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Kirk Willison | March 10, 2014

Kicked Around the NFL

Nick Novak Just Grateful to Have the Opportunity

Job counselors say it is just about the perfect formula for career success: take a son of esteemed medical professionals who is a High School Honor Roll standout, and add admission to the highly competitive University of Maryland. Then build on that foundation. Work hard. Make the Dean's List. Earn national acclaim for success in extracurricular activities. Earn a degree in kinesiology right on schedule.

Sounds perfect, right? But rather than having multiple job offers once he was handed his diploma in 2005, Nick Novak was just another statistic in the American economy: a college graduate with very uncertain job prospects.

Novak's field of interest is limited to just 32 full–time positions in the US

To be sure, his circumstances were unique. Novak's field of interest is limited to just 32 full–time positions in the United States and competition for them is fierce from experts throughout the world. He faced the same long odds as a new grad hoping to be selected as an astronaut for the International Space Station, the lead in a Broadway play, or First Violin in a world–renowned orchestra. Novak, you see, wanted to be a starting place kicker in the National Football League. And he didn't want to play second fiddle to anyone.

So while classmates donned suits and ties for their first jobs as financial advisers or teachers, and others headed off to earn their MBAs or doctorates in physical therapy, Nick grabbed his lunch bucket and made his way across America. His aim was high but his goal was simple: persuade an NFL coach that he had the skills and temperament to succeed at the highest level of professional football.

His is a story of repeated failure and ultimate redemption. Of suspending a dream but never relinquishing it. Of kicking bad habits to remake himself step by step. It is a story forged by persistence, patience and practice — always practice — to get where he is today: a record–setting place kicker for the San Diego Chargers.

Oh, and gratitude. Nick Novak is nothing if not unfailingly grateful for the people who helped him on his unlikely journey that began 32 years ago in San Diego and returned here after countless detours.

Humble Beginnings

To really understand Novak's story, it helps to learn about the people most important to him, beginning with his parents, Bob and Julie, his older brother Andrew, and his twin brother Chris. Together, they furnished the stability, competitive drive and emotional support that buoys Novak to this day.

You might be able to catch a glimpse of his mother during Chargers' home games. She's the one who "paces the lower–level walkway while the game is in progress because she can't stay still," Novak said. His parents usually attend four of the Chargers' eight home games.

Stars on the soccer field

The Novaks left San Diego for Charlottesville, Virginia when Nick was in seventh grade. His mom and dad took jobs at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, his mother in nursing administration, his father in the speech and hearing department. (Drs. Bob and Julie Novak now practice at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.)

All of the boys were stars on the soccer field. The twins polished their skills in large part, said Nick, by trying to keep pace with older brother Andrew. Andrew went on to play at Washington & Lee, and then SMU. With Nick and Chris on the team, Ablemarle High School won two state championships in soccer.

Nick gives much of the credit to his parents, "our parents set a great example by demonstrating the value of hard work." Nick also proudly notes that while he may be the only one playing sports professionally, his brothers work every bit as hard as he does in their own fields. Andrew is a prosecutor in the District Attorney's office in Dallas County, Texas. Chris, who was an accomplished soccer player at San Diego State University before earning his Masters Degree at Purdue (where their parents worked after leaving Virginia), is now a regional executive in Denver for a hotel management company.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Switching Gears

He thought he ought to give "this kicking thing" a shot

Nick started placekicking the summer before his sophomore year at Ablemarle. He told me, "I was still dead–set on playing soccer in college," but when he surveyed the talent level of college soccer players he thought he ought to give "this kicking thing" a shot.

He tips his cap to a High School science teacher who convinced him to seek placekicking lessons and the Novaks turned to old friends in San Diego for help: the family of Hayden Epstein. Epstein, a few years older than Novak, went on to kick at Michigan then played in the NFL, NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League. "Hayden's family taught me how to kick," said Novak. "We spent countless hours all summer in San Diego practicing."

As Nick's kicking improved, interest from Division I college football teams surged.

In his senior year, he chose to play at Maryland as a "preferred walk on" and spent his freshman year redshirting. He was awarded a scholarship only after he beat out an upperclassman rival for the placekicking job when he was a redshirt freshman. He solidified that job when he delivered a game–tying, 46–yard field goal as time ran out against Georgia Tech; a game his Terrapins won in overtime thanks to another Novak field goal.

Maryland went on to be 2001 co–champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Novak finished by making 12 of his final 14 field goals after a bit of a rocky start to his season.

Well, more accurately, Novak said "we" hit 12 of 14, making a point to share the credit with long snapper Jon Condo and holder Brooks Barnard, both of whom later played professionally. "I was really lucky to have those guys," Novak said, adding that he was also fortunate to have Adam Podlesh as his holder after Barnard graduated. Podlesh went on to punt for the Bears.

