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Just for Kicks 

Getting a leg up with Saints kicker John Carney

Your last look at the crossbar reveals it to look about as wide as the screen of the TV you keep on the little table in the bedroom. It's 18 feet, 6 inches wide, that crossbar, but this far away ...

Get in the stance. Kicking foot 4 inches ahead of the balance foot. Wind blowing in from the right. Eyes down. Keep the left foot on the ground. Feel the power in the right foot and leg, let your kinesthetic sense flow.

Snap. Down. Step. Kick.

Eyes down, down, down. Now up. Ball up, end over end, hooking left, left, left ...


OK, what NFL fan has not played this mind game inside his own cortex? Everybody, 8 to 80, blind, crippled or crazy, can and does fantasize about the scenario above. Stepping into that Wilson 54 yards from the goalposts, three seconds to play. Thunk! Leather meets leather. The crowd goes crazy! GOOD! It's good!

One reason this fantasy just lasts and lasts is that it's open to everyone, regardless of age, size or condition of prior servitude. You might never be able to suspend disbelief long enough to close your eyes and see yourself leveling Ray Lewis with a block that causes his stomach walls to implode. But you can play the Winning Field Goal as Time Runs Out.

'Twasn't always so. There was a time, back in the days of Paul Hornung and Gino Cappelletti and Pat Summerall and Lou Groza and George Blanda, when placekickers actually played the game of football -- or at least had played it at some level. At least knew it.

That was mostly before the coming of the soccer-style kickers. The first one I remember was Peter Gogolak of Budapest. Once, trying a field goal, the Giants against the Cowboys, Pete got it blocked. Instead of trying to recover the bouncing ball, Peter reverted to his soccer instincts. He let the ball fall to his feet -- and kicked it through the goalpost left-footed.

Then came Garo Yepremian, the baldheaded left-footed kicker from Cyprus who wore number "1" because, one wag claimed, his chest wasn't large enough for a larger number. Garo was the inspiration for the famous Alex Karras bit about "I keeck a touchdown!" One NFL coach claimed Garo should spark a tightening of the immigration laws.

But Garo saved the most memorable exhibit of his green-card athleticism for the Super Bowl. The Redskins had blocked a field goal-try, and Garo picked up the ball and tried first to run with it, then to throw it. He made Tiny Tim look like Joe Montana.

There has also settled on placekickers an aura of unorthodox goofiness, and for examples of that we can look close to home. Remember old Saints placekickers Russell Erxleben and Doug Brien? Both suffered periods in their careers when they couldn't make a placekick from as far as you could kick a load of laundry. Both went a tiny bit bonkers and wept at their failures.

Which brings us to current placekicker John Carney. Steady, great citizen, fabulous kicker. Set club records of 31 field goals and 130 points last year. Pro Bowl, All-Pro, NFL Special Teams Player of the Month more months than you could count.

"In the past, there may have been some validity to the stereotype of kickers as non-athletes," Carney admits with a chuckle. "But now, more are like my old classmate at Notre Dame, Hunter Smith, who was a backup quarterback and free safety."

As far as general zaniness goes, Carney doesn't get much wilder than frequent charterings of Arthur Cormier's swamp-tour airboats, where the Carneys took the family Christmas picture last year.

"But it's the pressure of kicking that makes people classify kickers as flakes. With kicking, there's no second string. You come in and start, or you go home." (Carney knows, because he began his NFL career with a whimper, getting cut by Cincinnati and Tampa Bay before finally catching on with the Chargers.)

At practice, Carney will run some pass routes for DB drills, then pick one or two aspects of his game to work on. If, say, the next game is in a cold-weather city, he'll practice kicking in heavy clothes.

"Getting bored is not an option," he says. "People are depending on you. That fear of naked failure is a real motivator."

On the sidelines during games, Carney pays close attention to the time and timeouts remaining, plus weather patterns. On kicks, he concentrates on keeping his head down.

"I had a coach who said you should never look at a kick, that the crowd would let you know. But it's human nature to look, especially if you don't think you've hit it good."

Carney has a credo for his craft. "It's a real individual skill in a real team game. You enjoy the challenge but it's a frightening challenge.

That's what makes it so special."

click to enlarge "It's the pressure of kicking that makes people classify kickers as flakes." -- Saints kicker John Carney -  - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • "It's the pressure of kicking that makes people classify kickers as flakes." -- Saints kicker John Carney


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