Ryan Longwell hears from a lot more kids who want to be NFL kickers. Naturally, in today’s world, he hears it from their parents first.
“With all the concussion stuff going on, a lot of parents tell me, ‘I want my kid to be the kicker,’ ” said Longwell, who spent 15 seasons kicking for the Packers and Vikings.
Being the kicker protects the brain physically. Mentally and emotionally? Not so much.
So when Longwell meets with prospective young kickers, he sort of channels one of those old “Scared Straight” prison scenes where the convicts confront the blossoming criminals with the harsh reality of the business.
“The first thing I tell them is if you want to do this for a living, you have to be OK with missing the winning kick in the big moment because it will happen,” Longwell said. “If you’re not OK with that, you’ll never have the freedom to swing away. And if you never have the freedom to swing away, you’re never going to make it because it’s too hard to make a kick when your legs are Jello.”
Training the mind to forget a bad miss is impossible, Longwell said. Training it to move on is easier said than done, but achievable.
Longwell’s second game as an NFL kicker was eerily similar to now-former Viking Blair Walsh’s infamous Seattle playoff game, minus the finality of a postseason contest.
It was Sept. 7, 1997. The defending Super Bowl champion Packers, who would win the NFC again that year, were at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
Like Walsh against Seattle, Longwell, a rookie at the time, made three field goals to account for all of his team’s points. Like Walsh’s situation, the score was 10-9 in the closing seconds.
Walsh faced a 27-yard attempt in freezing conditions. Longwell had a 28-yarder on an old AstroTurf field made even more slippery by a rainstorm.
Longwell was running onto the field when he passed Brett Favre coming off the field. Favre told him to be careful because the field is “really slick.”
Favre was a Hall of Fame quarterback. He wasn’t a Hall of Fame sports psychologist. Longwell slipped, the Packers lost and the next thing the rookie knew, he was flying home with 52 dejected teammates while sitting between Favre and Reggie White.
The two Hall of Famers figuratively picked the youngster up, dusted him off and told him he was lucky to get a miss of that magnitude out of the way early in his career.
I suppose only a kicker can understand how a story so sad helped a man enjoy the NFL for 15 years.
Thoughts of Longwell came to mind Nov. 9, the Wednesday before Walsh’s final miss as a Viking. Vikings practice had ended and reporters were hovering near the outdoor fields as Walsh pounded away, kick after kick, just a troubled kicker carrying the weight of the world, a bag of footballs and a tripod to hold them in place.
Longwell didn’t believe in using tripods. He felt they messed up the rhythm with his snapper and holder, which was a top priority he placed ahead of kicking mechanics when it came to busting slumps. Longwell preferred working with his snapper and holder, or at least having his holder simulate a snap and set the ball down.
“Rhythm, for me, was the key to everything, so the only time I would ever use the tripod was on game day when the offense crossed the 50-yard line,” Longwell said. “I would kick three balls into the net and that was it.”
Kai Forbath, the journeyman who replaced Walsh on Tuesday, has a similar philosophy.
“I prefer live snap and hold,” Forbath said. “It’s just kind of unrealistic for the ball to just be sitting there perfectly. I like getting into the rhythm — not too slow, not too fast — of when the ball gets put down.”
Forbath’s first NFL field goal attempt came against the Vikings when he was signed by the Redskins in October 2012. It was a 50-yarder. He made it.
Three years later, Forbath was signed by the Saints during the season. His first field goal attempt was a 50-yarder as time expired. He won the game.
“I’m kind of used to coming in at midseason and doing this,” he said. “I work with [long-snapper Kevin McDermott] and [holder Jeff] Locke in the offseason [as UCLA alums]. This feels like the easiest transition I’ve had.”
We’ll see how it goes. But for the Vikings, any good mental image at the kicker position is welcome. And overdue.