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Zuerlein's Journey: From Walk-On To "Greg the Leg"  

Zuerlein’s-Journey-From-Walk-On-To-Greg-the-Leg-hero

In five games so far, Greg Zuerlein has found himself right in the middle of the action, just about every week. 

The Cowboys have two wins – both by game-winning field goals as time expired. 

On the flip side, Zuerlein missed a field goal against the Rams in Week 1 of a three-point loss, and had a couple of missed extra points that altered the game against Seattle two weeks later. 

That's the life of a kicker. But more than just his field goal and extra point attempts, the veteran has received plenty of attention for other facets of his game, most notably in a Week 2 win over Atlanta. 

There was a lot taking place around Zuerlein in the last two minutes of the Cowboys' mind-blowing, wilder-than-a zoo-without-cages 40-39 victory over the Falcons at AT&T Stadium.

First, there was the implausible onside recovery, one that still makes utterly no sense, not only how a football can move like it did, not leaving the ground more than a few inches and even then for a nanosecond while matriculating downfield toward the Cowboys sideline before C.J. Goodwin's recovery. The pulsating movement as if controlled by remote control mesmerized the Atlanta hands team so much that several players literally stood nearby watching the football instead of trying to pounce on it.

For many a kicker, that would have been cause for celebration. Especially since the league changed the onside kick rules before the 2018 season, eliminating the running start. Before Zuerlein's watermelon squib sans the kicking tee, teams attempting an expected onside kick while trailing late in the game were 0-110.

"It's extremely difficult to recover one now. I mean, look at that statistics. There's a zero on the other side of that big number," Zuerlein says. "The rule change, while great for player safety, it means you can no longer do what we have normally done. 

"We were working on a drop kick with the Rams for more than a year and it worked pretty well, and then (Baltimore kicker) Jason Tucker tried it last year against Kansas City and they threw a flag, said it was illegal. So, that was out. We have a few more ideas we've worked on, but there's only so much you can do."

For obvious, competitive reasons, Zuerlein and special teams coach Jim Fassel aren't going to share any other options for onside kicks, except to say that some of the ideas are literally just born from trial and error, sitting around at practice playing a game of trying to land balls in a circle or kicking tic-tac-toe or putting different spins on the pigskin. There is no manual for onside kicks. A century worth of ideas are now, and likely forever more, meaningless.

As for the aforementioned celebration, a few players tried to congratulate the 32-year-old former All-Pro coming off the field and a few managed to slap him on the shoulder pads. Zuerlein recalls possibly fist-bumping someone, too, just no sure who. Of course, no one from Nebraska is unfriendly, and that certainly is the case with Zuerlein. There were just more pressing matters to attend to at the kicking net. Both teams were depleted of timeouts, so he knew a potential game-winning field goal was looming.

"All a blur. The two minutes or so I was at the net, just a blur. Trying to keep the same routine as any other kick, three steps back, two over, pick a target. There honestly wasn't time to think about anything else, wasn't time to be nervous," Zuerlein says. "When we were in the locker room, I said to [punter/holder] Chris [Jones], 'What was the distance on that?'"

The game-winner as time expired was 46 yards and there was never a doubt of its destination between the uprights. Since signing with Dallas as a free agent in the offseason, almost all of his kicks have been the same, Zuerlein not missing one during live scrimmage portions of practices during training camp and converting all but one through four weeks of the regular season.

Zuerlein spent the last eight years with the Rams, first in St. Louis and then Los Angeles, where in 2017, he earned his first Pro Bowl selection and was voted first-team All-Pro behind a nearly perfect campaign. He was good on 38-of-40 field goals that season, including six from beyond 50 yards with a long of 56. As a rookie in 2012, he became the first player in NFL history with 50- and 60-yard field goals in the same game, and in 2015, he launched a career-best 61-yarder.

Well, at least in a game. "Greg the Leg," as he's been called since high school, nailed one 64 yards during a Cowboys-Rams joint practice at training camp in Oxnard, Calif., back in 2015. That was off natural grass, too. However, even that isn't his longest connection to date. Not even close.

"We were in St. Louis once and there was a bunch of wind and I kicked a 76-yarder. That's definitely my longest," Zuerlein says. "Like any kicker in the NFL, I've tried the obligatory 80-yarder in Denver during warmups but came up a little short."

The NFL record for the longest kick in a game is Denver's Matt Prater with a 64-yard conversion in 2013. Will we ever see a 70-yarder?

"I can see 70. Not sure when, but I can see that," Zuerlein says. "I don't think we will ever go beyond that. Need the right circumstances, end of the half or game, down three or less and there's no downside. Just let it rip."

For those who have never played on a freshmen football team, Zuerlein's career as a placekicker started like just about everyone else's. The long-running, time-honored tradition – more times than not forgotten about until the end of the first practice – of a coach asking, "Oh yeah, anyone here know how to kick?"

