How kickers handle knowing one miss can break team's season

The Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos know their conference championship games this weekend could easily funnel down to the same teeth-grinding situation that the Vikings found themselves in during the wild-card round, when Blair Walsh's 27-yard field goal attempt curled wide left and ended Minnesota's season instead of extending it.

The last-minute miss wasn't shocking just because of the gimme distance. Walsh was a 2012 Pro Bowler and led the NFL with 34 made field goals this season. He'd scored all nine of Minnesota's points in the game despite the below-zero weather. After the Vikings' 10-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, he stood sadly at his locker and made no excuses for missing the potential game winner.

"It's the life of a kicker," he said.

Reporters finally left.

Then Walsh sat down on his stool and cried.

"There's a saying in football that everyone on the team wants our job schedule Monday through Saturday, but nobody wants our job on Sundays," said retired kicker Lawrence Tynes, the only player who has made two overtime field goals to send his team to the Super Bowl.

"I was watching that game live, and after Blair missed that kick, I was walking around my house here like I missed it. My wife was like, 'Lawrence, c'mon. Really? It wasn't you that did that.' But I just empathized so much."

It's the life of a kicker.

"Kickers are sort of an unofficial fraternity," said Mike Westhoff, who gained renown as one of the best special-teams coaches the NFL has seen for his work with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. "It's not like golf, where you shank a shot and someone says, 'Aw, go ahead. Tee another one up.' These guys are so damn good at their craft that 95 or 99 out of 100 times, they make it. No one else on the field has a success rate like that. Nobody! So when they do miss, it's like, 'Wait. ... He missed it? What the hell went wrong? Did the wind come up, was the snap no good, did someone throw an egg at you? What?'"

Westhoff, who retired from the Jets staff after the 2012 season, believes every kicker needs a mental makeup that's even stronger than his leg. When Westhoff was with the Dolphins, a team priest once congratulated him for how he'd thrown an arm around his kicker's shoulder and appeared to say some consoling words to him after a miss. "But the truth was," Westhoff said with a laugh, "what I was really telling that kicker was I was going to haul his ass up the tunnel and cut him right there on the field because he was always demonstrative after he missed a kick. And I hated that."

Tynes said the ball "felt like a rock" when he drilled a 47-yard field goal in subzero weather to lift the New York Giants to victory in the 2007 NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. But he realized only when he got back to the locker room that he had burst blood vessels in his kicking foot. "I had a red lump balloon up on my foot the size of an apple," he said. "I had to have it drained."

If the Super Bowl had been only one week after that kick rather than two, Tynes said he probably couldn't have played in the Giants' upset for the ages over the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. When Tynes sent the Giants to the Super Bowl again four years later, this time beating the 49ers with a 31-yard field goal after a delay-of-game penalty against New York and a timeout San Francisco called to ice him, even hard-nosed safety Antrel Rolle asked him, "How do you do it?" in the wild celebration afterward.

Mike Lantry, a place-kicker for the University of Michigan in the early 1970s, says watching other kickers go through the good and the bad brings up emotions for him, too. He felt compelled to relay his email and phone number to Michigan's Blake O'Neill this past October after O'Neill's punt attempt gone awry was returned for a miracle winning touchdown by Michigan State as time ran out.

Lantry, who'd completed an Army combat tour of duty in Vietnam before walking on to Bo Schembechler's team in 1971, missed potential winning kicks in the Wolverines' 1973 and '74 regular-season finales against archrival Ohio State. Wins in either of those games would have sent Michigan to the Rose Bowl, and the 10-10 tie against the Buckeyes in 1973 might have cost the Wolverines a national title shot.

But much like the Vikings' Walsh, who made a memorable visit to a Minneapolis-area first-grade class to thank the kids for their heart-stealing messages of support, Lantry was surprised at the hundreds of supportive letters he received.

More than 40 years later, Lantry still has them.

"Those misses stuck with me awhile," said Lantry, now 67. "I remember that night in '73, coming home and going through that entire season in my mind, all the success we had, and then thinking, 'That's how it ended?' We had a lot of family over after the '73 game, cold cuts and everything. And I was upstairs kinda half crying, half sobbing -- just laying by myself, trying to figure out how to handle it by myself."

Lantry says no teammate or coach ever has said a cross word to his face about his misses. Ever. Nor did he feel required to apologize. He'd done his best, and he went on with his life. He signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys and spent an injured rookie season with them before deciding he just wanted to go home already after being so consumed with surviving the war and then going to college. He eventually built a successful manufacturing company in the Detroit area that does business with the automotive industry. He remains active in U-M events as an alum.

Both Westhoff and Tynes say they truly believe the support kickers receive from their teammates and coaches is genuine. Westhoff says the image of NFL kickers as "little twerps" who aren't real football players is 15 or 20 years outdated. Kickers today are better all-around athletes, not just specialists. As such, they command more respect.

"Now, don't get me wrong," Westhoff said. "During practice sometimes when the rest of team is out there pounding away in 95-degree heat with their helmets on, and the kickers are over on another field going through their little stuff, some position players do think, 'Hey, it's recess over there.' And that can separate you a little from the rest of the team -- until you're called upon to kick the ball."

And then?

"Then those poor kickers sitting all game by themselves over there on the bench have one shot," he said. "One shot. And anything can happen. ... I think more than anything that is why, even when they miss, the other players know, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"

Every kicker has to find a way to navigate the expectations of perfection that come with the job. That's the life of a kicker, too. Tynes said he learned a lot from longtime veteran Morten Andersen when they were competing for the Kansas City Chiefs' kicking job in 2004.

"He was a book of knowledge, and he had done some work with sports psychologists, stuff like that, too," said Tynes, who as a Chiefs rookie beat out the NFL's career scoring leader. "After a kick, he had a routine where he'd go to the sideline and take a quick sip of water, then throw the cup in the garbage. To him, that was throwing away the last kick, whether he missed it or made it, and then moving onto the next one. That's something I remembered and tried to be very good at during my career, too."

Westhoff, Tynes and Lantry all hope that everything will go smoothly if any kicker in this weekend's conference championship games finds himself in position to impact the game. The snap will be good. The hold will be perfect. The kick will sail straight through the uprights. There'll be no need for postmortems, like the one Lantry faced in 1974, when many thought the refs incorrectly ruled his kick was no good because it sailed so high above the uprights, which were shorter in those days than they are now. (Lantry said even some ex-Ohio State players have told him, "I'm sorry, man. That kick was good.") In Walsh's case, some have wondered whether having the football's laces facing toward him on the hold may have affected the kick.

"Everyone is so good at their job now literally 99 out of your 100 kicks in practice are just back of the ball, back of the ball, back of the ball," Tynes said. "Then to see laces? It's almost like me putting down a red ball that's glowing in front of you. Your mind goes, 'Oh s---! What is that?' ... It might very well have spooked him a little bit. Then factor in the moment. ... It's very hard to say one thing caused a miss. But I know I felt like every time I saw laces, I was surprised. I'm not gonna lie."

Lantry long ago made peace with his fate. But four decades have passed and he still meets people who hear his name and say, "Wait a minute, you're not the same guy from Michigan who ..."

Nobody wishes that kind of fame on any kicker.

"Kickers have become so good at their craft, we really do make it look easy," Tynes said.

Breaking into a knowing laugh, he added: "It's not."