Stover's biggest kick comes with help of a little nudge

August 16, 1996|By John Eisenberg

He was humbled into the kicking profession by a high school teammate in Texas.

Ignored by all the major college recruiters.

Left unprotected by the New York Giants in the Plan B draft.

The Ravens' Matt Stover has known rejection.

But then, what field-goal kicker hasn't?

Little kids grow up dreaming of shedding tacklers, soaring through the air and scoring touchdowns; they don't dream of standing on the sidelines for most of the game and kicking a few balls through the uprights.

They become kickers as a last resort, after their dreams of touchdown glory have been shattered by the kid up the street who is stronger, faster and better.

The kid -- and we all had one -- who teaches you that you had better settle on a new dream, pal.

Stover confronted that reality in 10th grade, in the person of a high school teammate and future San Francisco 49ers cornerback named Merton Hanks.

"I was a very good athlete, but I didn't have his speed or agility," Stover said yesterday. "When I saw him, I saw what it took to become a pro athlete."

Stover didn't have it.

As depressing as it was to discover that he wasn't going to score touchdowns for the Dallas Cowboys, his hometown team, it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

A dozen years later, he is among the best place-kickers in the NFL, having converted 121 straight extra points and 55 of his last 61 field-goal attempts.

"It all started with Merton," he said. "I realized that I had better start concentrating on what I did better than anyone else if I wanted to go anywhere in sports. And what I did better than anyone was kick a football."

He produced as a receiver in high school, but kicking was his dirty little secret.

"I practiced on my own for hours and hours and hours," he said. "No one had to tell me to do it, either, which, in my mind, is the difference between those who make it in the pros and those who don't."

Sometimes his girlfriend and future wife would accompany him to the field and hold for him. Sometimes he went by himself and used makeshift holding devices.

"Once I bought a weight set, stuck a curl bar into a weight on the ground and fashioned a little holder out of coat hangers," he said. "It worked."

He made 12 of 14 field-goal tries as a senior and tried to sell himself to major college programs.

"I had a friend with all the addresses and I sent out letters to every major program," he said. "My mother helped me."

Only two colleges wrote back. Ohio State and Rice offered him the chance to make their teams as a walk-on, without a scholarship.

"I still have the letter I sent out," Stover said. "I use it as inspiration."

The only scholarship offer he received was from Louisiana Tech.

"Full ride, so I went," he said. "Stayed four years and set all kinds of kicking records."

He was the only kicker selected in the 1990 draft, by the Giants in the 12th round. But a thigh injury set him back, and Matt Bahr came in and made a handful of big kicks for a team that went on to win a Super Bowl.

He signed with the Browns the next season when the Giants left him unprotected in the Plan B draft.

"I asked the Giants for a commitment, but they only offered me half as much money," he said.

He was so proficient for the Browns over the next five seasons that he will begin 1996 as the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history. He has made 108 of 134 career attempts for 80.6 percent, slightly better than Nick Lowery's 366 of 455 for 80.44 percent.

And he did it kicking on a lousy field, in conditions that often were less than perfect.

"Nick [Lowery] came up to me at the union meeting in Hawaii and said, 'Stove, you did it in Cleveland, man,' " Stover said. "I'm humble about it, but I'm also real proud. A lot of the other guys have been kicking indoors and on carpet. That certainly wasn't Cleveland."

Memorial Stadium won't be easy, either.

"Looks like it might be windy," Stover said. "But I'm at a point now where I can make kicks in just about any conditions as long as my form is good."

He is 28 years old and one of the Ravens' surest things, a kicker at the peak of his career.

But he is no candidate for complacency.

Not after all that rejection.

"Things are great now, but it could all go away tomorrow," he said. "I've seen guys who were on top and lose it all just like that, miss a few kicks and boom, they're gone. I don't want that to happen. I'm going to keep working."

He is the rare pro athlete who remembers his roots.

"Every time I see Merton Hanks," Stover said, "I run up to him and thank him. What a favor he did me."

Hitting the mark

The Ravens' Matt Stover is the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history with a minimum of 100 attempts.

Player, team .. .. ..FGM .. .. ..FGA .. .. ..Pct.

Stover, Ravens .. ...108 .. .. ..134 .. .. ..80.6

Nick Lowery, Jets ...366 .. .. ..455 .. .. ..80.4

J. Carney, S.D. .. ..152 .. .. ..191 .. .. ..79.6

S. Christie, Buf. ...140 .. .. ..177 .. ...79.1

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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