Knowing limitations has helped Steven Hauschka succeed
Two bold stands. That's what the NFC Championship game came down to for the Seattle Seahawks. The biggest is easiest to remember because it came last and booked a spot in this Sunday's big game against Denver at MetLife Stadium.
The earlier stand, though, is a head scratcher -- and not just because of how obscure it was rendered by the first. It came two plays into the fourth quarter, with Seattle trailing 17-13. Quarterback Russell Wilson had just thrown a 15-yard pass -- pretty far, but not far enough to convert a third-and-22. Now Seahawks faced a fourth-and-seven from the 49ers' 35. The chart says to try the field goal to cut the lead to one point. The distance, 53 yards, was right at the regular-season limit of sixth-year placekicker Steven Hauschka. He had been perfect all night, converting from 32 and 40 yards out.
But there was something about this attempt that didn't feel right to the 28-year-old Hauschka. A stiff, chilly wind was hitting him smack in the facemask. His try didn't seem like it would have a chance. As the play clock ticked down, Hauschka pleaded with coach Pete Carroll sideline to abort the call. He took his mark on the field with 15 seconds left and stared into the void, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound spaced-out needle. Carroll called a timeout with a second left.
It was the first time that Hauschka ever, well, punted in such a situation. "I'm more in-tune with the wind than all of the fans, all of the media and all of the coaches," Hauschka said. "I have a good idea of when I do want to kick and when I don't want to kick. When it comes down to a toss-up like that, I'll share my opinion with coach and then we'll make a decision."
Carroll, trusting Hauschka's instincts, brought Wilson & Co. back on the field. The rest is history. The 49ers jumped offside, Wilson went ahead with the play anyway, eventually threading a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse that put the Seahawks ahead 20-17. Hauschka's gutsy position was vindicated by the redzone stand that followed and the fireworks that came after that. Still, a question lingered in the air along with all that smoke: what self-respecting competitor passes off a chance to save the day?
Like a lot of kickers, Hauschka started out measuring his range less in yards than yearnings. At Needham (Mass.) High he was a serial dabbler. Hauschka played the trombone in the concert band and midfield on the soccer team, his gridiron potential evident only in his shots on goal -- which would sky above the crossbar. Hauschka had always wanted to go out for the football team, "I just never got the chance because it was during soccer season," he said.
So he stuck with fútbol, juggling it along with honors courses in calculus. He assumed he'd someday become a dentist, like his mom and his brother. Hauschka majored in neuroscience at Division III Middlebury (Vt.) College, played soccer and lacrosse for a bit before trying out for the football team for the first time ever. Not surprisingly, that attempt was good too; he earned second-team all-conference honors as a placekicker as a sophomore and junior, and made the first team after finishing his career with a 20-for-28 conversion rate.
He shrugged that off, enrolled at N.C. State in 2007 for pre-med school and walked onto the football team, which also featured future Seahawks starters Wilson and right guard J.R. Sweezy. By the end of that season, one in which his rate rose to 16 of 18, Hauschka was named a finalist for the Lou Groza -- the Heisman trophy for kickers. Figuring that was the end of his football run he interviewed at dental schools, and even got into one. He might've enrolled there too if NFL teams hadn't started calling him out of nowhere, begging him to kick his Plan A.
Little did he know how circuitous his new career path would be. In the spring of 2008, he signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent and was gone 120 days later. Through Hauschka's first two-plus seasons he was cut five times, including twice by the Ravens. After a sixth cut, by the Lions, just before opening day in 2010, Hauschka got picked up by the Broncos as a backup for Matt Prater. In four relief appearances, Hauschka hit on 6 of 8 attempts, including a long of 46 -- not bad, but good enough to unseat a starter who would took down the magical 63-yard mark this year.
Haushcka hung on in Denver through the 2011 training camp before getting turked right before opening day for a second, inglorious time. But on this occasion, the Seahawks were there to quickly scoop him up. A week later he was starting against the Niners. "I figured if I just do my job, they would keep me around," he said.
How's this for showing your work: Hauschka started off by setting the longest three-point streak in team history, with at least one field goal made in 14-consecutive games (from 2011 to '12), and scored a career high 118 points in '12. This season, he upped that to 143 points, which trails only the 168 points Shaun Alexander scored in his 2005 MVP season for the most by a Seahawk in a single-season. His 94.3 conversion percentage trailed only Prater's for best in the league.
That consistency is credit to Hauschka's dilettantish approach to preparation. He concentrates on breathing, he meditates -- and all in pursuit of calming his busy mind. "He's a real cerebral guy," said punter Jon Ryan, also Hauschka's holder. "Breaks down a lot of film on himself. Breaks down a lot of film on other kickers. He's always drawing some kind of diagram of his kicking that I don't understand. It's all this stuff that I'm like -- on my day off, I'm having a beer and he's floating in a pool full of salt."
Hauschka is big on visualization, whether in his mind or on-screen. A recent practice at MetLife Stadium confirmed what Hauschka had already seen on tape: that the wind would come in from the west, swirling from Denver's sideline to Seattle's. "It's just a typical wind," he said. "It shouldn't be any different from any outdoor game that you get in November or December."
So, nothing that would push him to consider blowing off another chance to be the hero on fourth down again. Never mind that it was the right decision. "Three years ago, he goes out there and tries that kick even though the chances of making it -- even for a great kicker -- is probably 50-50," Ryan said. "I think this is part of the maturation process for him. He knows his limitations now."
If Super Bowl XLVIII comes down to Hauschka's 10½-inch right boot -- and with the line at two points, it very likely could -- he won't be huddling with Carroll this time. He'll be tracking his breath, saying a chant and setting himself up for a triumph that has already replayed in his mind a million times. And, really, how could he fail when he never chooses that option?