ST. LOUIS – John Fassel is dying to try. Oh how he wants to try. The St. Louis Rams special teams coordinator, and son of former NFL head coach Jim Fassel, has a dream in mind.
He can see it now. The ball will be somewhere on the horn of the Rams' insignia in the middle of the field. The goal posts will look like a pair of luminous toothpicks lost in the roaring fans. And Rams head coach Jeff Fisher will glance at Fassel and nod his head.
Send in the kid.
It will be a record field goal, no doubt. Maybe 64 yards. Maybe 65. Something rarely ventured. And the ball will be snapped, the holder will put it down and Greg Zuerlein will plant his left leg and swing his magnificent right foot. In one mighty swoop, shoe will smack against ball sending a tiny brown streak climbing toward those distant poles …
"Oh yeah, I definitely want to know if he can make it," Fassel says. "And he does too."
His rookie kicker, this kid no one much has heard of – from a place called Missouri Western State – is blasting footballs from remarkable distances. Wherever the Rams have the ball and the call goes for him, he jogs out, takes his step and a half, and pounds the ball so hard through the goal posts it often smacks against the netting, no matter the distance. This is making him the most talked-about player on a team with a former No. 1 overall draft pick (Sam Bradford), a seven-time 1,000-yard rusher (Steven Jackson) and a swarming defense. His kicks in preseason games made news, each seemingly longer than the one before, until the regular season came and it was all but expected he would make everything he tried.
And so far he has. He's hit all 13 of his field goal attempts in the NFL. Last week he set a team record by kicking a 58-yard field goal and then broke it by hitting a 60-yarder – three yards short of the NFL mark. Both sailed over the crossbar as if they were extra points.
With his sudden fame comes the nicknames. Sobriquets like "Greg The Leg", "Legatron" and "Young GZ". Each has its own Twitter hashtag. All for a kicker nobody knew just seven weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Greg the Leg or Legatron or whatever, seems embarrassed by all of the affection. The best young kicker in the league, the one who can't miss from halfway across the field, laughs nervously.
"I don't know," he says."I mean it's kind of a cool thing and at the end of the day it can come and go and I can miss a bunch of kicks and be out of here."
Hardly the thing you'd expect from a man called Legatron.
So where does it come from? This power to routinely kick a football through goal posts some 60 yards away?
Zuerlein laughs. "I don't know, I just do it," he says.
The best young kicker in the NFL is an unassuming man. Not big but not small. He wears shorts and a Rams t-shirt and walks into a room at the team's practice facility. He flops easily into a chair. He laughs a lot. He seems like a fun person with whom to talk about kicking – someone who can explain the physics and downward angles and trajectories of the ball. Except when asked, he smiles and shakes his head.
"See ball, kick it?" someone asks, joking.
"See ball, kick it," he replies.
This is about all he offers in explanation.
"It's not too complicated a thing," he says. "You try not to overthink it. You overthink it and you get yourself in trouble."
His greatest secret is that he kicks every attempt with the same ferociousness, whether the distance is 30 yards or 60. Most kickers don't do this. They kick high and short on the closer kicks and lower on the longer ones. Zuerlein's attempts are always the same: high and long. He says he taught himself to do this in high school when he found he was more consistent kicking with the same force.
This is about as technical as he gets.
Ask where his immense strength comes from and he finally says he played soccer since he was a child growing up in Lincoln, Neb., which seems like a place where a young man would only want to become a football player. Ultimately he did, trying out to be a wide receiver on the team at Pius High School in Lincoln.
It turned out he wasn't much of a wide receiver. But the team did need kickers and he proved to be a natural. His father, Gene, remembers one game in which Greg was kicking off and actually drove the kickoff through the goal posts, silencing the crowd.
"They were stunned," Gene says.
Strangely, when it came time for college the obvious school – Nebraska – was only offering a chance to walk on. Zuerlein considered the possibility until Pat Behrns, the coach at Division II Nebraska-Omaha, presented a scholarship. At Omaha he slowly developed a reputation for booming kicks. Several pro scouts came to the first game of his senior year and left disappointed after he injured his upper leg, which turned out to be a season-ending injury. A few months later, Nebraska-Omaha dropped football.
Zuerlein transferred to Missouri Western State, another Division II school, but one with amazing facilities, including an indoor practice field. It turned out to be a brilliant decision. The coaches liked to attempt long field goals rather than punt and Zuerlein was especially adept, making 23-of-24 field goals, including nine from 50 yards or longer.
"I went down to watch one game and they had him try a 50-yarder with a strong wind behind him and he made it and I thought 'well that was because he had the wind behind him,' " Behrns says. "Then in the second half they had him try a 50-yarder with the wind in his face and he made that one too."
