Here’s the Kicker

It took some convincing, but former east Meck star Jeff Reed finally gave up soccer—and found himself kicking in the Super Bowl.


Photograph by Chris Edwards

Photograph by Chris Edwards

Intersecting seams divide the football’s oblong surface into four sections.

“I try to hit it here,” Jeff Reed says, tapping a spot on the lower right quadrant. As he leans over the ball, two drops of sweat strike and darken the leather in overlapping ovals.

Their thundering sprints on the adjacent track complete, the Providence High varsity football team drifts out of the July sun into a shady grove of trees. Several grip the chain link fence with both hands, foreheads on wrists, watching.

Reed straightens and retreats several precise gliding steps. He gathers himself, bends at the waist, arms dangling, diamond stud earring glittering, eyes fixed and unblinking. His right toe audibly scuffs the turf, his cleat catching slightly. The holder crouches inelegantly on one knee, supporting the ball with an intrepid index finger.

It seems conspiratorial, Reed and the holder each leaning in, momentarily motionless. But they are wholly unconnected: Reed, record-setting kicker for the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, is focused on honing his ability to boot a ball through uprights shaped like a rigid wishbone. The volunteer holder is wondering what will remain of his hand when arguably the most powerful leg in the National Football League swings violently and detonates the ball from under his finger.

Reed, twenty-seven, always has been a kicker, in ways that have nothing to do with his profession. He’ll provide you obvious signs: The earring, which he got in college despite his mother’s concerns and his father’s warnings, and—more important—his mother’s concerns about his father’s warnings. His hair, when not shaved off in the summer, is high and spiky, often held in place through the untiring efforts of a headband.

“He definitely does things his way,” says his sister, Kristen, with a laugh. Three years older and his only sibling, she was his childhood companion, instructor, and protector. “He cares very much about other people. He just doesn’t care much what they think of him.”

Kristen was a soccer star at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and later for the semipro Charlotte Speed. Little brother Jeff thus played the game as well, the stocky kid with the barrel chest and howitzer leg who ambled onto the soccer pitch and blasted kicks conversation-stopping distances. He was all-county and all-conference at East Mecklenburg High, leading the Eagles to the state finals as a senior. Soccer was his passion. He dreamed of playing in college.    

His father, Morris, coached football back in Kansas, before moving his family to Charlotte when Jeff was in grade school. For years, he watched Jeff’s leg develop and begged him to try football. Jeff demurred, put him off. Dug in. Kicked. Soccer was his thing. Had no interest in getting his head knocked in.

“I wanted to have all my brain cells when I was older.”

The summer before his senior year at East Meck, he changed his mind. Said, I’ll give it a try. Which is Reedspeak for: Hour upon hour. Kick after kick. Morris, the former Wichita State basketball player, shagging balls for him. Mother Pam, the former Wichita State cheerleader, shagging. Kristen, her precious summer vacation hours, shagging.

“Oh, he’ll tell you his friends talked him into trying football,” Morris chuckles dryly. “But it was me. And his mother and sister. And the neighbors. All out there fielding his kicks.”

Couple months later, as a varsity player, he drilled a fifty-four-yarder. Still the second-longest in state history. “You start hitting at that distance,” Reed admits, “and you start thinking you might have a chance to play at a higher level.”

With just a year of experience, he attracted scant attention from football programs. So the sleepy-eyed kid with the perpetual, impish half-grin, who was a member of two honor societies, did what so few people—let alone high school seniors—do: He went with his head. He would attend the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He would study journalism and communications and walk on to the varsity football team.

“I told him: ‘Look, the worst that happens is you get a great education,” Morris says.

You would think. It’s arguably worse serving for years as a warm body at Division I football practice, paying tuition for the privilege of being pummeled in blocking drills by the likes of UNC star and current Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.

“I was incredibly frustrated,” Reed says. “I wanted to kick and I wasn’t. I basically was serving as a tackling dummy. I was sore every day; my back was killing me. I asked myself over and over again what I was doing.”

