Rudnay twice cautioned him to "get his act together." Levy's advice was to keep his eye on the target and let what he did speak for him. It did. In the second game of 1980, Lowery made good on kicks of 50, 23 and 57 yards in a 17-16 loss to Seattle. Seahawk Coach Jack Patera noted after the game that the 57-yarder probably would have been good from 70 yards out. When Kevin Mannix of The Boston Herald American asked Lowery what had happened to the guy who had been unable to reach the 20 on kickoffs with New England two years before, Lowery replied, "All I've done is have a foot transplanted from an aborigine, and it's working out quite well now." At least he didn't respond in French.
Lowery's personal turning point didn't come until the eighth game, when he beat the Lions 20-17 on a 40-yarder with 1:19 to play. Says Kansas City Defensive Line Coach Don Lawrence, who was then in charge of the kickers, "That's when Nick himself started believing that he was an excellent kicker. You could just see it." That was also when Rudnay made his peace, telling Lowery after the game, "You and I are from different worlds and I know I've given you as hard a time as anyone, but you do your job and I respect you for it. God bless you."
Rudnay said recently, "Nick comes from a different background than most of us. A government brat is what he calls himself. But he paid his dues and was a good sport about it all, and now he's more like a member of the family."
Lowery's background will always make him stick out from the NFL rank and file. His father is a retired political analyst on Eastern European affairs for the State Department who has just finished helping with the research for Forrest C. Pogue's biography of General George C. Marshall. Lowery's mother, Hazel, was born and raised in Egypt—"a child of the British Empire," she says—and met Sidney in London in 1949. She was coordinating the program for the first Fulbright Scholars, and Sidney—along with Daniel Patrick Moynihan—was in that group.
"Nick began his kicking career prenatally," says his mother. The Lowerys were stationed in Munich when she was carrying Nick and his twin sister, Ann, who now works in New Zealand as assistant film editor of a production called Battle Truck. In Mrs. Lowery's words, "Ann was then, and still is, absolutely quiet. But the other side of my protuberance was infinitely more active. I knew there was something there with extraordinary leg power."
The Lowerys moved to McLean in 1962 and have lived there ever since, except for a four-year stint when Sidney Lowery held a post in London. It was there, when Nick and Ann were in the fourth through seventh grades, that Lowery learned to kick, playing rugby and soccer at St. Paul's Junior School, where he was known as Swanky Yank. He also tried out as a cricket bowler but couldn't adjust to the rules against bending the arm. In St. Paul's annual cricket distance throw, where no such rule held him back, he set an all-school record of 70 yards that still stands.
Lowery returned to McLean with a leg up on his peers in soccer and in kicking footballs. By the eighth grade he stood 6'1", and he began imitating the kicking style of Stenerud. Their styles are still similar. (Stenerud now kicks for Green Bay.) Both have a smooth motion, more like a golf swing than the short, choppy motion of smaller kickers such as Garo Yepremian.
It's said that nobody really knows how to coach kickers, which is one of the reasons why they circulate around the league like umbrellas. Lowery says that the soundest coaching he ever got came from Johnson, who describes himself as "a gray old buzzard." Johnson once pitched Class A baseball for the Portland Pilots and was a Golden Gloves boxer, but his only association with football between his college days and his retirement from Merrill Lynch 11 years ago came in 1937, when the Redskins moved from Boston to Washington and he enlisted to help sell season tickets. He sold 105 of the first year's total of 310 (at a package price of $6.60 for six games) and has had 50-yard line Redskin seats ever since.
Lowery began listening to Johnson's kicking theories when he was a freshman at St. Albans, a Washington private school whose football practices Johnson, who had just retired, watched to pass the time of day. Most of Johnson's ideas about kicking and punting are original. (He has since written about 500 pages of manuscript on the subject, which he titles, depending on his mood, What a Difference a Foot Makes, or I Get a Kick Out of You.) He gave Lowery drills to improve his concentration, including one in which the kicker rotates his hands slowly while timing the motion and concentrating on the muscles involved and another in which he sits on the top row of a bleacher with his legs hanging limp in space, rotating his feet. Last year at the Chiefs' training camp, such drills were, just one more reason to look askance at Lowery.
Two weeks after Lowery's high school career ended with a dramatic 43-yard field goal that beat St. Albans' archrival with two seconds to play, he received a letter from former Redskins Kicker Charlie Gogolak that began, "Dear Nick: It has come to my attention that you are a bright young man with an educated and powerful toe..." and went on to urge him to consider a college career at Princeton, Gogolak's alma mater. Instead, he chose Dartmouth, where he hit 59.4% of his field goals, including 49-and 51-yarders in losses to Harvard in 1975 and '76 and a 40-yarder with six seconds left that beat Holy Cross 17-14 in 1977.