From Middlebury College To The NFL: Kicker Stephen Hauschka's Odd Journey
One of the most unusual journeys to the NFL began in the valley below the Green Mountains — about midway between Burlington and Rutland, Vermont, on U.S. Route 7.
That’s where Middlebury College is located.
“Yeah, so it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, Vermont, in the mountains,” says Alex Buggy, who joined the Middlebury football team in 2003.
“You’re literally amongst cows, and Ben & Jerry’s is just to the north.
So they have great free ice cream in the cafeteria.”
“And is it fair to say that it’s not exactly a football school?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah,” Alex says with a laugh. “That’s an understatement.”
Scott Secor, one of Alex’s teammates, grew up in football-loving Michigan.
“Coming from the Midwest and you commit to go to play football at a school like Middlebury, people are just confused,” he says.
Alex says Quidditch was starting up when they were on campus.
“Amongst the football team members, it was kind of like a running joke: ‘Oh, Sports Illustrated’s coming to our school, and they’re covering Quidditch,’ ” he says.
Hoping to improve on back-to-back 4-4 seasons, the football team arrived on campus early for training camp in 2003. That meant Scott moved in well before his freshman roommate: a kid from Needham, Massachusetts, named Steve Hauschka.
Over the summer, Scott had spoken with him on the phone.
“I think the first question he had was, would the size of our fridge, could fit, like, a 30 pack of beer,” Scott remembers. “But he said it in a way that’s like, ‘This guy seems, like, a little nerdy to me.’ He was a little bit out there, but he seems like a good guy.”
By the time Steve arrived at Middlebury in his family’s green minivan, Scott had already made friends.
“Immediately, without knowing it, I showed up on campus, and all the guys that were coming into the room were football players,” Steve says. “So that kind of immediately put me in with the football circle there.”
Steve says it felt a little weird. He’d grown up playing soccer — and he was hoping to walk on to Middlebury’s varsity team.
But he only managed to play JV that fall.
“Steve certainly was frustrated not being on the varsity squad,” Alex remembers.
Meanwhile, Alex and the rest of the football players had frustrations of their own.
“We finished again at .500,” Alex says.
“Our total field goal attempts were 2-for-5,” Scott says. “So we kicked five field goals for an entire season. So the coach wasn’t showing a lot of confidence in our kicker at the time.”
“We definitely needed to find someone to play that position,” Alex recalls.
‘Just Smashing The Ball’
The exact sequence of events from here — who said what precisely when — isn’t totally clear.
But at some point, Alex and Scott came to learn something about Steve Hauschka — their tall skinny friend who wasn’t quite good enough for the Middlebury varsity soccer team.
“Even watching him kick the ball, playing pick-up soccer, you could tell, like, the kid’s got a cannon,” Scott remembers. “He’s always had these big strong legs.”
Scott also learned that the Dallas Cowboys had shown an interest in his roommate’s dad as a kicker in the 60s.
“The story goes that they sent my dad the letter, but, by the time he got the letter — something happened where he couldn’t make it to training camp,” says Steve.
So not exactly a Hall of Fame career — but more than enough to get Scott, Alex and the rest of the football guys excited.
“You know, I think at first it might’ve even started as a joke — probably after a couple of beverages in the dorm on a Wednesday night — just kind of kicking around, and like, ‘Steve, you get along with all the guys. We should give this a shot,’ ” Scott remembers.
So they went to the field, and Steve kicked some footballs.
“Just smashing the ball, really without much training or thought,” Alex recalls.
That spring, Steve’s friends got their coach, Bob Ritter, to come check out their potential ringer.
“And I remember Coach Ritter just being floored with the distance these balls were traveling,” Scott says. “Now, he was spraying them everywhere; there was not a ton of accuracy because kicking a football’s a lot different than kicking a soccer ball. But he was absolutely crushing these balls. And I think we knew early on it was at least worth entertaining him coming out in the fall for a tryout.”
Sophomore fall, Steve Hauschka walked onto the Middlebury football team as a placekicker and punter.
And on Sept. 25, 2004, he made his football debut against Bowdoin College.
With 11:43 to go in the second quarter, Steve had his first field goal chance — a 41-yarder. Just to be clear, in Div. III, in the NESCAC, 41 is a long kick. The season before Middlebury’s longest field goal attempt had been from 34 yards — and it missed.
Steve lined up for the kick.
“And I think I crushed it,” he remembers.
Steve says it would’ve been good from 60 yards … or more.
“And I remember it all happened so quickly,” Steve says. “And then I kind of awkwardly ran back to the sideline and didn’t even congratulate anybody or, like, showed no emotion.
“At the time I was just kind of out there kicking and I didn’t realize how much I would care if I made it or missed it until after the game, when I was 2-for-4, and I was like, ‘Man, I should’ve made all those.’ That initial feeling made me just work harder and harder.”
‘You Can Play In the NFL’
For the record, the Middlebury archives suggest Steve was actually 1-for-3 in that first game and that he missed his only field goal attempt the next game.
But Steve turned things around. He nailed his next two kicks, against Amherst and Williams.
“I remember practicing one day with Coach Wolf,” says Steve, referring to his kicking coach, Steve Wolf, “and it was kind of midway through the season. I remember him saying, ‘You’re good enough — you have a strong enough leg to play professional football.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘You can play in the NFL.’ And I thought he was totally full of it.
“I’m barely through my first season — I don’t even know if I’m going to be the starting kicker the next season, and he’s telling me I can be an NFL kicker.”
