Feinstein: Kicker Is The Loneliest Position In Sports

Cody Parkey is one of countless kickers who could have been a hero; instead, he – and his miss – will never be forgotten

John Feinstein
January 08, 2019 - 4:03 pm

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“I keek a touchdown!”
                  
Fairly or unfairly, that line came to symbolize place kickers in the minds of many football fans – and football players. It was Alex Karras, the Detroit Lions great and colorful defensive tackle, who made the line famous, although it was Garo Yepremian, one of the first non-American kickers in the NFL, who actually said the words.
         
Yepremian was born and raised in Cyprus but became fascinated with American football when his older brother Krikor was recruited to play soccer at Indiana. For all intents and purposes, he walked-on with the Lions in 1966 and became the team’s kicker.
         
Yepremian was 5-foot-7, balding and looked a lot more like the tiemaker he became in his later years than a borderline NFL Hall-of-Famer.  He also spoke English with a fairly thick accent.
         
Late in his rookie season, after the Lions had tied a game with a late touchdown, Yepremian came on to kick the extra point. When he made it, he raced off the field, arms in the air in celebration.
         
Karras, who didn’t like the idea of non-Americans in the NFL or the notion of ANY kicker being a hero, growled at him, “What the hell are you celebrating for?”
         
To which, Yepremian replied, “I keek a touchdown!”
         
Johnny Carson, then the host of “The Tonight Show,” repeated the line so often it became part of the lexicon. To his ever-lasting credit, Yepremian, who went on to be a mainstay on the Miami Dolphins two Super Bowl-winning teams in the early 1970s, titled his autobiography, “I Keek a Touchdown.”
         
Yepremian was part of the first wave of soccer-style kickers in football and among the earlier place kickers who did nothing but kick. As late as 1971, George Blanda was still playing quarterback and kicking for the Oakland Raiders.
         
Nowadays, of course, kickers kick and that’s it. Some teams have two kickers – one for field goals, one for kickoffs. It is now one of the loneliest jobs in sports – in part because kickers spend most practices off by themselves waiting for a few moments when they actually join their teammates during placekicking or kickoff drills – and because when a kicker walks onto the field he is almost always EXPECTED to make the kick.
         
That was clearly the case Sunday evening in Chicago when Bears kicker Cody Parkey jogged onto the field with four seconds left to attempt a 43-yard field goal that would give the Bears an 18-16 Wild Card playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
         
In this day and age, a 43-yard field goal for an NFL kicker is considered to be a few yards outside chip shot range. It may not be automatic, but it’s pretty close. Parkey had to know that Eagles coach Doug Pederson was going to use his last time out before Parkey kicked. Sure enough, Pederson waited until just before the ball was snapped to call time.
         
The ball was snapped, placed down and Parkey kicked it straight down the middle, with plenty of distance to spare. Most teams will snap the ball in that situation. It’s like giving the kicker a warm-up try. Parkey had to be brimming with confidence as the time-out ended. He was already 3-for-3 on the day, all shorter kicks, but he had just made the 43-yarder look easy.

And then, fate, the Eagles Treyvon Hester, the goal post and the upright intervened to change Parkey’s life forever. Hester got a finger on the ball—whether that made a difference or not no one will ever know for sure because distance wasn’t the issue on the kick, aim was.
         
The ball hooked left and hit high up on the left upright. It came down, hit the crossbar and bounced forward, into the end zone on the wrong side of the goalposts as far as most of those inside Soldier Field were concerned.
         
The Eagles celebrated while Parkey stared in disbelief as his teammates bravely came to comfort him. Afterwards, he made no excuses, said he had cost his team the game and said he honestly didn’t know what had gone wrong.
         
The NFL, in its never-ending attempts to put the best possible face on everything, officially listed it as a blocked kick because of Hester’s tiny deflection.
         
Try telling that to Bears fans.
         
Very few kickers who have missed infamous kicks have ever been the same. Scott Norwood missed a tough kick – 47 yards on a grass field in the 1991 Super Bowl, back when 47 yards was still considered a difficult kick. To this day, Norwood is a pariah to most fans of the Buffalo Bills. Fair doesn’t matter.
         
Baltimore Ravens fans MAY have forgiven Billy Cundiff by now for the 32-yarder he hooked at the end of the AFC title game in 2012 that denied the team a chance to play overtime against the New England Patriots. But that’s only because Cundiff’s successor, Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yarder in Denver in overtime a year later in the conference semifinals and the Ravens went on from there to win the Super Bowl.
         
