Kansas City Placekicker Nick Lowery still gets an occasional needle having to do with the kicker's apparent life of ease, or the unmanliness of ending a game with a clean uniform. Most of the Chiefs call him Nick the Kick; his closest friends on the team prefer Slick Crowley. "Crowley" comes from a misprinted apartment mailbox label. "Slick," explains an ex-Chief, "because he's so slick with the ladies, or thinks he is."
It's friendly ribbing, the kind that almost every kicker learns to live with. And it's the kind that gets friendlier and friendlier as Lowery's kicking gets better and better. In 1980, his rookie season, he made good on 20 of 26 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder that tied for the third-longest in NFL history. So far this year he leads the AFC in scoring with 63 points and has hit on 13 of 19 field-goal tries for the 6-2 Chiefs, who are in first place in the AFC West and getting better and better themselves.
At the start of last season, however, the kidding wasn't so friendly. Then Lowery was known only as an upstart free agent with an Ivy League background and a big mouth who had done the unthinkable—stolen a job away from 13-year veteran and frequent All-Pro Jan Stenerud, a popular man with players and fans and, along with Center Jack Rudnay, one of the two holdovers from Kansas City's Super Bowl IV championship team.
Lowery, 25, had been an NFL gypsy for the two years before that, ever since graduating from Dartmouth and failing in tryouts with eight teams. When he left his family home in McLean, Va., outside Washington, D.C., for the Chiefs' camp last June, he told his parents that this tryout would be his last. Persistent Nautilus workouts, along with aerobic dancing and karate classes, had made his right leg stronger. He had also spent two hours a day for a month working with his high school kicking coach, Dick Johnson, a 73-year-old retired stockbroker.
Lowery arrived in camp along with another challenger to Stenerud, a Mexican named José Guzman. Neither one seemed a threat to the then 36-year-old Stenerud. But Lowery soon moved ahead of Guzman and, in the words of Coach Marv Levy, "just kept getting better. He had better height on kickoffs than Jan did, and he was exceptionally good at our gimmick kicks—the squibs, onsiders, the bouncers." After Lowery kicked two field goals against St. Louis in Kansas City's third preseason game, Levy cut Stenerud.
"I was the holder then," says Quarterback Steve Fuller, "and it was evident to me that Nick had a live leg and would probably do a better job for us, but the guys were upset that Nick was given a chance to kick for Jan's job while Jan, more or less, had to sit back and watch." One Stenerud partisan wrote to The Kansas City Times, "I hope Lowery misses every kick he attempts and the Chiefs go 0-16."
Lowery would have gotten a better reception if he hadn't always insisted on telling everyone just what was on his mind. He recently told Gib Twyman of The Kansas City Star, "Last year I had made up my mind to do three things: to keep my mouth shut, keep to myself and be humble. Somehow it just didn't come out right."
Moreover, Lowery's résumé wasn't exactly of the kind to win the approval of his teammates. At Dartmouth, Lowery had majored in government and minored in drama, his roles including that of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. He had spent time abroad (his father, Sidney, was a career man in the State Department, and in college Nick studied French culture for a term in Blois, France), and his last job before flying to Kansas City had been as a research aide to Senator Bob Packwood (R., Ore.) and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. His idea of a pro ballplayer was his next-door neighbor in McLean, Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White, who last played in 1941.
As many rookies have, Lowery found his bed turned into a cow-pie sandwich. And he heard the jokes about kickers, about Ivy Leaguers and about fancy-pants people from Washington, D.C. Where Lowery went wrong was in always having a comeback. Not to be arrogant or to get anybody mad, but because that's his nature. The veterans were not in the least amused. "The basic idea," says Guard Bob Simmons, "is to keep quiet and take it."
The 33-year-old Rudnay is the Chiefs' team leader (and their oldest player by a full three years). He is an individual himself, as in rugged. When he chooses, he can be intimidating. He so chose with Lowery. "Nick got the same as any rookie," Rudnay said recently, "but then he chose to give everybody more ammunition." Like the time Lowery stepped on Wide Receiver Henry Marshall's toes in the shower. "All right," said Marshall, "that's worth a song." But instead of Men of Dartmouth, Lowery made up his own version of the Beatles' Michelle that went, "Henri, ma belle/ Sont les mots qui vont...."