The Job Hunt Begins

Despite twice leading the ACC in field goals and finishing his career as its all–time point leader (he since has fallen to third on that list), Novak went undrafted by NFL teams in 2005. Instead, he signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent in late April and soon found himself competing against at least five other kickers for a place on the team.

Novak went undrafted

He made it to the final two, pitted against Doug Brien, who was in his 12th NFL season. "I had an 87–88 percent (field goal accuracy) camp; Brien had a 95 percent camp. I quickly realized you aren't just kicking now. You are kicking to put food on the table and provide for your family," Novak said.

By all standards, Nick had a great first camp. But on August 29, the Bears waived Novak so he could have the opportunity to find another job.

You shouldn't be surprised to hear that Novak was appreciative of the experience. "The Chicago Bears gave me an opportunity that was very special," he recalled. "I remember putting on the uniform for a preseason game feeling pretty emotional. Every time you have a chance to wear an NFL uniform, it is a privilege."

Have leg, will travel

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

And over the next few years, Nick would have the opportunity to wear quite a number of NFL jerseys. His motto could have been "Have leg, will travel." Or "Will kick for food." He was on the road again more than Willie Nelson. Heck, he traveled so much he's qualified to write Arthur Frommer's Guide to NFL Cities.

Novak's first year took him to Chicago, Dallas, Washington and Phoenix

Ask Nick about the places he's worked in and he can quickly recite some of his favorite restaurants, too:

Chicago: "The Bears fed us really well in camp but there was a really good Cheesecake Factory nearby."

Washington, D.C.: "Crisfield's in Silver Spring, Md. But the Redskins also handed out gift certificates for Morton's that could be used on Tuesdays after home games," Novak said, adding in a bit of an understatement that "Morton's has some really great food."

Kansas City: "Oh man, the barbecue in Kansas City is amazing. There was this one place, a hole–in–the–wall restaurant, in a gas station where the lines were out the door." While Nick couldn't recall its name, a Google search suggests a 99–percent likelihood he had eaten his brisket at Oklahoma Joe's.

Just don't expect a recommendation in Dallas. "I had one day of practice, played in a preseason game the next day and was waived the morning after that," he replied.

That first year, Novak's whirlwind tour took him to Chicago, Dallas, Washington and Phoenix, where he finished the season with the Arizona Cardinals and got invited to the 2006 pre–season camp. It was there that he first got a place of his own to live, he said, explaining that during his time in Washington he had lived with cousins in the Virginia suburbs and hotels while in Chicago and Dallas.

In NFL lingo, Novak's time in Arizona (and quite a few other places) was as a "camp leg"; in this case, a pre–season competitor to incumbent Neil Rackers. He lasted until August 28th. He returned again to the Redskins (and to his cousins' house) early in the 2006 season but was released in early December.

Soon after, his travels became a little more exotic.

Nick Nomad

The Bears signed him in February of 2007 and immediately sent Novak to play for Cologne, Germany of the NFL Europe League.

"I got to play," he said, "that's the best practice ever." Next best was being paid to live three months in Germany and being given a free rail pass that allowed him to explore all of Europe. "It was a great group of guys; a blessing to be able to do that."

It wasn't long after he touched down back in Chicago that he set about to prove himself NFL worthy. Actually, it was only minutes after he landed.

"Right off the plane I was taken to a field and asked to kick field goals," he recalled. "I went 14 for 15 in competition. My coaches couldn't believe I could walk off a flight and do that." The performance earned him another chance to make the Bears. Despite a solid camp, all–pro kicker Robbie Gould kept the job and Novak was back on the road in search of a roster spot.

He roamed the country auditioning — San Diego, Jacksonville, Kansas City — but he came up empty in 2007. Still, the Chiefs liked enough of what they saw of Novak in tryouts to sign him to be their placekicker for the 2008 season. The job lasted just six games. Novak was waived after missing a pair of field goals for the then–1–and–5 Chiefs.

It was the low point of Novak's life.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Over

Few teams showed any interest in the journeyman place kicker for the 2009 season so he went back to College Park, Maryland, where Athletic Director Debbie Yow hired Nick part time to cold–call alumni to sell newly–constructed luxury boxes at the university's Byrd Stadium.

At minimum wage.

"I was praying to get a call to get back to the NFL"

He worked for Maryland in the morning then used the Terrapins' field (and a long snapper and holder, too) in the afternoon to sharpen his kicking. "It made me realize how hard people work for minimum wage. I was praying to get a call to get back to the NFL," he said, adding how grateful he is to his alma mater for the job and the opportunity to use their facilities to practice.

