Monday, January 21st, 2019

Greg the Leg

Paolo Bandini

Greg the Leg

Paolo Bandini

Less than 24 hours after he kicked the Los Angeles Rams into Super Bowl LIII, Gridiron recalls its own meeting with Greg Zuerlein…

Watching tape is a key part of every NFL player’s training regime. But there might be only one man in the whole league whose film study includes taking tips from Mel Gibson. “There’s a fight scene in the movie The Patriot where he’s down in this little valley with his sons,” explains Greg Zuerlein, kicker for the St Louis Rams. “He gives them their guns and says ‘Aim small, miss small’. I really couldn’t think of a better analogy for kicking. When I’m lining up a field goal, I just pick a small little spot to aim at and hopefully that way, even if I don’t get it quite to that spot, the kick will still be accurate in the grand scheme.”

That system has worked out pretty well for Zuerlein so far. At 25 years old, and just over a month into his second season as a professional, he is already one of the best-known kickers in the league. As a rookie he converted one field goal from 60 yards – just three shy of the league record – and became the first player ever to make two kicks from 58 yards or more in a single game. Along the way he acquired more nicknames than the rest of his team-mates put together. First he was ‘Greg the Leg’, then ‘Legatron’, and eventually ‘Young Geezee’. Zuerlein, to his credit, never got swept away by his own hype, telling NFL UK last year that: “Just ‘Greg’ works for me”.

Nevertheless, Zuerlein succeeded in building his legend a little further over the summer with a cameo appearance in a stunt kicking video. In June, the Rams had reached out to Dude Perfect, a group of former college buddies from Texas A&M who shot to fame in the US with a series of basketball trick shot videos that achieved huge viral success on YouTube. Over time, they had expanded their repertoire to include stunts with a variety of other sports equipment – everything from golf balls to nerf guns – but they had not done much by way of kicking. Sensing an opportunity, St Louis offered the services of Zuerlein, along with those of punter Johnny Hekker – another rookie in 2012 – and long snapper Jake McQuaide. Dude Perfect jumped at the opportunity.

Hekker was the main protagonist, punting balls off the roof of the Rams’ practice facility into a tiny paddling pool, but Zuerlein stole the show with his one bewildering trick shot. From a distance of 60 yards, he drove a kick through a set of American football uprights and into a basketball hoop. Even with Gibson’s ‘aim small’ mantra in mind, it was quite the undertaking. “It took about 65 attempts,” laughs Zuerlein. “Yeah, that took quite a bit of time. But we got it done. Johnny’s didn’t take too long, most of his were a bit quicker, but getting it in the hoop definitely took a good 60 tries or more.“ Was there ever a point at which he doubted whether he could get the job done? “Oh no, I knew I could do it because, from the first or second kick, I was hitting it off the rim or off the backboard, and it just wouldn’t bounce in. I hit the rim probably a good four or five times, and the backboard 10 or 15 times, it just wasn’t bouncing the way it needed to. So I was peppering the thing, it just needed to fall – and finally it did.”

Such confidence is a vital asset for a self-taught man. Zuerlein realised at a young age that he had a knack for kicking a ball long distances and thereafter set about refining the skill mostly on his own. Unlike the majority of players aspiring to NFL careers at his position, he never attended a specialist kicking camp until he was already successful enough to be asked to help coach at one. In fact, Zuerlein believes that his talents derive in part from a childhood devoted to the other kind of football. “I played soccer from first or second grade all the way up until I had to choose between football and soccer for college,” he says. “I ended up choosing football at that point, obviously, but even then I ended up playing soccer in intra-mural leagues during the football off-season all the way up to my senior year.”

Zuerlein was a central midfielder, and a good one at that. In 2006, he helped his high school, Pius X, to a Nebraska state championship, scoring the winning goal in the final with a header from the edge of the penalty area. He received a number of scholarship offers to play the round-ball game at university, but college scouts had been monitoring his American football progress as well. Zuerlein had taken over kicking duties for Pius X in his sophomore year and, despite missing two extra points and a field goal in his first game, had gone on to become one of the most highly recruited kickers in the state. In the end, his choice of sport boiled down to a straightforward financial decision. “Football offered me more money,” says Zuerlein, with a shrug.

He accepted an offer from nearby Nebraska-Omaha university, but would later transfer to Missouri Western for his senior year after the former establishment shut down its football program in 2011. Now he came to the attention of NFL scouts, converting 23 of 24 field goal attempts for his new team, including nine from 50 yards or more. The Rams duly snapped him up in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Not everyone was sold on the move. St Louis had posted a league-worst 2-14 record a year previously, and there were many observers who felt that the team had more pressing needs. It did not take long, though, for such doubts to dry up.

The Rams’ special teams co-ordinator, John Fassel, had raved about Zuerlein’s range and soon beat reporters in St Louis were doing the same. The rookie was making 60-yard field goals during practice with distance to spare. If he could maintain such power during real games, it would give his team an opportunity to claim three points from drives that might otherwise have ended in a punt. After Zuerlein converted one kick from 59 yards during the Rams’ final preseason game against Baltimore, head coach Jeff Fisher insisted that this was nothing more than an experiment. “Look, I’m not going to [have my team] kick a 60-yard field goal in the middle of a game and risk giving up field position,” he said.

