Cundiff waited two years for another kicking job

Ravens kicker applied for grad school, worked as venture capitalist while career was on brink

November 02, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Billy Cundiff didn't exactly hear whispers. His friends and family were always too polite to say anything out loud, or at least within earshot. But he and his wife, Nicole, saw the occasional looks on people's faces. Those looks said plenty.

It's been a long time since Billy had a kicking job with an NFL team. Wasn't it time to get serious about a life after football? Shouldn't all his focus be on looking for a real job? When is he going to, well, move on with his life?

Cundiff smiles as he tells this story. He's sitting on a stool inside the Ravens locker room, wearing a gray Ravens T-shirt. Twenty feet away, a raucous and competitive game of beanbag toss, also known as cornhole, is taking place. Ray Lewis bellows as he tries to bend the arch of the beanbag to his will. As the official treasurer of the team's Players Only Corn Hole Tournament, Cundiff is keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.

It's likely just a coincidence that Cundiff is the Raven responsible for holding the tournament entry fees, but it is fitting considering he spent his time away from the NFL working toward getting his MBA and then working at a venture capital firm in Arizona.

There will be a life after football for Cundiff. But for now, Cundiff feels right at home in an NFL locker room again. He's not a journeyman kicker anymore. In fact, he might be one of the best kickers in the NFL. At the very least, he's given the Ravens stability at a position where they lacked it a year ago. He ranks second in the NFL in touchbacks and has hit 10 of 12 field-goal attempts, including the game-winner against the Buffalo Bills in overtime.

"I like Billy. I think he's a heck of a kicker," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose decision to keep kicker Steve Hauschka over Matt Stover last season eventually led to the Ravens' giving Cundiff a tryout. "Obviously, that's been proven. He's made some big kicks for us, so he's done a great job. I think everyone can see that."

Cundiff acknowledges he'd be lying if he claimed there wasn't a single moment where he doubted he'd make it back to the NFL.

"I always thought I had enough talent," he said. "But there is a point where you say maybe, just maybe, the NFL doesn't think you have enough talent."

Cundiff began his career by spending 31/2 years with the Dallas Cowboys, but injuries and a few untimely misses sent him on an odyssey around the league. He spent half a season with the New Orleans Saints and a little time with the Atlanta Falcons, in addition to brief stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, but no one wanted him permanently. Eventually the tryouts started to dry up, as did his savings.

"The more you are removed from football, the more you start to think, 'I've got to start thinking about life after football,'" Cundiff said. "Not only because maybe it might not happen for you, but you've got child care, you've got all these bills piling up and no money coming in. We saved a lot of money when I played, but when you don't work, the money disappears pretty quick."

Rough reality

Two years without a steady NFL job is a long time away from the game. Two years of getting up with the sunrise, kicking by yourself at a local high school, or kicking even when you're vacationing on a beach with your wife, is not the typical midcareer hiatus for a professional athlete.

But his time away from football was, in many respects, invaluable to Cundiff and his family. He learned how to be a stay-at-home dad after his daughter, Chloe, was born and his wife went to work at a law firm. He was able to spend time with his family after his mother-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"At first, you're kind of bummed that things are happening the way they are," Cundiff said. "But then there are also situations that are popping up and you're thinking, 'OK, maybe this is happening for a reason.'"

It's easy to be wowed by the journey in retrospect. But the Cundiffs didn't think too much about all they'd been through until recently.

As she went over some of the details, voicing some of her feelings aloud for the first time, Nicole Cundiff couldn't help but get a little emotional.

"We went through so much during those two years, so many ups and downs," she said. "It was one of the best things to ever happen to us. Individually, we learned so much. You can't really enjoy the sweet without tasting the bitter."

Even as a couple, they tried not to talk about whether Cundiff should give up on football.

"I never wanted to bring up him stopping," Nicole said. "I knew at some point things were going to work out. But a lot of people looked at us like we were crazy. Billy hadn't played in two years, and people were questioning us all the time. But people don't know Billy like I know Billy. He would always say, 'At some point, if something doesn't work out, I'll know that it's time to walk away.' I just prayed that day would never come."

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