He doesn’t say it, but he’s giving you one of the less obvious signs: He was kicking, just as he always had. He wouldn’t quit.

“We would go to the games, knowing he wouldn’t be playing,” says Morris, who was a longtime general manager of a local transmission shop before recently striking out on his own. “We wanted to support him in what he was doing.”

He finally got his chance his junior year. That season, he led the ACC in field goals and field goal percentage. He was awarded second-team All-ACC and was one of twenty semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award, which recognizes college football’s best kicker. In two seasons, he made twenty-eight of thirty-six field-goal attempts and sixty-six of sixty-seven extra points, including a school-record sixty-six in a row (he missed his final regular-season attempt, when a penalty made it a thirty-five-yarder).

After graduation, he faced a job market with only thirty-two positions. Imagine thirty-two people. Average Saturday crowd in your local Blockbuster. That’s about how many NFL kickers there are at one time.

He joined the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent, kicked fantastically in camp and preseason, really felt like a part of the team, and was released. We’ve got a veteran kicker, he’s doing fine, and he’s not injured. Thanks, best of luck. Reed drove home, fourteen hours, back to Chapel Hill.

He subsequently tried out, in no certain order, with the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks (twice), Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nothing. The hometown Panthers never even returned his call. “Teams would say, ‘Well, you kicked fine, but we’re going to give our guy one more shot this week.’ And then that guy would end up making all his attempts. You don’t want to be in a position rooting for someone to fail; that’s just the situation.”

A buddy offered him a part-time job mowing lawns and clearing brush on a Chapel Hill dairy farm. Nine bucks an hour. He took it and continued working out every day. One November morning in 2002, his agent called. The Steelers’ kicker was injured. You’re one of four invitees to a rare in-season tryout. Knock ’em dead.

Heinz Field is a circle of Hell for kickers. Wind, rain, and snow blow in off the Allegheny River and the field becomes a blustery mire. The team often uses a steamroller during games to firm the sandy bog. Kicking into the open end of the stadium on a nasty afternoon, Reed made eight of eleven field goal attempts, including one from fifty yards. Then he left the chill to shiver inside, waiting while each hopeful was called into the office. He was last.

“I saw each one come out, and I knew from their reactions that they hadn’t gotten good news,” Reed says. “But I didn’t think that meant I had the job. They didn’t have to offer it to any of us; they could have brought others in.” There were not going to be any others. In five days, Reed was going to kick for the most successful franchise in NFL history.  

He called his father.

“He said: ‘I got the job,’ ” Morris recalls. “I thought he meant that they had signed him to the practice squad. I said: ‘That’s great. I think it will be a very good experience.’ He said, ‘Dad: I’m kicking Sunday!’ All of a sudden it hit me.” Morris hesitates, runs a hand through the wavy salt-and-pepper hair. “I couldn’t believe he had made it after all he’d been through. He never gave up.”

That Sunday, with his family and a few friends prominently emblazoned in Carolina blue in the Heinz Field stands, Reed kicked three field goals, including the game-winner.

“It was incredible,” Reed says. “This was it. This was what all the work was for. I was going to do everything I could to hold on to that job. I wanted to make everyone proud.” He went on to make thirty-one of his first thirty-five attempts, and he currently holds the team record with twenty-two in a row.

Jeff Reed has arrived, a cult hero to rabid Steelers fans. He has been awarded several nicknames, including “Skippy,” whose origins are murky, and “Quadzilla,” due to his enormous leg muscles.

He has a multimillion-dollar contract. Super Bowl champ. He’s probably one of them now. Big-timer. Caught up in the intoxicating swirl of fame and money.

No. Here’s who the kicker is:

Kristen, who spent  hours shagging footballs just because her little brother thought he might try out for the high school team, is trying to establish herself in business. Jeff has opened his home to her; she lives with him in suburban Pittsburgh.

He returns to Charlotte every off-season to live near his parents, who faithfully attended his team’s games when they knew he wouldn’t play. In the euphoria of February’s Super Bowl victory, when Reed only was called upon to kick three extra points in the Steelers 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, he sought out his family to join him in the on-field celebration.

