The Press-Enterprise – Aug 6, 2005 – Jim Alexander – The last look Chargers fans got of Nate Kaeding was one of dejection. Of anguish. Of utter, “how-did-that-happen” shock.
Kaeding had an excellent rookie season as San Diego’s kicker. But it ended with a memorable miss — a 40-yard field goal try in overtime that would have beaten the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL playoffs, until it sailed wide right.
Will it be a blip, a minor blemish in a successful career? Or will it be a kick that haunts his psyche every time he lines up for a crucial field goal?
“It hurt for a week or two, just like it probably did for everybody else,” Kaeding said last week. “I felt like I probably let the team down, and that’s kind of hard to get over in two weeks.
“But there comes a point in time where you’ve got to realize: ‘Hey, one kick didn’t get me here, didn’t get me to the NFL. And certainly one kick isn’t going to ruin my career.’ That’s the mentality I have.”
The Chargers rallied around their young kicker after the miss, and former Chargers kickers Rolf Benirschke and John Carney called Kaeding to offer advice and support.
Still, some concern would be natural. Kaeding, 23, an All-America selection and Lou Groza Award winner at the University of Iowa, made 20 of 25 regular-season field goals as an NFL rookie. But an entire nation of football fans watched his biggest moment turn sour.
“It’s the nature of the business,” long snapper David Binn said. “Every great kicker has had a moment like that, and it’s just unfortunate that it happened to him in his rookie year … You can go down the list. Every Hall of Fame-level kicker has missed ones like that. It just happens. I think he’ll be fine.”
Added San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer: “Of all who might find themselves in that circumstance, Nate Kaeding would be the least likely to have it become a negative. He is solid. You don’t get elected by your teammates as captain of your college football team for two consecutive years unless you have some special qualities.”
Punter Mike Scifres, who doubles as the holder for field goal and extra point attempts, said he was confident Kaeding would bounce back.
“He showed during the season that misses didn’t affect him too much,” Scifres said. “He’s a mentally strong kid.”
The Chargers had just rallied to send the Jan. 8 playoff game into overtime, and after an exchange of punts they moved methodically down the field. They had a first-and-10 at the Jets’ 22, and used three LaDainian Tomlinson running plays — which netted no yardage — to set up Kaeding’s try from the right hash mark, on a field that had been rained on earlier in the evening.
“It was a little wet,” Binn said. “It wasn’t perfect conditions, but it usually never is. It’s not an excuse.”
After his miss, the Chargers never got another opportunity. New York drove seven plays to the San Diego 10 to set up Doug Brien’s successful 28-yarder for the victory.
The second-guessers emerged in force, maintaining that the Chargers should have tried for at least one more first down — reasoning that quarterback Drew Brees disputed.
“Usually what Marty does in those situations is ask the kicker, ‘What yard-line, and what hash (mark) do you want the ball on?’ ” Brees said.
“I’m not sure what the percentage of made field goals is in the NFL at 40 yards, but it’s pretty high. The fact that it was the playoffs and a rookie kicker seems to be what everyone was talking about. But if you ask Nate Kaeding how many field goals he’ll make from 40 yards, he’ll probably say 95 percent.”
In fact, he was 5 for 6 between 40 and 49 yards during the regular season.
After the game, Kaeding was despondent, saying, “The hardest thing for me is not being able to walk through here and look people in the eye.”
Two days later, at the Chargers practice facility, he was seen sobbing.
“Initially you worry,” Brees said of Kaeding’s ability to rebound. “But I’ve seen Nate numerous times in the off-season and talked to him. He’s kicking with a ton of confidence, and I think he has the mentality to bounce back from something like that. I’m not worried about the guy one bit.”
Benirschke, now an author and motivational speaker in the San Diego area, said he’d gotten to know Kaeding during the season, since he was one of several Chargers alumni who regularly attended practices.
He talked with Kaeding about dealing with the aftermath.
“The challenge Nate obviously faces is, that was the last game of the year and he had all off-season to think about it,” Benirschke said in a phone interview. “People bring it up. They say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ or, ‘Forget about it,’ but every time they bring it up, you think about it … It’s one of those ghosts you don’t dispel until you get through it.”
John Murray, a sports psychologist from Palm Beach, Fla., suggested that Kaeding should look at it this way: Whatever happens from here, it can’t be any worse.
“I really truly believe the key to success is dealing with failure, and then you don’t have any fear,” Murray said by phone. “Forget about the outcome. The outcome will take care of itself. That has nothing to do with the actual nanosecond you’re performing in.
“True elite athletes are the ones who love that pressure, thriving on the adversity of the challenge. They say, ‘Let me try it again.’ If he’s of that makeup, he’ll have that approach the next time it comes up.”
Kaeding said that after the hurt subsided, he couldn’t wait to kick again. That would seem to be a good sign.
“I’m real impatient,” he said. “My biggest thing was just getting back out there and working on it.
“Down the road this fall, when I have a kick to win a game, hopefully I’ll look back on how hard I worked, and I’ll be able to come through for them.”