(Former University of Iowa kicker Nate Kaeding is an occasional guest-contributor to the Hlog. He was waived by the San Diego Chargers in midseason after being placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. In this essay, he offers a look at how he went from free agency/unemployment in San Diego last week to signing and playing for the Miami Dolphins.)
It’s 10:30 a.m. PST in San Diego on Thursday, December 20th. For the first time in my professional life I’ll be spending Christmas detached from the NFL. I feel a bit empty and more than a little lost.
Outside it is a beautiful, picturesque southern California winter day. The air is ocean-clean, crisp, with a faint chill. I’m sitting second in line on a worn-out leather sofa at Rey’s Barbershop. My plan for the day is simple. Grab a quick haircut, work out at the local gym, eat a late lunch, and then spend the afternoon chasing my two young boys around the house. An extended and leisurely holiday weekend lay ahead; our first together as a family of five. The only tough decision that I’ll be confronted with on this morning is whether I want to use a two or three guard on the electric razor for my buzz cut. As I drift deep into hairstyle contemplation my phone rings. It’s my agent.
“Buckle up,” he says “your Christmas just took a turn towards crazy.”
Jeff Ireland, the general manager of the Miami Dolphins, had just called. Their kicker (Dan Carpenter) injured himself just minutes earlier during practice. They need a new kicker and they need one FAST!
Since my release from the San Diego Chargers in October, we had fielded about a dozen inquiries from teams around the league. I had made two trips, to Charlotte and San Francisco. Neither of which yielded any results. In the next five minutes, I need to decide whether the reward of joining the Dolphins for the remainder of their season outweighs the risk of flying into Miami cold-turkey and performing in an NFL game with less than 48 hours of acclimation time and zero practice with my new teammates. Plus, I’d be leaving my wife alone with our three children for the holiday. Playing the absentee father during Christmas isn’t a role I admire.
The phone rings again. They need a decision immediately. My mind wanders a few days into the future … It’s Sunday, I’m watching yet another NFL game from the coziness of my living room. I can’t just sit at home, I think. I’m healthy, strong, and competent. Perhaps it’s an ego thing. Maybe something to do with man’s hunter-gatherer instinct; a strong pull to be outside of the cave engrossed in a substantive task. Or maybe it’s the quote that has hung in my locker for the past nine years: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” The tug is too strong. Time to get busy living.
I make the call, setting in motion the wildest three days of my professional career.
9:45 p.m. PST: Having already kissed the family goodbye with the promise to Skype in for the Christmas-morning gift opening, I board a red-eye flight from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale. Seated in a middle coach seat, I get zero sleep.
6:55 a.m., EST: Wheels down in Florida. Vito, a Dolphins employee, is waiting in front of the airport with kicker Billy Cundiff, my competition for the morning tryout. Vito shuttles us quickly to the doctors office for the obligatory medical exam.
7:45 a.m.: The doctor reaches for the rubber gloves. It’s time for the dreaded “Drop Your Shorts, Turn Your Head, and Cough” drill. I oblige and pass the physical.
9 a.m.: After Vito expertly navigates his way through some gnarly South Florida rush hour traffic, we arrive at the Dolphins’ training facility. I splash some cold water on my face, eat a banana, down a protein shake and head towards the stationary bike to start untangling my body.
9:45 a.m. A dozen team personnel, including Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin, gather around Cundiff and I with stopwatches and clipboards at the ready. The tryout consists of each of us kicking 12 field goals at a variety of distances. We alternate attempts, ending with a 55-yarder. I make it. We smack six kickoffs and then are told to hit the showers. One of us will play on Sunday. The other will jump back on a plane home.
10:30 a.m.: Ireland approaches in the locker room. He extends his hand. “Welcome to the Dolphins,” he says. I’m immediately rushed upstairs where a contract has already been drafted. I take a quick glance at the specifics and sign on the dotted line. I hustle back down into the equipment room where I’m fitted for my helmet. It’s the first time I’ve put a helmet on in the last nine years that didn’t have a lightning bolt on it. I smile.
10:45 a.m.: I barely beat the horn which sounds the beginning of Friday’s practice, the last bit of preparation for the team before we play Buffalo. I spend most of the practice getting up to speed with my new teammates and special teams coaches.
3 p.m.: After signing more documents and talking with the media, my head finally hits the pillow at the hotel. I sleep for three hours, wake up and grab some dinner, and go back to bed.
8 a.m.: I eat breakfast in the team cafeteria with friends and former Iowa coaches Ken O’Keefe and Charlie Bullen. O’Keefe is the receivers coach and Bullen is a defensive assistant. It’s all a bit surreal.
9:45 a.m.: Driving south down the Florida Turnpike to the game I realize I’ve forgotten my wallet back at the hotel. Not a big deal until I hit a toll booth just outside of the stadium. I need one dollar in change but all I have in my rental car cupholder is 85 cents left over from my Dunkin’ Donuts trip on Saturday morning. I stop at the toll, walk back to the minivan behind me packed to the gills with Dolphins fans, and panhandle 15 cents. Luckily they are in the holiday spirit and hand over a dime and a nickel. I’m in.
1 p.m.: Kickoff. After eight long weeks out of the NFL, I’m back on the field. I’m welcomed back into the league on the first drive by Bills defensive lineman Alex Carrington, who breaks through the line and blocks our first field goal attempt. It was his fourth block of the year. The rest of the day goes smoothly with three touchbacks on kickoffs, a 45-yard field goal, my first ever NFL punt (a 35-yarder), and most importantly, a Dolphins win.
4:15 p.m.: Kneeling for the postgame prayer, hand in hand with my new teammates, I feel an overwhelming sense of fulfillment. My mad dash to Miami has landed me in one of the happiest places on earth, an NFL locker room after a victory. And it no doubt feels better than a hollow Sunday afternoon on my living room couch.