Steve ended up going 6-for-10 on field goals his rookie season. The next year he went 4-for-6.
And senior year — just his third season of football — Steve Hauschka came into his own, on field goals and in punting.
In the second game, Middlebury took on Colby College. Steve pinned Colby inside its 20-yard line on four different punts. Middlebury won 23-0. And even though another player recorded six sacks, and even though Steve never played a defensive snap, his punting was so good that he was named the conference’s defensive player of the week.
He kept it up.
“He was dropping punts inside the five-yard line pretty regularly,” Alex says.
On kickoffs, Scott says Steve would sometimes send the ball through the uprights.
“Which was always fun to see the reaction of the other team, like, ‘Where did they find this guy?’ ” Scott says.
And on field goals, Steve went 10-for-12. That year Middlebury finished 6-2, its best record in six seasons.
“We were pretty close to winning a NESCAC championship, and a lot of that was because of Steve,” Scott says.
The Big Stage
Steve was preparing to graduate with a degree in neuroscience, but he still had a year of college eligibility left. He decided to try to play for a Div. I team as a grad transfer.
“Pretty much called up every Div. I program that had either had a kicker graduate or the kicker didn’t do well the season before,” Steve says. “That was, I don’t know, 45, 50 schools. Calling all these random numbers, they were all on different time zones, and, like, they thought I was full of it. Nobody listened, nobody cared.”
Steve says he did get a bit of interest to kick at Baylor and North Carolina State.
“And then there was two months where I didn’t hear anything from anybody and I was like, ‘OK, this is done. My football career’s done before it even really got a chance to get going,’ ” Steve recalls. “And I remember getting the call from the coaches at NC State saying, ‘Hey, we got you a spot to, you know, walk on at training camp.’
“Immediately I got so excited. I went down and visited NC state. I put up a poster of their stadium in my room and I started, like, visualizing kicking in front of all these thousands of people.”
So that next fall, Stephen Hauschka showed up at NC State. Playing time was no guarantee — NC State had other kickers on the roster. Not to mention, the team had also misspelled his name: he was listed as “Steven.”
“I didn’t want to be kind of a pain to the staff,” Steve says. “I didn’t say anything about it. I was excited just to have a jersey and to have most of my name up there right.”
But Steve made the team — and became NC State’s starting kicker.
“I do remember the week, though, leading up to that first game and just being, like, so nervous for it — and so excited, too,” Steve says.
Steve says he felt like, at Middlebury, if he had a bad game, he’d be letting his teammates down — but other people wouldn’t be upset.
“But at NC State I knew how much football meant,” he says.
With 6:14 to go in the first half of NC State’s season opener, Steve Hauschka — former Middlebury JV soccer player — walked onto the field in front of 57,000 people to attempt his first field goal as a Div. I football player.
He nailed it from 29 yards.
In fact, through NC State’s first eight games, Steve didn’t miss.
Then in the ninth game, NC State went to overtime at the University of Miami.
Steve had a chance for a game-winning kick from 42 yards out.
He made it. North Carolina State won.
Steve ran off the field with his helmet raised in his right hand. His NC State teammates lifted him in the air.
Steve Hauschka had been thinking about attending dental school after NC State. (On the team’s bye week he actually flew to Boston for interviews.)
But after making 16-of-18 field goals and being named a semifinalist for the top college kicking award, Steve decided to give pro football a shot.
He wasn’t picked in the 2008 NFL draft, but he was quickly signed by the Minnesota Vikings. The problem: Minnesota already had a veteran kicker. Steve’s chances of landing a spot on the team weren’t very good.
“The first reaction was, ‘Man, we’ve got to try to make it to as many preseason games as possible ’cause this is the coolest thing ever. Who knows how long it’s gonna last?’ ” Scott recalls.
In the second week of preseason, the Vikings traveled to Baltimore to play the Ravens — a team that did need a kicker.
In the third quarter, Steve made a 48-yard field goal. Alex Buggy and his brother were there.
“We were probably the loudest guys cheering about a preseason 49-, 50-yard field goal, ’cause we were jumping out of our seats going crazy,” Alex says.
After the game, Alex spoke with Steve.
“And I told him, ‘I think you just won yourself a job because you kicked the 49-, 50-yard field goal against a team that needs a kicker,'” Alex says.
Steve’s reaction was subdued.
“Super placid, like, ‘Yeah, need to go back to work and kind of refine some things,’ ” Alex recalls.
Before the 2008 NFL season began, the Baltimore Ravens signed Steve.
His name was still misspelled, but no matter — five years after showing up at Middlebury College in the green minivan with hopes of playing varsity soccer, he was on an NFL team.
And he stuck around. Stephen Hauschka was the kicker for the 2013 Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks.
Scott and Alex were both in the stands for that one. They’ve been following closely — Scott says he’s seen his freshman roommate play in a dozen different NFL stadiums. Alex, who served as a Navy SEAL, says he would sometimes stay up until the early morning in Iraq to catch his friend’s games on TV.
In two weeks, Stephen Hauschka, who in 2017 signed an $8.85 million contract with the Buffalo Bills, will begin his 12th NFL season. They’re finally spelling his name right.
“Everyone else’s is, like, transitioning into the prime of their careers, and it’s like, ‘Oh, Steve’s still kicking footballs, huh?’ ” Steve jokes.
Yeah, but you have to remember: he did get a pretty late start.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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