Even so, Cundiff’s miss is still referred to in Baltimore as “the hook,” just as Norwood’s kick is simply referred to in Buffalo as “wide right.” In Chicago, there’s little doubt that Parkey’s miss will live on in infamy as the “double-doink.”
         
Three years ago, the Vikings' Blair Walsh badly hooked a 27-yarder that would have given the Vikings a 12-10 Wild Card win over the Seahawks. Walsh had been a star: a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012, he’d signed a four-year, $14 million contract in 2014. A year later he was gone from Minnesota. He spent a year in Seattle and was cut at the end of the 2017 season. At 28, he still hasn’t found work in the NFL since then.
         
One kicker who missed a critical kick but lived to tell about it was Gary Anderson. In the 1999 NFC title game, Anderson was sent out to attempt a 39-yard field goal with the heavily-favored Minnesota Vikings leading the Atlanta Falcons 27-20. There was 2:11 left in the game and Anderson’s field goal would give the Vikings a virtually insurmountable 10-point lead.
         
Anderson had not missed a single kick—field goal or extra point—all year. The game was indoors; no wind; artificial turf, perfect kicking conditions.
         
Anderson missed. The Falcons tied the game and won in overtime.
         
Five seasons later, Anderson was with the Tennessee Titans when they faced the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round of the AFC playoffs. With 29 seconds left, Anderson drilled a 46-yarder to win the game.
         
Ravens coach Brian Billick had been the Vikings offensive coordinator when Anderson missed the kick that would have put his team in the Super Bowl.
         
“NOW,” Billick said afterwards, “he makes it.”
         
The miss I remember most came in the 1993 Army-Navy game. Navy had fought back from a 16-0 deficit to within 16-14 and had driven the ball to the one-yard line. Army got a stop on third down with seconds remaining—on a brilliant shoestring tackle by linebacker Pat Work—and Ryan Bucchianeri, a baby-faced plebe trotted on to try an 18-yard-field goal to win the game.
         
It had been raining all day; the ball and the field were wet. But it was 18 yards, shorter than the two extra points Bucchianeri had made earlier.
         
Watching the teams line up, Army sports information director Bob Beretta had a thought: “Obviously I wanted us to win the game,” he said later. “But there was a part of me that couldn’t help but think I wouldn’t want ANY kid to miss in this situation because he might never live it down.”
         
Beretta proved prophetic. Bucchianeri pushed the kick – "wide right" – as the Corps of Cadets screamed at him the next year during warmups.
         
Navy sports information director Tom Bates told Bucchianieri he didn’t have to talk to the media in the aftermath if he didn’t want to deal with all the questions about how he could have missed such a short kick.
         
Bucchianeri wore number 15, which meant his locker was next to quarterback Jim Kubiak—who wore number 16. He looked at Kubiak and said, “What do you think? Should I go out there and talk?”
         
Kubiak was too devastated at that moment to feel much empathy for the young kicker. “Booch, if I were you,” he said, “I’d never go out there.”
         
Bucchianeri went. He took full responsibility, sticking to the Naval Academy’s creed for all plebes: “No excuse, sir.”
         
He was lionized by the media, vilified within the brigade of midshipmen. Things became so bad that when someone – anyone – screwed up at Navy, the given explanation was, “We Booched it.”
         
I got to know Bucchianeri two years later when I was researching, “A Civil War.” He was a junior, a backup kicker by then and still an outcast among his teammates and his fellow midshipmen.
         
I admired his guts. The easy thing was to quit the team and focus on preparing for his career in the Navy. He wouldn’t do it, hanging in even when the coaches often didn’t dress him for games.
        
It is now 25 years since Bucchianeri missed the kick. My guess is people still bring it up to him.
         
I would also guess that Parkey will hear about his double-doink for years to come. I feel for him, just as I feel for any kicker who missed a critical kick.

It is the loneliest position in sports. If Parkey had made that kick, he would have been a hero for about 15 minutes. By missing, he joined that group of kickers whose misses will be remembered forever.
         
Keek a touchdown and they’re still not guaranteed to love you. Miss a field goal and, well, maybe the best thing to do is to never go out there. I admire those who do—like Parkey on Sunday; Bucchianeri 25 years ago—but I suspect, I’m in the minority.
 
 
John Feinstein’s latest non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in the National Football League,” is currently on the New York Times sports bestseller list. His most recent fiction, “The Prodigy,” is set at the Masters and chronicles a 17-year-old who is dealing with the pressures of extraordinary talent at a young age while trying to compete in golf’s most prestigious event. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com.