Steven Hauschka's road to SB XLVIII
Kicker's championship journey included multiple teams, accidental name change
It speaks volumes about Pete Carroll that he listened. It says even more about Steven Hauschka that he spoke up.
With Seattle trailing 17-13 early in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game and facing a fourth-and-7 from the 49ers' 35-yard line, the Seahawks coach was about to send Hauschka out to try a 53-yard field goal. The kicker would've been game under normal circumstances, but he saw from the flags on the uprights at Seattle's CenturyLink Field that the wind was now in his face. So he grabbed Carroll before going out onto the field and told him, "I don't think we want to kick this."
In a sport fueled by machismo and ruled by "my-way-or-the-highway" coaches, it's unusual for a player to ask a head coach to think twice during a game, much less a game that means a trip to the Super Bowl. Besides, what kind of kicker would have the audacity to question a man whose coaching career began in 1973?
Fortunately, Carroll is not just any coach. And Hauschka, 28, is not just any kicker. For one thing, he was an honors student in neuroscience at Division III Middlebury College ('07). For another, he had earned the trust of Carroll, who had already nicknamed him "Hausch Money." At the time, he was 38-of-40 on field goals through the regular season and playoffs, including two overtime game-winners, and 3-of-3 from beyond the 50.
The coach called a timeout, pulled the field goal unit off the field and sent quarterback Russell Wilson back out. On fourth-and-7, Wilson pulled the 49ers offside with a deceptive snap count, thereby freeing receiver Jermaine Kearse to go deep for a 35-yard touchdown pass that gave the Seahawks a 20-17 lead that they would turn into a 23-17 victory after Hauschka tacked on a 47-yard field goal through those same uprights.
The rest is history. In part because a coach took the advice of his kicker, the Seahawks went on to beat the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. Hauschka outscored Peyton Manning and Co. all by himself -- 11-8.
There's one trouble with history, though. Where do you start? Where does the chain of events that led to Seattle's first Lombardi Trophy really begin?
One story began in a dorm room on the first floor of Battell Hall on the Middlebury campus in the spring of 2004.
That's where and when Hauschka's freshman roommate, Scott Secor, talked him into trying out for the football team. Hauschka, from Needham, Massachusetts, was playing on the JV soccer team at the time and coming to grips with the fact he might never make the varsity. Secor was a starting safety from Lake Odessa, Michigan, who knew that the Panthers would be in need of a kicker the next season.
Middlebury, a liberal arts college of 2,500 students founded in 1800 in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, is known for many things: scenic beauty and scintillating brains, constant frost and plenteous deer, one-time residents Robert Frost and John Deere.
The college also has a strong Division III athletics program, but until Hauschka decided to try his right instep in the NFL, the only pro football player Middlebury had ever produced was running back Stone Hallquist ... of the 1926 Milwaukee Badgers.
Now it has another claim to fame. Hauschka and his wife, Lindsey, who ran track at Middlebury as Lindsey Jones, recently returned to the schoool for a mini-homecoming at the invitation of the athletic department. They stayed at the Middlebury Inn, ate "Thumbs and Toes" at Mister Up's, met the local media and sat in on professor Paul Sommers' class on the economics of professional team sports.
The main purpose of Hauschka's visit, though, was to speak at various area schools and to the college community. Taking the stage at the McCullough Social Space before a thoughtful conversation with Sports Illlustrated writer Alex Wolff, who lives nearby, Hauschka told the audience, "Wow, this is crazy. I mean, this is the same place where I first saw Dispatch perform."
His tale is a mixture of dumb luck and intelligent analysis, of nature and nurture, of a willingness to take a chance and a refusal to give up. That's how a guy who was accepted by four dental schools and cut by five NFL teams ended up under a shower of confetti at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2, 2014.
"It really seems like a dream sometimes," Hauschka said during a quiet moment at his homecoming. He was sitting in a lounge at the Kenyon Arena, and he still seemed a little surprised at his celebrity, especially when a woman asked him to sign the back of her shirt.
Once a Midd Kid, always a Midd Kid. "He's always been kind of a thoughtful person," said Middlebury football coach Bob Ritter, an alum himself ('82) who took over the football program in 2000. "He hasn't changed a bit."
(Actually, he has. When Hauschka decided to use an extra year of eligibility to kick at the Division I level for NC State, his first name was erroneously changed from Stephen to Steven. He didn't think it was a big enough deal to correct it, and the misspelling stuck.)
As it happened, a kicking coach named Steve Wolf lived 45 minutes away in Rutland, where he managed an ice skating rink, and Ritter would bring him in to work with his kickers. Said Wolf, "The first time I saw the ball come off Steve's foot, I thought, 'Wow!' Oh, he needed a lot of work on his technique. But he had the "it" factor. Plus, kicking is a lot like golfing, and Steve is a very good golfer."
