Nick Folk finding new life with Jets

If Nick Folk's family tree were a specific type of tree, it would be a redwood from his native California -- vast and impressive.

The New York Jets' place-kicker is a direct descendant from the Mayflower -- the ship, not the moving company. His great-grandfather (add several more "greats") is William Bradford, who, as the governor of Plymouth Colony, basically created Thanksgiving. In the mid-1600s, he wrote "Of Plymouth Plantation," still regarded as the most authoritative story of the pilgrims. In the Folk family, he's known as "Brads."

Folk's grandfather is Quentin Stiles, a pioneering thoracic surgeon. He wrote the first book on heart bypass surgery, in 1976. He was one of the first doctors to actually perform a bypass on a human.

The family includes more doctors than the cast of "Grey's Anatomy," so it would be an understatement to say it's filled with high achievers. Now it has another member near the top of his respective profession -- Folk.


Fired by the Dallas Cowboys in December, only two years after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie phenom, Folk has become one of the best comeback stories of the NFL season. He arrived in February in New York with a case of the yips -- or so everybody thought -- but he rediscovered his smooth and powerful stroke, emerging as one of the central figures in the Jets' 5-1 start.

"I'm not going to say Nick Folk is doing a great job kicking, like a Pro Bowl kicker, because his contract is up," coach Rex Ryan said with a smile, his way of saying Folk is doing a great job kicking and is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.

It's a fickle profession, kicking. Folk knows better than most. He used to be the darling of fans and headline writers ("Folk Hero"), but he hit a rough patch and suddenly his last name (or something close to it) was being screamed across the state of Texas.

The Cowboys released Folk on Dec. 22, the day after he missed a critical 24-yard field goal attempt in a victory over the previously undefeated New Orleans Saints. He had at least one miss in six straight games, and the Cowboys gave up on him.

During those tough times, Folk leaned on his grandfather for advice. Even though he felt his slump was due to his surgically repaired hip -- a torn labrum was fixed in May 2009 -- it didn't make the misses hurt less. His grandfather, a heart surgeon with a big heart, brought the perspective.

"I hate to use the life-and-death analogy, but he held life in his own two hands -- literally, every day when he went into work," Folk said. "He was under a lot of pressure, more than any kicker or quarterback. When I'm out there, I'm playing for my career; I'm not playing with people's lives.

"That's what I tell myself when I'm having a tough day. I talked to him a lot when I was going through that stretch in Dallas. He told me, 'It's just a game.' I put high expectations on myself, but I try to remind myself, 'It's just a game; go have fun.'"

Stiles retired from his practice when Folk was 5, and their relationship grew tighter. He attended his grandson's soccer and football games, and helped him with school science projects, akin to having Steven Spielberg assist with home movies.

Folk's grandfather was the the lead author of "Myocardial Revascularization: A Surgical Atlas." About 10 years before the book, Stiles was performing bypass surgeries on dogs. He didn't do the first bypass on a human -- that happened at the Cleveland Clinic in 1967 -- but Stiles is regarded as a legendary figure in medicine.

Folk is surrounded by doctors. Consider the family roster: His mother is a pediatrician, an uncle a trauma surgeon and an aunt an obstetrician. Folk was on a pre-med track at Arizona, but he flunked calculus and decided to change majors.

"My family says the golden age of medicine was when my grandfather was practicing," Folk said. "Their advice to me was, 'Don't be a doctor; own the hospital.'"

Growing up in that environment provided some memorable family discussions. Folk recalled a story from his aunt, who once said she had to perform emergency surgery -- sans anesthesia -- on a pregnant woman who came within 30 seconds of dying during the delivery.

So you want to talk about a missed field goal? A little perspective, please.

Folk is a talented kicker who lost his way in Dallas. That his hip was repaired only three months before training camp affected his strength and mechanics. In retrospect, he believes he should have rested in camp, but his competitiveness got the best of him. The Cowboys had drafted David Buehler in the fifth round; he was slated to handle kickoffs, but his presence made Folk want to protect his turf as the place-kicker.

Folk's younger brother, Erik, the place-kicker for the University of Washington, underwent similar surgery in 2008 and told him it took nine months before he felt right. For Folk, the nine-month mark was February, when he auditioned for the Jets and Giants in the same week.

He killed his workout with the Jets, displaying a new technique that improved his distance on kickoffs. The Jets signed Folk to replace Jay Feely, who would leave as an unrestricted free agent. It was a gamble, replacing a solid kicker with someone from the scrap heap.

"It's always a concern when you go into the unknown," said Jim Leonhard, one of the Jets' special teamers. "We were very comfortable with Jay. To let him go, you kind of go, 'OK, let's see what happens.'"

GM Mike Tannenbaum said they were sold after seeing Folk kick in person.

"We've worked out a lot of kickers over the years, but you could see his skill set was exceptional," Tannenbaum said. "The ball jumped off his foot."

Still does. Folk has made 13 of 15 field goals, including a 5-for-5 performance two weeks ago and a franchise-record kick (56 yards) Sunday in Denver. With 55 points, he's the leading scorer among kickers. Meanwhile, in Dallas, Buehler is having problems and the Cowboys are a train wreck.

If Folk feels redemption, he does a good job of hiding it, saying he's happy the way things worked out. Asked whether he feels any emotion toward his former team, he said, "You don't like to see the looks on the faces of those guys when they're struggling."

Folk knows the feeling, but the once-beleaguered kicker from the family of healers is healed. In more ways than one.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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