It's not that Zuerlein was unknown. Many scouts, after all, liked him before he got hurt his last year at Nebraska-Omaha. But once the injury happened their interest waned. Fassel found out about Zuelein upon being hired by the Rams this past winter. The team was going through a youth movement and was looking for any position it could add a good young player to build around. A list of kickers was prepared for Fassel to examine and he headed out to look at them.
When he saw Zuerlein at Missouri Western State, the kicker had just completed a workout the day before for another team. His leg was tired. But an NFL workout is an NFL workout and immediately Zuerlein broke into a complicated warmup routine. This impressed Fassel as most kickers he works out usually take one or two practice kicks and declare themselves ready.
"So you know he had a plan," Fassel says. "That was the first sign."
Then Zuerlein started booming kicks. Longer and longer. Inside the climate-controlled practice building and then outside in the wind that whipped across the Missouri plains. When Zuerlein nailed a 60-yarder through the gale, Fassel had seen enough.
He went back and told the Rams he knew which kicker he liked best. But the Rams were nothing if not thorough. Fisher sent Fassel back to Missouri-Western for another look, just to be sure. Zuerlein had just started an extensive lifting program, figuring he was done with NFL workouts when Fassel called for the second workout. He told the coach he had done 300 squats the day before. His legs ached.
But again, an NFL workout is an NFL workout and so he hobbled out to the field to kick, sore legs and all.
"I just mostly wanted to see if he would complain," Fassel says. "It was a mental test. I wanted to see if he was a tough guy, how strong is he mentally on a day when he doesn't feel his best and I showed up at the last second."
The Rams were sold and perhaps aware that other teams – most notably Houston and Minnesota – were also interested, they took him in the sixth round of the draft. A few months later, they cut Josh Brown, the veteran kicker who had been to a Super Bowl, in favor of Zuerlein. Of course, by then, Zuerlein was already Greg The Leg.
"I don't know anything about kicking, except to look at a guy's kick and keep the volume [of kicks] low," Fassel says.
This is true of many NFL special teams coaches. They are more experts at designing punt and kick coverages than they are mechanics for kickers. Before St. Louis, Fassel held a similar job in Oakland where he coached Sebastian Janikowski, who has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. He says he learned more from Janikowski than he could have ever taught. But the thing he came to understand most is the mind of a kicker. And nothing, he decided, is more important than a kicker who remains unfazed regardless of what is going on.
What Fassel loves most about Zuerlein is how oblivious the kicker is to distance. Most kickers, he says, have a psychological barrier on attempts over 50 yards. They think they have to kick extra hard to make up the distance. Zuerlein already kicks hard. He has no consternation over a kick any longer.
"He's got a kind of laid back personality where he doesn't get shaken whether there's a big crowd or it's a big pressure kick," Gene Zuerlein says. "I think for him it's between he and the posts and he can just block everything out."
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Behrns remembers how Zuerlein never seemed much like a kicker when he was at Omaha. Most kickers tend to be by themselves, working out away from the regular practices, rarely lifting when their much larger teammates did. Zuerlein was different. He wanted to lift with the linemen and run with the receivers. He wanted to get faster and stronger. He wanted to be seen as one of the players, not a guy who just likes to kick balls for half an hour and then go off to the showers. Behrns wonders if this is maybe where Zuerlein's strength comes from.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is the lack of intense kicking instruction Zuerlein has gotten in his life. Many kickers are products of a kicking school or a private instructor. Aside from his soccer training, Zuerlein has gotten little in the way of kicking coaching. His freshman year at Omaha he worked with Don Grafton, a former punter at the school, who gave him advice on the physics of kicking. He also worked with a man who was the father of another college kicker. He has worked at Billy Cundiff's and Nate Kaeding's kicking camps and would occasionally call one of them with a kicking question. But mostly his biggest lessons came alone with a tee and a goal post looming in the distance.
"Really, it's just practicing, you practice yourself," Zuerlein says.
Says Behrns: "He's a product of himself. I'd like to take credit for him but it's all him."
Which might be the most amazing thing of all.
In college, Zuerlein always held out hope for the NFL but you can never be too sure when you've been hurt for a year at a Division II school that just dropped the sport. He got a business degree and had a vague plan of working for someone in Lincoln or Omaha but hadn't given it much thought. There was always the NFL.
Now it is here. And now he is Greg the Leg and Legatron and Young GZ. All names that make him shrug.
"Just hit it square and it will go straight" says the best new kicker in the NFL.
"It doesn't need to be any harder" he says.
No. It doesn't.
Not for a man called Legatron.
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