IOWA CITY — San Diego bills itself as “America’s Finest City.”
Many residents and millions of visitors agree. Blue skies. Beautiful beaches. Weather that is almost always warm, but seldom humid or terribly hot.
Nate Kaeding works in San Diego and has for seven years. He likes the city just fine. But to him, Iowa City is America’s Finest City.
“This is our number one destination right here,” Kaeding said one morning last week after a workout.
“It’s wherever you’re happy. There are people in San Diego that are so incredibly happy. We (he and his wife, Samantha, are the parents of boys, 3 and 1) prefer to be in a place where we can get in the car and be at my parents’ house in a few minutes or be at her parents’ house in an hour than having to fly around the country.
“There’s such a great sense of community, not only in the Iowa City-Coralville area but throughout the state. That sense of community is something I don’t think is reflected as well in San Diego. It’s just kind of a place to be rather than an actual community.
“This is our home. That’s never going to change.”
But Iowa City is also where Kaeding works for most of the first seven months of each year. He is entering his eighth season as the San Diego Chargers’ placekicker, but has found he can do his off-season preparation as easily and proficiently in Iowa City as San Diego.
“I’m incredibly lucky because there’s a great infrastructure here with the University of Iowa,” Kaeding said. “I train with a guy at Performance Therapies who is a former intern with Coach (Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris) Doyle three or four times a week. I train with Coach Doyle and his staff a couple days a week.
“I’m able to sneak under the fence to the football field and kick. They’ve got mobile uprights, they’ve got the arena-sized uprights that I like to kick to. They’ve got 300 yards of grass fields, 100 yards of turf fields. It’s like a kicker’s paradise for me. I can go do whatever I need to do, and I’m around a lot of great football minds in Coach Doyle and Coach (Kirk) Ferentz, and those people.
“I can drive three minutes from my house and be out on the football field kicking footballs. That’s a better setup here for me than it would be in San Diego, to get where I need to go and spend three or four hours a day working on what needs to be worked on.”
Technically, Kaeding is out of work. The NFL currently has a player lockout. But since players basically are only paid from September through January, anyhow, this spring has been no different from the previous seven for Kaeding.
“Among my teammates I’ve talked to and other guys in the NFL,” he said, “I think the current mindset is to go about your business, get ready to play, and wait for a phone call from your coach and the organization letting you know it’s time to go back to work.
“You can drive yourself stupid-crazy by listening and trying to follow it on ESPN.com or anybody tweeting about this or that new ruling and that stuff. I shut that off months ago. I’m just going about my business and preparing to play this season, and certainly hoping like everybody that the season starts that first, second weekend of September like it should.
“The reality of it is the lockout will probably go longer than it will shorter.”
Until then, the two-time All-Pro and the top placekicker in University of Iowa history will keep kicking close to home.
“Yeah, the weather’s better in San Diego,” he said. “But there are a lot more important things to life than weather.”
THAT WAS MY COLUMN for Tuesday’s Gazette. Kaeding was kind enough to spend an hour with me last Friday, and had a lot more to say than what fit in the column space, so I’ll share that with you here.
Kaeding has made 86.5 percent of his regular-season field goals (173-of-200), but is just 8-of-15 in the postseason. Here are his feelings about his seven-year career with the Chargers:
“It’s great in a lot of aspects to have been in one place and to have that great continuity working with some people. That sets the stage for a lot of success. There’s been some adversity as well. I haven’t played well in certain situations in the playoffs. In one aspect, I’ve played really well and been very consistent, but on the other side there’s still one big hurdle I have to get over and the team has to get over, and that’s winning the championship. That’s what keeps you hungry.
“The way I kind of look at it right now, I’m in a pretty good place where I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve been to two Pro Bowls, put up some good numbers. My whole body of work, seven years in the NFL, I’m proud of what I’ve done. But there’s still that big thing out there yet to go get, and that’s a championship.”
On what drives him professionally:
“The reason I’m still doing what I’m doing is because I’ve put in a lot of very deliberate, purposeful work into what I do. There isn’t a day, even an hour, that goes by when I’m not thinking about kicking or maybe some way that I can get better at what I do. That’s what still intrigues me about playing the game. I’ve gotten to a certain level, but I know there are more levels that I can achieve. That’s what I’m passionate about and excited about, finding ways I can continue to get better and improve. Things are constantly floating through my head about different ways I can practice or structure a practice, should I be doing this, should I be eating this?
“I’m almost obsessive-compulsive about it. When I got hooked on kicking midway through high school, I’d go out and kick 30 footballs in practice and make 25 of them. Why didn’t I make 26 or why didn’t I make 30? You’re kind of chasing maybe an unattainable level, but to get to that high level of mastery of a certain skill, that’s what keeps people going.
“And it’s fun. That, to me, is the funnest part of about what I do. Kicking is a very simple thing, but in order to take that simple task and elevate it, take it to a different level, there is an infinite amount of work that goes into it. That’s what excites me.”
On things he does to improve his kicking:
“I’m 29 and I still feel from a physical standpoint there is still some growth I can have as far as explosiveness and getting stronger.
“For me, it’s a what-why-how system. What did I do wrong last year? I might have made 21 of 25 field goals (23 of 28, actually), but I know I missed three of four that were over 50 yards. The next step was figuring out why that happened. The why is harder than the what, and the how is harder than the why. Then you get to go out and devise a bunch of fun and creative drills to work on getting better at kicking 53-yard field goals.
“Something I’m working on now — being in San Diego you’re always kicking in good conditions. You find it harder and harder each year you’re out in San Diego when you go to, like, a Chicago in November where it’s windy and cold and snowing and that sort of thing. So I made more of a conscious effort in March and April to go out when it was a crappy day and I’d otherwise kick inside the (University of Iowa football) bubble, and go outside and kick when it was windy and snowing to try to get a bunch of variable within my workout.
“I’d kick 15 balls, but take three minutes between each kick to simulate a game a little better. In a game, you might kick three field goals in three hours. You’re not going to (take an hour between practice kicks), but instead of taking 20 minutes to do my kicks, I might do it in an hour, wait five or 10 minutes between each kick, go run some sprints, do something to buy some time so I’m not getting in a (kicking) rhythm.”
“Keeping everything in perspective is something I always strive to do. We’re not solving world hunger here. We’re not trying to put an end to a war. We are playing a game that serves as an avenue of entertainment to people. That’s about the extent of its importance, at least to me. I take my job very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously. I don’t take the game very seriously in the grand scope of things.
“It might seem real important if you’re reading blogs or message boards and that sort of thing. But how many billions of people don’t give a (bleep) if the Hawkeyes won or the Chargers won, if I made that field goal or missed that field goal. If I go watch ESPN every day or go read Pro Football Today or dive into a message board after a game, I might not be able to get out of bed in the morning. These people are acting like the apocalypse is coming. Every football game is the be-all, end-all of everything that’s important in the entire world.”
On how long he wants to continue his football career:
“I don’t see myself being one of those guys who does it until the game kicks me out. I do have a lot of other interests outside football, things that have a little more intellectual stimulation. I want to write that other chapter in my life, but that’s not for now. Now I’m still obsessed with trying to become a better placekicker, and it’s still fun.
“When I think about it, it’s hard to replicate that competitive nature (of kicking). It’s almost impossible. But I recognize that. I do have other interests outside of football. But you’d be hard-pressed to match somewhere you can step out there on a Sunday with that sort of atmosphere and stage.”