I’ve been very fortunate to have family, friends, and friends of friends donate their time and unique skills to this project. Their generosity allowed me to attempt challenges that seemed impractical to organize. Even with the ideas that seemed too esoteric, there would somehow always be a person in my circle or a few degrees removed who had experience and could teach me.
Except for this one idea I had. In the past, when I truly could not find a suitable MANtor for a challenge, I’d move onto another topic. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about kicking a field goal since Week 1.
Maybe it’s because I wanted to redeem little Peter who never engaged in anything more violent than flag football, or maybe because it’s only natural that an aspiring man would want to emulate the gladiators of our modern era – either way, I never let go of this dream. I went so far as to scour Craigslist for kicking coaches with less-than-credible résumés, but I could never connect with them. I’m sure now I’ll have a friend casually mention that he kicked the game-winning field goal in his high school team’s state championship – and to be fair, I could have searched for a MANtor more publicly – but my inability to find a coach posed an interesting challenge itself.
Could I actually go MANtor-less? Would I be able to find my footing without someone guiding me the entire way? I’ve never been the kind of person who excelled at self-teaching, but after 44 weeks, it’s at least possible that I’ve absorbed enough collective knowledge from my MANtors to be one myself. But I couldn’t just hop on the field. First I needed to familiarize myself with the entire history of place kicking.
My athletic endeavor begins, as they so often do, in the microfiche room of the New York Public Library. The library has conserved a series of sports pamphlets from the early twentieth century on microfilm, and among the short guides on baseball, basketball, and ice dancing, there is a pamphlet entitled The Lost Art of Kicking, printed in January 1947. Even in those early days of professional football, there was apparently enough time for the art of field goal kicking to be forgotten.
The guide, which was printed in conjunction with the Flying Football Tournament – sorry, the world-famous Flying Football Tournament – argues that kicking could win football games, bringing up several well-known collegiate games as evidence. They were about as well-known to me as the Flying Football Tournament, but I take the author at his word. The pamphlet is clearly directed to high school and collegiate players, making special note of the boys who should practice these techniques, and the men who have emerged victorious on the gridiron. If that’s all it takes, I really should have made field goal kicking Week 1.
Wedged between chapters entitled, “KICKING WINS FOOTBALL GAMES,” and “DO YOU WANT TO MAKE THE VARSITY SQUAD?” lies a chapter devoted to teaching young whippersnappers how to kick a football. The advice never gets exceptionally detailed – the writer doesn’t even give aspiring kickers the option of using anything but their right foot to kick the ball. The fear of Communist lefties had apparently spread to sports-related footedness. Most of the guidebook focuses on training boys to become well-rounded individuals, going so far as to say that football shouldn’t be a priority in your life – this coming from a football instruction guide. The advice is so antithetical to everything I’ve learned through watching and reading Friday Night Lights that I choose to move onto my next source of place kicking instruction (with clear eyes and full heart, natch).
Advancing twelve years in football history, I pick up a three-hundred page tome entitled The Complete Kicking Game: Mechanics and Strategy, written in 1959 by the football coach at East Orange High in New Jersey. Since I’m only interested in place kicking, I skip ahead to that chapter, which is only fourteen pages long and appears to have even less worthwhile advice than The Lost Art of Kicking. The author mostly speaks in maxims like, “The hands should not be resting on the hips or thighs,” “The kicker should see his foot go into the ball,” and the evocative “The kicker should stay up and come through, rather than fall away.” I barely understand that last piece of advice as I write it now, but it could be something that won’t make sense until years later, like hearing at eighteen years old that you never quite leave high school.
Despite some detailed information on proper footwear (“The shoe should be a high top, fit snugly, with a built-in kicking toe on the kicking foot”), The Complete Kicking Game is a bit of a bust, so I skip ahead another few decades to The Art of Place-Kicking and Punting, written in 1985. The book is written by three professional kickers – Pete Gogolak, Matt Bahr, and Rick Danmeier – each of whom employ different styles. I focus on Bahr’s section, since he kicks with a “soccer style,” using the side of his foot to launch the ball through the uprights. Here’s hoping I haven’t forgotten my one season of youth soccer when I was six years old.
Thankfully this book is mostly pictures and I use the images to solidify the written instruction. When he sets up for a kick, Bahr takes two steps back from the ball, lining up with the center between the goal posts, and then slides two paces to the left, arranging himself in a forty-five degree angle with the ball. He takes one long stride with his kicking foot, another to get his planting foot parallel with the ball’s trajectory, and then kicks the ball on the third step. He ends his section with a discussion on troubleshooting and leaves the reader with a final aphorism: “You’re only as good as your last kick!”
To finish the journey through place kicking history, I end my research with a YouTube video featuring a former kicker on the University of Kentucky’s football squad. Though the video is only four minutes long, it’s more helpful than any of my previous sources just for the fact that it animates what previously had only been described in words and still pictures. This kicker takes three steps back from the ball as opposed to only two, but it’s a close facsimile of how Bahr kicks. After viewing this video a few times, I feel adequately prepared to take the field. If seventy years of football knowledge can’t make me a success, there really is no chance for me.