Usually, a few kids raise their hands – almost always they're soccer players – and they have a competition. Like, for five minutes and it's decided; we have a kicker.

As much as AAU, traveling leagues, elementary school kids being told they must specialize in a sport before it's too late, have ruined old-school traditions, it's nice to know the art of choosing the high school kicker remains the same.

Born and raised in Lincoln, Neb., the home of the Cornhuskers, where football is as much ingrained in the communities and cornfields as it is in Texas, Ohio or Pennsylvania, Zuerlein didn't play the sport growing up. He was more into baseball, basketball and especially soccer. A center midfielder who could run all day with a potent right leg, he was a dangerous threat throughout high school and many colleges showed interest.

As for the scouting report on the gridiron, "I played wide receiver and safety. I wasn't good at either, but they needed a kicker," Zuerlein remembers. "Freshman year, they asked if anyone could kick and I was the only one who raised his hand. I was the kicker. Sophomore year, on varsity, they asked again and two of us raised our hands. They gave me the job."

As a junior, the kid Rams fans would one day dub "Legatron" set a state record with 12 field goals, including a 52-yarder, which for a 16-year-old with little experience is just absurd. When it came time to choose a college, and a sport for that matter, there was a singular deciding factor for Zuerlein.

"I didn't want student loans," he says.

Yes, the dream was to play for the University of Nebraska, the hometown team. However, the Huskers wanted him to walk-on, which is the case for a lot of big-time programs with kickers, although not as prevalent as 20, 30 years ago where every punter and kicker was a walk-on. 

The majority of the soccer offers were walk-ons or partial scholarship as well, so when Nebraska-Omaha, a Division II program, offered a full ride to kick, Zuerlein made an incredibly mature decision for his age and signed. The list of 18-year-olds who went with the school who always played on television and were paying back loans for decades is beyond lengthy.

But after three impressive seasons and a school-record 61 straight extra points, Zuerlein was feeling tremendous pain in his right quad and hip. A sharp, stabbing pain. There were no other option but to take a medical redshirt and sit out what should have been his senior campaign.

This is the ideal time to share a personality trait of Zuerlein. He's stubborn and old school. There are no excuses in life, only results. If not for Fassel, his special teams coach with the Rams, now with the Cowboys, telling reporters this offseason how bad his kicker's groin was injured last season, to the point he didn't kick in practice for nearly two months, no one would have known. Zuerlein would have happily taken that to the grave.

As for how the college injuries occurred, there wasn't a singular moment, although there was a kickoff that was the tipping point of, Yeah, I just can't kick anymore; the pain is unbearable.

"It was the most difficult time of my life. I should have been out there with the other seniors and I was on the sideline," he says. "It was all on me, too. I wasn't smart with my body. I don't even know how many kicks a day I was doing. Just so much kicking. Like two hours straight of just kicking at every practice. That's just not natural. Or healthy.

"I felt fine for a few years there, and then finally, I feel the hip is tight. My entire leg felt different. Whatever, I kept kicking. I didn't know what to do, or who I should tell, so I just kept kicking. Until I couldn't go anymore.

"I think it's the nature of a kicker. Every team has just one. If you can't go, they find another one."

After nearly a year of rest and rehab, Zuerlein was feeling better when word came down that Nebraska-Omaha was ending its football program. At this point, a lot of kicking careers would have ended.

"I was never at that point of giving up. Some schools were talking to me, and I had a year of eligibility left. The question was being healthy enough," Zuerlein says. "So many things worked out that normally would not happen."

In 2011, Zuerlein transferred to Missouri Western State, where he set an NCAA Division II record with 21 straight field goals, hitting nine beyond 50 yards, two from 58. Fassel, then with the Rams, worked him out, not once but twice. St. Louis drafted him in the sixth round after a funny-to-look-back-at phone call a round previous from Fassel telling him the team wasn't taking him yet but were going to. Sweet, thanks for calling.

These days, and for most of his pro career, Zuerlein now kicks roughly 25-26 times per practice. There are only so many kicks in a leg, even for "Greg the Leg." His days are 11-12 hours, like most players during the season, although there's admittedly a little more down time for massages, soft-tissue recovery, core work and the hot tub. He watches plenty of special teams' film and technique film, part of the 60 hours of weekly prep work that goes into what fans see on Sundays.

When asked about Adam Vinatieri kicking last season at 46 years old and how long he'd like his own career to last, Zuerlein gave the most typical Zuerlein answer imaginable, saying, "I have honestly never thought about how long and how old I wanted to kick. It's always up in the air as a kicker. You are only as good as your next kick."

It's always up in the air as a kicker.

Well, almost always. In one of Zuerlein's finest moments, the ball barely left the ground and the Cowboys pulled off arguably the most unlikely comeback in franchise history.

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