That turned out to be a lie – Zuerlein enjoying his record-breaking day, with conversions from 58 and 60 yards during a home win over Seattle in September. These were not low-risk gambles at the end of a half, but rather attempts made in the first and third quarters of the game. If he had missed, the field position swing could indeed have been disastrous. Now Zuerlein was a national story, the guy that every reporter wanted to speak to at practice. Quarterback Sam Bradford found himself fielding questions about whether this was the first time he had ever played for a team whose kicker was its most popular player.

Such form, though, would not last. Zuerlein made all of his first 15 kicks as a professional, but then missed three consecutive field goals in a painful 17-14 loss to Miami in mid-October. By the end of the season, his stat line showed a modest 23 conversions on 31 attempts. Those figures are a little misleading if taken out of context. Thirteen of Zuerlein’s kicks had been from 50 yards or more. No other player in the league attempted more than 10 from that range. Nevertheless, coaches feared that the rookie might be suffering from a form of burn-out. Between preparing for the draft and then launching himself into preseason training, Zuerlein had not taken much of a break since returning from a hip injury at the start of his senior year at college. Fassel, known to his players as ‘Bones’ on account of his skinny frame, ordered the kicker to get some down time.

“Coach Bones didn’t really want me to do anything for a little while so, after the end of the season, I still lifted and worked out but I didn’t kick for three months,” says Zuerlein. “I got married, did a little bit of travelling, nothing too crazy. But other than that I just watched a lot of TV! Box sets of Breaking Bad, Family Guy and The Big Bang Theory helped to while away the hours,” although Zuerlein admits to having snuck out for a few gentle kicks even when he was not really supposed to. “Yeah, once or twice,” he says with a grin. “I got out there and hit a few. But I think I’m better now for the rest; I feel a lot better than I did last year. I don’t know if it’s a common thing [for kickers to need that kind of break] but Bones is a great coach so, when he said it, that’s what I did.”

Fassel enjoys a close relationship with his players, and hosted both Zuerlein and Hekker – another rookie in 2012 – for Thanksgiving last year. But he is also hands-off in his coaching, acknowledging that he has no particular expertise when it comes to kicking technique. As a result he typically limits himself to broad observations, rather than specific instruction, during practice. “I like that,” says Zuerlein. “Sometimes it’s good to have a structured coach who knows exactly what do to, but lots of time it’s better just to work it out on your own and then there’s no pressure. And Bones does a great job of that. He can tell you what he sees, but he won’t tell you what to do; you just make the adjustment yourself. It’s the same thing with Jake [McQuaide] and Johnny [Hekker] – they do the same thing for me. So we all got a bunch of eyes that tell you what they see, then it’s easy to change.”

The life of an NFL specialist has always been a particular one. For kickers, punters, and long snappers, practice sessions – much like the games themselves – involve a tremendous amount of waiting around. Zuerlein says: “On a typical day, me, Jake and Johnny go out to practice a little bit early – probably 10 to 15 minutes earlier than everybody else. We’ll run around and get loose, and then either I’ll shag [recover balls] for Johnny if we’re doing punts or, if it’s field goals first, then he’ll shag for me. And we just get some kicks in, get nice and loose for the team. Then we have the team practice, where we’ll kick maybe six field goals with the team and five or six kickoffs. Then, the rest of the time, we stand and watch the other guys practice! Sometimes we’ll go inside and lift and stretch, depending on what we’re doing or what we need that week. In total, I probably kick 12 to 15 field goals each week with the team and 40 to 50 on my own. Better to be fresh than hit a billion balls.”

Of course, it is one thing to run out and make a kick in practice, and another to do it with a game on the line. But there is no particular trick, says Zuerlein, to staying focused in such circumstances. “It’s no different to soccer, really,” he says. “If you come on the field in the 85th minute, you have five minutes to make your presence felt, and that’s exactly like football, you’ve got a really short amount of time to go out there and try and positively affect your team. You just go out there and go through your steps and your same routine every time, just like practice. You don’t want to do anything different, don’t change anything. You just go through your routine, and that’s really all the mental preparation that you need. You’ve done it a thousand times, you just do it in a game.”

To the fan watching at home, the kicker can often appear as a lonely figure on a team, biding his time on the sidelines before being thrust in to perform a high-pressure job at what are often the most critical junctures in the game. But Zuerlein does not see things that way. “No, not really,” he says when asked if he ever feels isolated. “It just feels like part of the play. Everybody’s subbing all the time – people coming on and off the field, subbing in, subbing out. So it doesn’t really feel any different, that’s just football.”

It is that even-keel mentality which allows Zuerlein to be so good at his job. At time of writing he is a perfect six for six on field goal attempts this season, putting the disappointing end to last year behind him. By continuing to aim small and miss small, Zuerlein has set himself on the path to achieving big things.

This story first appeared in Issue II of Gridiron magazine

Slot Machine

Seventeen names. That’s what Chris Harris Jr., one of the NFL’s premier cover cornerbacks, uses as inspiration. These are not people ...

Gridiron Quiz – General Knowledge

The ousting of Mike MacCagnan from the New York Jets’ GM role has given us our theme for this week, so what do you know about the NFL’s p...

Gridiron Quiz – Take Your Pick

You probably mocked your own drafts and stayed up to watch three days of the real thing from Nashville, but what do you really know about...