“I can never repay them for everything they’ve done for me,” he says. “I like to have fun, but I respect them. Like with the earring: My dad said he didn’t want me to get one. But when I did, if he had said: ‘You absolutely have to get rid of it,’ it would have been gone. No question.

“But,” he adds, the grin sneaking back. “I think he’s gotten used to it.”

East Meck provided Reed so many opportunities, not least the chance to play football as a senior with no experience. He remembers. The school recently received two footballs signed by the Steelers to help raise money for Habitat for Humanity.
Reed’s girlfriend, Amber Will, says Reed encourages her to continue in her vocation of teaching elementary-school children despite the long hours and low pay.

She describes appearing in public with the man known to Steelers fans as “Guaranteed Reed”: “We’ll go on a date to a [Pittsburgh] Penguins [hockey] game, and people will keep coming up to him, asking for autographs or pictures. He makes time for every one of them. One time, someone told us a little boy wanted to speak to him but was too shy to come up. Jeff immediately looks for the boy, and waves him over to talk. He will always make time.”  

Mike Napier, the local trainer with whom Reed began working out well before he was setting records and winning Super Bowls, still rouses the chronic late sleeper for fanatical workouts on torpid Charlotte summer mornings. Reed is joined in anguish by Steelers long snapper and fellow UNC alum Greg Warren, with whom he lives during the off-season.

“J-Reed is one of the most down-to-earth people you’re going to meet,” says Tina Napier, Mike’s wife and the fitness center’s director of operations. Rap music blasts as Mike Napier puts Reed and Warren through individually tailored exercises seemingly designed to separate limbs from bodies. Two trainers shout encouragement.

Reed seems almost placid amidst this noise and haste. He only begins each stretch or routine when he is fully prepared. His terms. His way.

“Jeff knows what’s important,” Mike Napier says. “You see it in the way he treats people. You see it in the way he works. No one works harder than him. He knows what he’s about.”
Reed has been using a tee, effortlessly lofting kicks through the Providence High uprights like a golfer chipping wedge shots onto a practice green.

Now he and the holder gather several footballs and head downfield. The far end zone grows closer. This seems reasonable. Reed stops and turns to face the opposite direction. Got-to-be-kidding distance. He studies the ground. There’s a slight muddy patch near midfield. He backs still further away, to avoid slipping. It is at least sixty-five yards to the uprights. The humidity is stifling. The holder briefly wonders if he could muster the energy to walk the ball sixty-five yards.

The field is silent, unlike Steelers practices—at which granite-jawed head coach Bill Cowher routinely stands directly behind Reed and screams distractions—and the typical NFL game. “The defense is yelling, saying things about your momma,” says Warren, whose day job is to snap the ball through his legs back to holder Chris Gardocki, then immediately straighten to prevent onrushing defenders from hurtling in and blocking Reed’s kick.

This is it. There is a perceptible rush as Reed strikes the ball. The impact sounds not unlike a car door slamming. A shock and tremor shoot through the holder’s wrist. He can feel it in his forearm. The ball explodes into the air before settling into a steady float, as if borne by a parachute. End-over-end, it splits the uprights. Two more booming kicks, two more perfect results. Warren catches each ball well behind the end zone.

Reed has been jogging and kicking for more than an hour. He sits, removes his heavy socks and the supporting tape from his left ankle, which plants and absorbs all of his momentum during kicks.

The summer sun continues to burn, and a lazy afternoon beckons. But they’re heading to Mike Napier’s to relax with some calisthenics and weight training.

“I realize how lucky I am,” Reed says. “I know how many people helped me to get where I am. So I’m going to work as hard as I can to keep my job. Nothing’s guaranteed.”

He’s wrong. Life might take Jeff Reed in any number of directions, but this can be said with certainty:

He’ll follow his own path getting there.

And he’ll kick every step of the way.

Lawrence Grayson is a Charlotte freelance writer. Last year for this magazine, he profiled Bill Werber, Charlotte resident and the oldest living ex-New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox.

Categories: Sports