Fandom is one of the most powerful canvases of human emotion on Earth. Through a passion that is interwoven throughout the culture of entire cities, football teams have the capability to unite millions. With that, though, comes pressure. When you have that many people whose potential happiness depends on the way you perform — that’s pressure. When your team is down two points and you have to kick a leather ball 45 yards through an 18.5-foot gap to prevent your team’s title hopes from ending — that’s pressure.
Sure, it’s just football, and there are plenty of other legitimate reasons in life to warrant true pressure. But, the truth is, many fans don’t see it that way. Death threats are a commonality for kickers. Fans will bash your family, your morals and your worthiness to live because you kicked a ball a few degrees off target.
Just ask Kyle Brotzman, the kicker for then-No. 4 Boise State, who missed two potentially game-winning field goals against Nevada in 2010, ending the Broncos’ 24-game win streak and their legitimate hopes of making the BCS National Championship Game. Ask former Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh or former Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey — the list goes on.
“That’s what comes with being a kicker,” said Cal’s own kicker Greg Thomas. “There’s going to be games where everyone loves you, and there’s going to be a games where you don’t get the job done.”
By virtue of Cal’s fan base and football culture, Thomas doesn’t face the same weight that NFL and powerhouse college football fan bases put on their players, but there have been plenty of times where hundreds of thousands are anxiously watching him attempt a kick in crunch time.
Let’s take a trip back to a stormy, week two affair in Seattle, Washington. The Bears are down to the then-No. 14 Huskies 17-19, but Cal quarterback Chase Garbers has the offense rolling down the field as the final handful of seconds are ticking off the clock. This is about the time when the television broadcast begins panning the camera toward the kicker in between every play. Thomas knows that, in a few moments, his name will be called to win the game for the team — or lose it.
Pacing on the sidelines as the game is winding down, Thomas usually kicks into the net during first and second down, and if there is extra time, sometimes once on third. He doesn’t put too much weight on his practice kicks, though, because he knows that there is no way to tell how the kicks would fare when actually kicked at the uprights.
Next comes the mental part.
“You just think, ‘I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to make it.’ There’s no point in wasting energy in your head thinking anything other than that,” Thomas said.
On fourth down, Thomas trots out to attempt a 17-yarder, which is anything but a given on a bizarre night that saw Thomas’ kick being attempted after 1 a.m. PST. Although he has the chance to give the program one of its biggest upsets in recent memory, Thomas pushes the significance and magnitude of the kick out of his mind until he finally sees the ball sail between the posts, spawning a celebration that would last the entire journey home.
“It’s one of those things where you feel it moreso after the kick,” Thomas said in regards to realizing the implications of his successful game-winner. “Obviously, I was aware of the situation, but I just used it to dial myself in and get in a zone.”
Thomas drilled that one, but for kickers, amnesia is crucial.
With the Bears vying for another upset win during week six, Thomas went 0-2 against then-No. 13 Oregon, missing from 32 and 46 yards en route to a 17-7 loss.
“It sucks — you let the team down,” Thomas said. “You don’t get that many chances, so when you go out there, you want to help the team as much as you can. I know if I made those two kicks, it could’ve been a different game.
The bottom line is that you’re going to miss kicks. It’s the nature of sports — nobody is perfect. But to be successful, you have to forget about it and move on, which is what makes kicking at a high level more of a mental game than anything.
“You have to know that you’ve made them in the past, and you’re going to make them again,” Thomas said. “I can’t wait to have the feeling of going out there to kick the next kick to move on.”
When Thomas goes back and watches film, he is usually trying to recreate what he was feeling in that specific moment rather than analyzing the physics behind the ball’s flight path.
“I attribute missing more to what I was thinking mentally. I know my technique’s good, and I know that, physically, I have the ability,” Thomas explained. “It’s more of re-examining what I was thinking before, and during, the kick and reflecting on that moreso than going back and watching the film.”
That’s what makes the process of kicking so intricate. Every move a kicker makes during their routine is calculated: the way they precisely space out their steps, the way they sway their arms, the way they plant their feet. Thomas’ goal is to have all of his kicks feel as similar as possible.
“That’s where you want to get to — where no kick is different from any other kick, regardless of distance,” Thomas said.
In the same vein as trying to sink a free throw in the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals, nerves will either make or break you. Once the technique is down pat, it almost becomes second nature. At a certain point, you have kicked thousands and thousands of field goals the same exact way, and you need to trust that preparation.
“You always have the same mental process going into each kick. It’s the same in the game and the same in practice,” Thomas said. “Going through that same process brings you to a comfort zone, almost. You know your body is going to know what to do, regardless of the situation. That’s where you have to get to mentally.”
But that’s easier said than done. To help develop this mindset, coaches try to simulate the pressure of kicks in a variety of ways — the classic example Cal’s staff uses is putting Thomas in a position where, if he makes it, practice is over, and if he misses, the entire team runs.
“You’re never going to be able to recreate a gamelike environment, but you can certainly create some really good peer pressure with the guys, and they feel it,” said Cal special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle.
Opposing coaches, too, are players in the mental game. A common tactic during late-game situations is “icing the kicker,” which is calling a timeout right before the snap, forcing the kicker to ponder for an extra minute or so. While its effectiveness is debatable, Thomas compares its impact on a kicker’s mindset to preparing for an exam.
“If you’ve studied and you know everything, you just want to go take the test,” Thomas said, as he was iced by Washington head coach Chris Petersen before the game-winner. “But say for some reason the test gets delayed three hours, you don’t really want to study more because you know what you’re doing, and it gets repetitive.”
Although Thomas embraces the thrill of a kick in crunch time, he doesn’t mind the occasional blowout or two.
“A kicker wants to be in that situation, but I think someone would probably be lying if they said they want every game to come down a game-winning kick,” Thomas said. “That’s just too much stress for a human being.”
Apart from his game-winner in Washington, Thomas has proved to be a consistent asset for Cal, hitting on over 70% of his career field goals since joining the team, and the coaching staff has taken notice.
Thomas, who came to Cal as a junior college transfer walk-on, was awarded a scholarship at the end of spring 2019 after a successful first season as Cal’s starting kicker.
“It was probably one of the coolest moments of my life so far,” Thomas said. “As a kicker, it’s one of those positions where you are one of the last guys to get a scholarship. It felt like I proved myself to myself a little bit.”
In a sport full of menacing athletes across the field, kickers are often an afterthought. But when the result of the game rests in their hands, all eyes turn to them to put the ball through — but hey, no pressure.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at