Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Kicker's Christmas

Poor George O’Leary. His Central Florida Golden Knights had overcome two unsuccessful two-point conversion attempts in the second half of the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, so O’Leary went to his reliable senior kicker Matt Prater and played for the tie. Down by ten late in the fourth quarter, Prater booted a 46-yard field goal to get the Knights within a touchdown.

Prater then executed a successful on-sides kick, practiced and run to perfection. The ESPN announcers noted that the kicker tied the ball up on the ground, leaning next to and against the black kicking tee. When Prater squibbed the ball, it took the usual two low bounces followed by a high bounce, resulting in the usual jump ball. But instead of going for the ball, two members of the Central Florida kickoff team plowed forward, blocking back members of the Nevada receiving team. Good coaching…and execution. Central Florida recovered, and marched down the field to score a touchdown. Down by one, O’Leary again called on Prater to tie the game. OT baby!

On the East Coast thousands were attending midnight mass, celebrating a different baby. Like in millions of households, my three children were a snug in their beds as my wife, her parents, and I scrambled about, preparing for the fun morning just hours away. My duties almost complete, I was finally able to focus on this suddenly exciting bowl game.

Nevada lost the toss, but drove down the field, converted a third down, and scored a touchdown. The extra point gave them a seven-point lead. Central Florida took over on offense and ran left for a six yard gain. Then Kevin Smith ran right, and the freshman halfback bolted into the open and dashed to the end zone for a touchdown. As the veteran Prater once again trotted onto the field, perhaps O’Leary turned his thoughts to the upcoming defensive series.

As a former kicker in high school, I concentrated all the more on the television screen. Field goals, even boring point-after attempts, were just as fun for me to watch as any football other play. Nothing gets my goat more than several replays of a touchdown overlapping the extra-point kick. The only time a kick is replayed is when something "bad" happens. Sometimes even missed extra points aren’t replayed! Why? Everyone knows the answer…kickers get no respect.

Take the New York Giant’s Jay Feeley. He became a popular guy the last few years kicking for Atlanta. The Falcons play in a kicker’s perfect environment…a dome. Artificial turf, no crown, instead a perfectly flat field. Certainly no wind. Feeley converted over 80% of his field goals, chatted on the radio, became a darling to the kind Atlanta press and fans, and raised money for his charities. He had as good a life as a kicker could have. But when his contract expired, his worth was more than the Falcons wished to pay. So he went to the opposite end of the football universe…outdoors, grass, wind, cold, inclement northeastern weather…as well as the New York City press.

Things go well for a while. Feeley is consistent, the Giants are winning, and he makes a United Way commercial. Then he missed three late field goals against the Seahawks. Seattle’s Josh Brown makes his chip shot overtime field goal and becomes the hero. Cameras focus on Feeley, head down on the bench. He is roasted in the press and even becomes the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit. Since then Feeley’s kicking rebounded and his upbeat attitude remained in place, though life in New York will never be the bliss he experienced in the ATL.

Same with Todd Peterson of the Falcons. After eleven low-key years with five teams, Peterson was able to sign with his home state team, who were fresh off an appearance in the NFC conference championship game. Peterson was perfect well into the season, and even kicked a game winner in San Antonio…after he was given a second chance when his miss was erased by a penalty. Yesterday his overtime 28-yard game winning chip shot was blocked, and the Falcons’ slim playoff hopes were extinguished. But Peterson’s faith and good attitude keeps things in perspective for him.

Matt Prater was a college senior, playing in perhaps the last football game of his life. A nice resume…4th team Sporting News all-freshman team, numerous highlights as both a kicker and punter, a psychology major. This year his stats weren’t bad…17 of 26 field goals made, with a long of 49. His career long of 53 yards came in his first college game, surely a glorious day at Penn State.

Earlier in the game Prater had shanked a forty-yard attempt. A kicker is dependent on his center and holder, and this time the snap had been imperfect. He did make all his extra-points and three field goals, from 47, 38, and 46 yards, moving him into second place on the UCF career field goal list.

His thoughts as he lined up for the overtime extra-point were probably normal kicker thoughts…get it off quick, get it up in the air. Maybe he thought to not pull the kick left. A veteran kicker surely used to pressure situations, the game circumstance probably didn’t cross his mind. But the touchdown had come quickly, and perhaps this threw Prater off. Perhaps he was about to begin his red-zone routine, as the Knights had just gone back on offense, and he had no chance to properly prepare his head and leg.

The snap and set were good, and Prater got the kick off quickly. The ball immediately went right. Prater finished his follow-through with his head down, then looked up, expecting the kick to be good. He appeared to be shocked with the result, and flung off his chinstraps in disgust. Merry Christmas.

Keep your head up, Matt. Just ask Jay Feeley or Todd Peterson. There’s a little more to Christmas than a football game.

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