Since Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx is home to community soccer games and Manhattan College athletics, I only have a short amount of time each day to commandeer the field. I arrive Monday morning when there are only about ten stars of track and field running laps. I have the field completely to myself and thankfully, the weather complies and offers a clear, sunny day for my first practice. I do a couple of quick stretches, more to prove my worth to my fellow athletes on the track than to actually warm up.
The field is currently painted with line markings for soccer games, so I find a line around the goalkeeper’s area that seems an adequate distance from the goal post while still being achievable. I’m having trouble following through with my leg as I practice kicking the air, but I think it best to just start kicking for real and fine tune as I go. I set the football down on the tee with the laces toward my target and take two steps back and two to the side. I lunge forward with my right leg, plant my left foot, and kick with all my might.
The first kick is a weak one; the ball barely reaches the soccer goal beneath the goal post. It’s straight – I can say that much about it – but at no point in its trajectory does it reach a height that would clear the crossbar. The next few kicks are no better, flying wildly left or dribbling into the soccer goal. My form improves on my fifth kick, but there’s not enough power behind it. The ball strikes the crossbar and bounces back into the field, inches away from scoring. The last few kicks of the day are straight but short, which worries me more than the inverse. Accuracy can be fixed with foot placement and better targeting, but how do I fix the problem of not enough oomph? The one kick that hit the crossbar gives me enough hope to return the following day.
I return to a much winder Van Cortlandt Park than yesterday – so windy that the football topples off the tee nearly every time I try to balance it. My focus wanes and my nerves fray as I’m forced to rush kicks during the few breaks in the wind. I review my notes from Matt Bahr’s section on troubleshooting, trying to find a reason why I consistently hook the ball. Out of three possible reasons he suggests, I think it’s that my kicking foot is coming too far across my body, so I focus on a straighter follow through. It doesn’t work – my first three kicks are even worse than the day before. To make matters worse, the soccer team from Manhattan College has begun to set up on the field, and their presence is even more nerve-wracking than the looks from the track stars.
Somehow I always forget how crippling my overthinking is. It’s not until it becomes overwhelming that I remember the importance of a clear head. I put my focus entirely and solely on the ball, running towards it with conviction. My foot meets ball and miraculously the ball squeaks over the crossbar and lands with a thud behind the soccer goal. IT’S GOOD! My arms subconsciously raise to signify victory and I run to retrieve the ball with an immense weight lifted off my shoulders.
It’s only then that I actually measure the distance from the goal post to my kicking position.. The tape measure reads 18 yards, which seems like a respectable amount until I actually look up the field goal distance for NFL extra points. Adding in the ten yards of end zone, the ball is hiked back to the kicker seven yards from the two-yard line. In total, 19 yards. One short. Sure, one yard probably wouldn’t have affected the success of my last kick, but the psychological damage is done. Now there’s a little asterisk next to my victory.
I giddily tell everyone I see over the next couple days that I kicked a field goal – clearly the psychological damage did nothing to diminish my braggadocio. Though despite my outward pride, I can’t forget about that one yard. It’s such an easy proposition to return to the field and do it right. So after two days of rain, I return to Van Cortlandt Park with clear skies and stiff legs – looks like my half-assed stretching paid off.
I start from the line I kicked at earlier in the week, take three paces back, and set down the tee. Now I’m at the professional level – save the equipment, the holder, and the eleven giants on the opposing team who are trying to crush me. But still. Professional level. It’s only three feet more, but what if that’s all it takes to lose my mojo? In my two days of rest, did I forget everything? I can’t say I have the same focus I did then.
My first two attempts land squarely in the soccer goal. I overextend my leg and feel the stiffness in my leg increase exponentially. I get under the ball on the next kick, and it launches high in the air wildly off target before landing with a thud, a visual representation of my confidence. My pulse quickens and my anxiety is palpable, so I take a breather before my next attempt. I roll up my sleeves and try to reenter the mind space I discovered two days ago. When I connect with the ball on this attempt, the sound of impact tells me everything I need to know – it’s going through the uprights. The ball cleanly dives over the crossbar and my arms raise again. After sixteen attempts, I kicked a field goal. No asterisk required.
Without a physical MANtor, I could say I passed this challenge without anyone’s help, but that would be far from the truth. I had help from Matt Bahr, the East Orange High School football coach, and the former kicker from UK, even though they never knew it. Embarking on athletic endeavors completely alone is an unwinnable proposition, except for maybe the Fosbury Flop guy – it’s hard to imagine anyone signed off on that. Without my place kicking committee’s willingness to share their knowledge with interested parties, I surely would still be out on the field, foolishly hoping for that one good kick.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
Not counting what I’ve attempted for this blog, I haven’t attempted a new athletic technique since high school. I was content in what I already knew how to play and really only enjoyed sports for which I naturally had some aptitude. It’s humbling to try something you’re totally ill-prepared for, especially when kids half your age can take to it like a fish to water. I sincerely thought I would fail miserably when I decided to go sans MANtor, so the fact that I was able to coach myself is a win in itself. There’s no substitute for training with another person, but it’s nice to know that I can make do in a pinch. 3.27.
NEXT WEEK: Man’s best friend’s best friend.