Born to kick

The Baltimore Sun

All Steve Hauschka wanted from his athletic career was a spot on the varsity soccer team at Division III Middlebury College. But he wasn't fast enough.

That would have been it for most kids with dreams of a medical career. But Hauschka had loved swinging his leg violently into balls since he was a little boy. Though he had never even kicked a football in high school, he decided to give it a whirl. Five years later, he's in the NFL as the Ravens' kickoff and long-field-goal specialist.

The thing is, Hauschka's strange route to the NFL wasn't much stranger than those of many of his peers. Kicker might be the only position where most pros weren't the stars of their youth leagues and high schools.

"We've got guys coming from everywhere," Hauschka said of the kicking community. "We've got Australian rules guys, guys who grew up playing soccer. All that really matters is how you can kick it."

So the weird thing isn't that he came from off the beaten path. It isn't even that he looks five years younger than anyone else in the locker room.

The weird thing is that he's not the first member of his family to take a circuitous path to flirting with an NFL kicking job. In 1967, his dad, Peter, was a biochemistry student at Johns Hopkins and a club rugby standout when he answered an open call for kickers by the Dallas Cowboys, the team his son will kick against Saturday night.

Bill Howard, a physician friend from the Baltimore Rugby Football Club, showed Peter Hauschka a flier for the tryout in Harrisburg, Pa. Howard had watched Hauschka drop-kick many a ball into the coffin corner, the worst spot for an opponent to be on the rugby field.

So the young men drove up to Pennsylvania one April morning. As the 6-foot-6 Hauschka drilled field goals from 30, 40 and 50 yards and sent punts soaring 65 and 70 yards, Howard bent the ears of Cowboys scouts with tales of his friend's prowess.

The formula worked, and team officials escorted Hauschka to a local motel, where he signed a blue piece of paper that made him Cowboys property.

When he sheepishly told his academic adviser that he needed to take a leave of absence to try kicking, the man smiled and said he had always wanted to be a concert cellist. With that blessing from a fellow dreamer, Hauschka headed for Dallas.

The Cowboys' "Kicking Karavan" got all sorts of attention as it toured the country that summer.

"Tex [Schramm] and I decided that was the one position where you could really overlook talent," said Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' longtime vice president of player personnel.

So they went from Albuquerque, N.M., to Omaha, Neb., to Nashville, Tenn., auditioning 1,500 kickers along the way. From the likes of garage mechanics, bus drivers and faded high school jocks, they invited eight kickers, including Hauschka, to Texas Stadium.

"We were very naive back then," Hauschka said of the tryout. "I had no idea what I was doing. I had never had a coach. I was self-taught."

He had practiced, however, and turned heads with his soccer-style kicking, which was rare for the day, and with an 83-yard punt.

"He was a big, tall kid," Brandt said. "I looked up the records, and he did kick pretty good. He wasn't just a guy who showed up. He had real talent."

But the team kept only two aspirants: Harold Deters, who went home, Brandt recalled, because he missed his dog, and Mac Percival, who went on to a career with the Chicago Bears.

Hauschka went back to Baltimore with a worn Dallas Cowboys T-shirt to show for his efforts.

A guy ran into his lab one day saying the Bears were trying to get ahold of him. And Hauschka talked with Don Shula about a tryout for the Colts. "But I wasn't very pushy," he said. "I didn't have an agent. It was a different time."

Hauschka harbored fleeting thoughts over the years of how he might have performed in actual games. But he was perfectly satisfied with a scientific career that took him to Children's Hospital in Boston and a faculty spot at Harvard. He helped discover an important bone protein.

Meanwhile, his three children played soccer, and he noticed that his youngest, Steven, had inherited his love of kicking.

"He could watch people kick soccer balls as a toddler, and in no time, he'd have the moves down," Peter said. "He could watch every move and repeat it."

Steven Hauschka and his siblings heard stories of their father's dalliance with the pros. "It was always fun to be able to say your dad tried out with the Cowboys," Hauschka said. The other kids' eyes grew wide when Peter thumped soccer balls high and far.

But it was never a big deal. In fact, Steve Hauschka had forgotten the Cowboys story by the time he launched his own football career.

After years of kicking soccer balls, the football seemed an uncomfortable target when he started serious practice at the end of his freshman year at Middlebury. Peter stepped in with some pointers.

"I think he took a shine to the idea," Steve Hauschka said with a smile. "Maybe he was living vicariously a little bit."

An outside coach really got Hauschka on track, and after three successful years at Middlebury, he tried out for the job at North Carolina State, where he went for graduate school.

"My goal was just to get on the field for a Division I school," Hauschka said. "I got to that level with very low expectations."

He won the job over two scholarship players and in one season for the Wolfpack, he caught scouts' eyes with the power of his field goals (he made 16 of 18 attempts) and kickoffs.

"I think they saw that I've got a ton of potential," he said. "Partly because I've only been kicking for five years and I still have so much room to improve my technique."

It looked as if he would land with the Vikings, but Hauschka quickly learned the unpredictable nature of life as a kicker when Minnesota waived him and the Ravens swooped in.

Peter Hauschka was on an airplane when the Ravens called on his son to kick a 54-yard field goal against the Houston Texans. So he didn't get to see the ball bore on a low line over the crossbar for one of the longest debut kicks in NFL history. "Now, of course, I've seen it," he said. "It was very exciting, and certainly, I'm very proud of him."

Steve Hauschka sees much room for improvement. "I'm still trying to find the one habit that works," he said after a recent practice.

Certainly, his father understands the quest.

"There's just something very satisfying," he said, "about seeing a ball leave your foot and really sail."

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