Cardiac kid: Nick Folk gets pumping again

August, 20, 2010
8/20/10
5:15
PM ET
Nick FolkRich Kane/Icon SMIAn impressive family tree gives new Jets kicker Nick Folk perspective as he tries to revive his career.
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- New York Jets kicker Nick Folk shakes his head at the idea of field goals being a matter of life and death.

Yes, they're important. Yes, making them is his job.

He understands they're a big deal.

Remember when he drilled a 53-yarder as time expired to push the Dallas Cowboys past the Buffalo Bills on "Monday Night Football" three years ago? Folk won the game single-footedly, converting four field goals and an onside kick on a night Tony Romo committed six turnovers.

Then Folk, two seasons removed from the Pro Bowl, found himself out of work in December because he missed too many kicks.

Still, a child didn't die on his operating table.

Folk can find proper perspective in the shade under his prodigious family tree. His mother is a pediatrician. His uncle is a trauma surgeon. His aunt is a specialty obstetrician. His grandmother was an anesthesiologist who invented a laryngoscope to intubate patients. His grandfather was a ground-breaking thoracic surgeon.

"They play with life and death every day," Folk said after a recent training camp practice in SUNY Cortland. "I just sit down and think 'I missed a field goal today. In retrospect, it's not that bad.' A doctor makes a mistake and takes someone's life pretty easily."

Folk casually claimed his grandfather invented bypass surgery. That's not true. But Quentin Stiles did write the book. He was the lead author of "Myocardial Revascularization: A Surgical Atlas" in 1976.

Rene Favaloro is credited as the heart bypass originator at the Cleveland Clinic in 1967. A year earlier in Los Angeles, Stiles said he was grafting coronary arteries and performing bypass surgeries on dogs. He just couldn't convince people to try it. Favaloro found brave patients, and the results popularized what is now a common procedure, opening the door for Stiles and other doctors around the world.

"In the early days of heart surgery, one out of every 20 of them died," Stiles said from his home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. "Especially working on children, that was tough on you. You can't let emotions get to you. You had to do it, and the only way that you live with yourself if they died was knowing you did your best and nobody else could have done it any better.

"When you make the difference between somebody living and dying, it makes kicking field goals seem a little different."

Folk's cousin, Blake Robinson, provides additional perspective. Robinson turned 11 in June and already has undergone four brain surgeries. He has a neurofibromatosis tumor on his optic nerve. As a constant reminder, Folk wears a blue bracelet for the Children's Tumor Foundation.

"I know football means a lot," Folk said, "but it is just a game. I have to keep that in mind to make sure that I have fun and enjoy the time I have to play this game. It's not always going to last."

With all that in mind, Stiles said he simply shrugged when Folk missed his final kick for the Cowboys last season.

The family was together on Mammoth Mountain in Northern California when the Cowboys played the undefeated New Orleans Saints in Week 15. Unable to get the NFL Network where they were staying, they gathered at Grumpy's Sports Bar to watch the game.

Folk was a heart attack waiting to happen, having missed at least one attempt the five previous games.

"That was a little rough," recalled Folk's mother, Kathy, the pediatrician who couldn't do anything for her son that night. "I ended up pacing much of the game and listening to Cowboys fans get pretty vocal against him."

With the game in doubt and the Saints storming back with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, Folk had the chance to give the Cowboys a 10-point lead with 2:19 to play. He missed a 24-yard attempt.

Badly.

With his family at Grumpy's.

"They were screaming 'Get rid of him!' " Kathy Folk said. "At that point, I couldn't blame them.

"Gut wrenching. My heart just broke for him."

The Saints took over and managed nine plays over the final 2:16 of the game, but the Cowboys' defense held on for the victory. The Cowboys, however, lost faith in Folk. They cut him the next day.

What had happened to Folk, a kicker with a reputation for his steely nerve? He was a Pro Bowler in 2007 and made 91 percent of his kicks in 2008.

[+] EnlargeNick Folk
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesJay Ratliff (90) consoles Nick Folk after Folk missed a field goal against the Chiefs.
He was labeled damaged goods, a kicker with a psychological problem.

"I knew it wasn't that, because that's not Nick," Kathy Folk said. "Tough as steel. At Arizona they described him as having ice running through his veins."

There was a reason for Folk's troubles last season. As inconceivable as it sounds, considering his family owns more stethoscopes than most closets contain dress shirts, Folk might have been done in by a misdiagnosis.

Folk had a problem with his right hip that the Cowboys diagnosed as a flexor after the 2008 season. Treatment didn't help the problem, but he trusted the Cowboys' doctors, even arguing with his mother about it.

"I kept telling him 'Go back and get a hip CT or MRI.' We knew," Kathy Folk said. "It was ironic, and it was frustrating to say the least."

Folk finally relented. Another examination showed he had a torn labrum, a more serious condition that required surgery. He had the labrum repaired in May 2009.

Proper recovery time would have pushed him right up against the start of training camp, but the Cowboys -- despite Folk owning the highest field-goal accuracy rate among active kickers at the time -- drafted David Buehler in the fifth round. Folk claimed he rushed his rehab and came back too soon.

"They thought he was washed up, but he still was in his recovery," Stiles said. "There are 26 muscles that control the hip. When they operate on a hip and you can’t do anything because of the swelling and pain, your muscles get all weak.

"They can put you in therapy to strengthen the muscles you know about, but when it comes to the smaller muscles that control fine motion, they don't know how to rehabilitate those. You do it by kicking over and over and over. Nick didn't have the time to recover and [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones didn't have that kind of patience."

The Jets took a gamble when they declined to re-sign reliable kicker Jay Feely. The move was necessary to bring in outside linebacker Jason Taylor under the NFL's quirky "final eight" rules, which limited divisional playoff participants from signing unrestricted free agents heading into the uncapped season.

The Jets found Folk in the rummage bin and gave him a shot. Head coach Rex Ryan openly mocked Folk's performances in early offseason workouts. But Folk gained consistency as the summer progressed.

"The biggest thing is to clear your head," said Folk, who has been working with the Jets' sports psychologist, Sara Hickmann. "That's the biggest thing is to go out there with a clear feeling and have fun. I lost that last year.

"It can start to play with you, especially if you feel that everything is going smoothly when it's not. Things changed biomechanically because I had surgery. I felt everything was right, but it started to creep up. It started getting to me. It can happen pretty quick."

Ryan's not laughing about Folk's leg anymore. The coach has expressed nothing but confidence lately. Special-teams coach Mike Westhoff has tweaked Folk's approach on field goals, and the Jets like the way Folk's handling kickoffs.

"I want to go on record to say I'm officially not worried about our Pro Bowl kicker anymore," Ryan said at the start of training camp.

Here's another tidbit about Folk's family tree that seems appropriate.

Folk is a direct descendant from the Mayflower. His mother's umpteenth-great grandfather was William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony -- the man who made a proclamation to institute Thanksgiving.

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