- but soon found himself emulating all-pro kickers John Carney and Adam Vinatieri.
Novak was born in San Diego and lived there until seventh grade, when his parents, Julie and Bob, both professors, left to teach at the University of Virginia (they now are department heads at Purdue). While in San Diego, the Novaks befriended the Epstein family, whose son, Hayden, would go on to kick at Michigan and have stints in the NFL, NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League (he was cut by the Edmonton Eskimos last week).
Novak would make two trips back to San Diego each summer to kick for weeks at a time with the Epsteins, honing his technique and beginning to study his craft. He attended kicking camps as well, learning from Paul Woodside, a 1983 all-American at West Virginia, to focus on the mental part of the game. Novak became friends with Eric Wilson, who played for Maryland in the 1980s and urged the youngster to check out his alma mater. Novak drove to College Park for as many home games as possible and sensed a program on the rise.
"As a young kicker, there's not a lot of attention coming out of high school," Novak said. "So you do a lot of recruiting on your own."
Novak redshirted his freshman year (2000), then won the job from senior Vedad Siljkovic the following season, going on to play every game, including the Orange Bowl. Novak became the all-time leading scorer in ACC history but struggled early in his college career, missing his first five field goal attempts.
"For the first five games, Nick was a very poor Division III kicker," said Ray Rychleski, Maryland's special teams coach. "But I've never seen him rattled."
Rychleski and Novak made a tape of his misses and saw that he was not that far off. He made a game-tying 46-yard field goal at Georgia Tech as time expired -- a pivotal moment in the turnaround of the Terrapins' program -- and, in Rychleski's opinion, cemented his position in 2003 against North Carolina State. Novak missed an extra point in that game, but Maryland forced a turnover when trailing by a point in the final minutes.
"Who would have thought, 'He missed an extra point, he's going to drill a 43-yarder to win the game on the road [with 23 seconds left]'?" Rychleski said. "Everybody's going to miss some, that's just the way life is, but he has the will to come back. He has the toughness to come back."
Novak was unselected in the 2005 draft and had short preseason stints with Chicago and Dallas. Then Hall was injured during Week 1, and Novak was one of a handful of kickers brought in to compete for a roster spot. He won the job and hit both extra points in a 14-13 comeback win over Dallas on Sept. 19, mere days after being signed.
"He's drilled everything," long snapper Ethan Albright said, "even in practice."
Novak knows he must improve on the length and hang time of his kickoffs, and remain consistent on field goals. "I'm not naive enough to think that just because I contributed to a win that I've made it," Novak said. "I'm ready to move on to Denver and look forward to the next kick."
He has an education to fall back on, and wants to become a physical therapist or a coach at some point. But for now that can wait. Sunday's game-winner did not go unnoticed, and, if for some reason Washington does not become a permanent home, there are 31 other possible locales.
If "he doesn't make that kick, he's not in that league," Rychleski said. "And he still may not stay with this team, but at least now when somebody has an opening, they're going to call Nick Novak."
Staff writer Dan Steinberg contributed to this report.