The Small, Intense, Unfairly Exclusive World of Football Placekickers

Often, those who become great are those who can afford to.
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AP / Al Behrman

Brent Grablachoff says he isn't a yeller, but six hours into his second day in a row of coaching, he sounds like one. He's trying to pump up 18 high-school football players competing to see who can connect on the longest field goal; this contest is the grand finale of his two-day camp for teenagers who want a shot at becoming kickers and punters.

It's 93 degrees in Toms River, New Jersey, but it feels hotter on the unshaded artificial turf, and over the constant thud of high schoolers' cleats connecting with footballs, you can somehow hear Grablachoff's increasingly hoarse voice. "Fifteen minutes of chaotic kicking!" he yells, or at least tries to. "Coming your way, guys!"

He keeps moving the ball back, and as the contest progresses, he'll winnow down this already-small group to just one or two players.

In a way, it's a small-scale illustration of the years-long process it takes to become a kicker.

Most casual fans tend to only think about kickers when they materialize in an NFL stadiums on Sundays, ready to be celebrated for their clutch kicks, mocked for their misses, and laughed at for having scrawny arms on a field full of giants. But to get to the NFL, a kicker has to kick in college. To kick in college, he needs to get noticed by a college coach while he's in high school. And, crucially, to build the kind of repertoire that catches the attention of a coach or recruiter, he must spend countless hours on fields like the one Grablachoff is pacing around on, hoping to perfect the few specific motions required to execute field-goal and extra-point kicks -- a process that starts as early as middle school.

Because the technique would-be players need to master is specific and totally unlike anything anyone else on a football field is ever asked to do, a cottage industry has formed to provide training -- and exposure -- for hopefuls chasing the dream of making it as a kicker, punter, or long-snapper.

The business is growing -- but with it comes a quietly troubling tendency to award the best opportunities to those with the most cash to spend.

Grablachoff has been the head coach and owner of Kicking World, a business dedicated to training these "specialists," for six years. After a torn hip flexor ended the one-time Montclair State kicker's career, he turned to instruction. Business increased to the point that the business became his full-time job four years ago. Last year, he tutored 300 players across the country from ages nine and up, a figure he says increases by 50 each year. He charges $100 an hour for private lessons and $350 for a two-day camp, like the one in New Jersey.

His is neither the largest nor the most expensive camp.

***

When I was in college, reporting on Northwestern University's football team, I discovered the spectacle that is a college football practice: Coaches whir around, whistles blaring, shouting encouragement and sometimes chastising their players. Loudspeakers blast music to keep the players energized, and video cameras high above the field on cherry pickers record the whole thing for review later. But as I went week after week, I noticed some people were missing: the kickers. Sometimes I'd catch them strolling onto the field together towards the end of practice to participate in the conclusive team huddle, but never doing much of anything else.

They were all alone on this field, nobody watching but each other as they honed their craft. Kickers and punters exist in their own self-contained sphere, from their isolated practices to their secluded spot on the sidelines.

One cold day, I assumed I'd find the team practicing in their toasty indoor facility. But when I opened the door, the team wasn't there -- just the kickers were. They were all alone on this field, nobody watching but one another as they honed their craft. Kickers and punters, I realized, exist in their own self-contained sphere, from their isolated practices to their secluded spot on the sidelines during games.

Head coaches generally don't know how to coach them. All-purpose scouts don't know what determines the best ones. And thus, there's something of a subculture necessarily built around kicking. But it didn't always exist: Grablachoff says there were "maybe three" camps when he began kicking in the mid-1990s. A converted soccer player, he made his high school's freshman team after a simple five-kick tryout.

"I made all five, and I was deemed the kicker," Grablachoff said. "Nobody really knew anything about kicking."

Now, there are 20 camps like his, and the demand grows every year.

***

The vast majority of us have lost the genetic lottery that would have made us good football players. If you're not a 6'5", muscle-strapped male fast enough to blow past offensive linemen while still strong enough to wreak havoc on quarterbacks, you don't become an NFL defensive end. If you're not extraordinarily athletic, you don't become a wide receiver or running back. If you're not 300 pounds yet agile, you don't become an offensive lineman. There's no taking away from the hours of weight-room workouts and practice time great players at these positions devote to their craft, but there's no denying that they have certain innate physical traits that set them apart from everybody else.

Specialists, though, tend to look more like the other 99 percent of us who aren't preternaturally gifted athletes. "We've had some cases where we've had guys who seemed like very mediocre kickers -- saying it in a nice way," Grablachoff said. "But they've stuck with it, and a year later they've blossomed into very nice kickers."

In other words: They aren't born, they're built.

"[For] a lot of running backs, quarterbacks, a lot of it is natural athletic ability. You have to have some sort of height or speed requirement," Grablachoff continued. "Kicking, that goes out the window."

Chris Rubio, head coach at Rubio Long Snapping, actually argues that his students need no physical gifts to become good -- just a willingness to learn. "I teach it all," Rubio said. "In the ideal, you want someone with good hip flexibility, long legs, long arms. But it doesn't matter."

According to Grablachoff, elite kickers and punters need two things to be great: precise foot-to-ball impact and very fast leg speed. "If you can do that," he said, "if you listen to directions, you practice hard, and really stay committed to it, pretty much anybody can become a good kicker. "

But kickers can't learn the proper technique from regular high-school coaches. "It's not generic information," Grablachoff said. "It's rich information that not everybody knows about; it's something you have to do for years. Think of it like a general practitioner against a doctor who specializes in knee surgery. We know a lot about a very specific thing."

***

As a kid, Michael Sims never even watched football. Like many future kickers, he was a soccer player -- a goalie.

But after his freshman year at Westview* High School in Thousand Oaks, California, he decided to try the oblong ball in addition to the round one. He had the strength, but not the form, so his father recruited San Diego-based Grablachoff to train him. After joining the team his junior season, a glimpse of a college bowl game gave Sims an idea.

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Rodger Sherman is a contributor for SB Nation, where he writes regularly about basketball and college football, and where he manages the Northwestern University sports blog Sippin' on Purple. His work has been featured in The New York Times.

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