If the talent was there, so was the inexperience -- Hauschka had never played football on any level. He missed three of his first four field goals as a sophomore and once punted a ball into assistant coach Bill Mandigo's face during practice. "Ouch," Hauschka said when reminded of that during his return.
By the time Hauschka was a senior, though, he became a real weapon for Middlebury, and the the Panthers improved from 3-5 to 6-2, thanks in part to his punting and kicking. He also came to realize (at one of Wolf's kicking camps) that he could hold his own with Div. I kickers.
While Hauschka credits Wolf with turning him into a real kicker -- "I didn't know what I was doing" -- he also freely admits he owes a lot to his genes. "My father was a kicker too," he said. "You should talk to him."
Way back when, Peter Hauschka, who recently retired as the director of scientific resources at Children's Hospital in Boston, played soccer for Amherst and rugby for a club team. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Steven is big for a kicker, but his father was even bigger -- 6-foot-6, 235.
"In the spring of '67, I heard about a kicking tryout the Cowboys were holding in Harrisburg, [Pennsylvania]," Peter Hauschka said. "I won both the punting and kicking competitions, and in a story in The New York Times about the kicking caravan, the great scout Gil Brandt talked about discovering me, although I believe he referred to me as 'Aruska.' Anyway, they signed me to a contract, but they didn't trust soccer-style kickers at the time and traded me to the Bears. By that time, I was already in grad school at Johns Hopkins, headed in another direction.
"So I guess you can say Steve picked up where I left off."
With a year of eligibility remaining after his senior season at Middlebury, Steven Hauschka went searching for the right Div. I program and chose NC State, where he enrolled in the parks, recreation and tourism management program. He found himself in a football dorm, acting as a sort of unofficial RA for other first-year players, two of whom were redshirt freshmen who happened to be future Seahawks teammates: Wilson and J.R. Sweezy. As Hauschka told the Middlebury audience, "I was 21, so I was asked to buy beer. Which, of course, I never did."
Hauschka ended up going 16-of-18 on field goals and 25-of-25 on PATs, all while sending out applications to dental schools; his mother, Barbara, and older brother, Andy, are dentists. The highlight of his season came in a 19-16 upset at Miami, when he was carried off the field at the Orange Bowl after kicking four field goals, including a 42-yarder in overtime.
Despite receiving acceptance letters from the dental schools at Tufts, UCLA, Maryland and Boston University, Hauschka signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent. When Minnesota cut him during the 2008 preseason, the Baltimore Ravens brought him in to handle kickoffs and long-range field goals that were out of reach for Matt Stover. On his first regular-season field goal attempt as a pro, Hauschka hit a 54-yarder against the Texans. Baltimore handed the full-time job to Hauschka in 2009, but after he missed four of 13 field goal attempts, he was released after nine games. "I thought they cut me too quickly," he said, "but it was still a great learning experience."
In the next few years, Hauschka spent a lot of time in transit. The Atlanta Falcons signed him and waived him. The Detroit Lions signed him and waived him. After a stopover in Las Vegas, where he kicked for the Locomotives of the United Football League, the Denver Broncos signed Hauschka to replace the injured Matt Prater for the final four games of the 2010 season ... and waived him on Sept. 3, 2011, after he lost the preseason competition to Prater. The very next day, the Seahawks picked him up -- they had just seen him beat them with a 51-yard field goal in an exhibition game.
This time, he stuck. He made 25 of 30 field goal tries in the 2011 season. In Week 10, he kicked a team-record five field goals in a 22-17 upset of one of his former teams, the Ravens. The next season, he went 24-for-27 and cemented his place on the team, as well as his relationship with the 12th Man.
Last season, he made all three kicks of 50-plus yards while finishing second among all NFL kickers in field goal percentage (94.3) and setting a franchise record for kicking points in a season.
So when it came time for Hauschka to speak up, Carroll was willing to listen. "It was almost like a student coming up to a professor after class," said Ritter, his old Middlebury coach. "The student might have a point to make, and the professor respects his opinion."
Hauschka made sure that his family, as well as his old kicking coach and friends, were at MetLife Stadium for the Super Bowl. Said Peter Hauschka, "I got there early, and at one point, I looked down, and Steven was going through his visualization routine, only he was using a Gatorade bottle. I'm thinking, 'Doesn't he have a football?'
"The next thing I know, the game is starting, and, well, you know what happened. It's such a life-marking event, and to have your son be a part of it was wonderful."
Now his son has a little security: a three-year contract signed in March that's worth $9.15 million with $3.35 million guaranteed. His No. 4 jersey is available for purchase, just like those of Wilson and Richard Sherman.
"Do you know what really made me proud?" his father asked. "After the game, he goes and gets two official Super Bowl balls. He threw one to his soccer goalie at Needham High, Jon Levy, and the other one to Scott Secor, the guy who talked him into being a place-kicker.
"They were really nice spirals too. I guess he really is a football player now."