While the experience didn't make him rich, it convinced him that he needed to make changes to his technique. Changes that, ironically, will likely make him wealthy if he can continue his current success.

"No one would let me quit," he said, reciting a litany of supporters including his parents, brothers, friends and former coaches. "But I knew I had to change things technically" if he were to make it in the NFL. For assistance, he looked somewhere old and somewhere new.

Kicking coach Paul Woodside in Northern Virginia has been Novak's "kicking and life coach" for 16 years and hosted the first camp Nick ever attended. He's tutored the likes of Shayne Graham, Neil Rackers and Josh Brown — together, they amassed 37 years of NFL experience — and has been a constant source of advice and support.

He also turned to former Jacksonville Jaguars placekicker Mike Hollis who ran ProForm Kicking in Orlando. Novak was impressed that the diminutive Hollis, who stands just 5'8" tall, had such a powerful leg that he's in the Top 5 in percentage of field goals over 50 yards.

Kicking Bad Habits

Novak knew he had to kick a few bad habits to reach his potential.

"Kicking is about habits," he explained. "I knew I had to replace a (bad) habit by creating a (good) habit." Today, Novak is featured on ProForm Kicking's web site saying the camp "taught me how to kick the right way ... I saw the ball going higher, straighter, farther, and with less effort and more control after just a few lessons."

He burnished his resume by attending former NFL special teams coach Gary Zauner's kicking camp in Arizona later that year.

In the summer of 2010, he again played the role of camp leg in Chargers' camp but was waived again. He signed with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League where he earned all–league honors. (You may better remember the Tuskers by their reincarnated name, the Virginia Destroyers. Oh, that doesn't ring a bell either?)

Getting the Call

Things finally came together for Novak when things fell apart for Chargers' place kicker Nate Kaeding.

"It is an unfortunate fact of life as a kicker that you wait for a guy to get hurt or not perform and then make the most of the opportunity," he said. "I never wished these two things upon anyone; I just made sure I was prepared for any call that came."

Novak's phone rang on a Thursday and he was kicking in an NFL game on Sunday

The beginning of the end for Kaeding happened after his kickoff to start the 2011 Chargers' season. Kaeding tore his ACL on literally the first play of the season, and the Bolts inked Novak to a two–year contract. Nick connected on 27 of 34 field goal attempts and set a team record with 12 field goals of 40 or more yards including four over 50 yards.

When Kaeding returned to health the following spring — well, you know the story by now — Novak was out of a job.

Nick wasn't in the unemployment line long, as Kaeding injured himself again early in the 2012 season and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Novak's phone rang on a Thursday and he was kicking for the Chargers two days later in an NFL game at Arrowhead Stadium. Novak earned the Chargers' trust by making three field goals against the Chiefs and 18–of–20 attempts that season. Finally, the job was Novak's to lose.

When Kaeding returned to health the following year, it was Nate, not Nick, that the Chargers released. The Chargers' faith in Novak was repaid when he set an all–time, single–season efficiency record for the team in 2013 by making 34 of 37 field goals. Two of his three misses were blocked.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Never Resting

He's signed to a $6.6 million contract through 2016 so you might think that after finally reaching the top of his profession, Nick Novak can take a deep breath and relax. Except the only time he's giving himself to breathe deep is between offseason workout sessions. Right after the season, in January and February, Novak tries to rebuild leg strength. That includes single–leg exercises, plyometrics, squats and speed training.

"I love to do sprints, always working on my fast–twitch fibers," laughing as he added, "God blessed me with only a few so I have to constantly be working on them.

Novak knows he has areas of his game he can improve

"Being a soccer player growing up, I have plenty of slow–twitch fibers. I can run for days but kicking is such a short burst, explosive, fast (action). You also need to be flexible. You can't be a body builder. I love pushing my body to new levels every offseason." So he goes to new gyms and performance coaches for the latest fitness regimens.

He returns to kicking in March and team workouts begin in April.

Despite setting the efficiency record last year, Novak knows he has areas of his game needing improvement.

"There are always things you need to work on. You need to be honest with yourself and make an evaluation at the end of the season. In my case, I need to have more touchbacks." After hovering in the mid-30 percent range for 2011 and 2012, his touchbacks fell to just 19.5 percent (18 of 92) in 2013, one of the lowest rates in the league.

"The balls were actually going as far as they were in the years prior but I was a little inconsistent on my hang time which was allowing (opponents) to bring the ball out (of the end zone). This year, I want to start fast and have at least 25 touchbacks. It is not a strength thing, it is a technique thing and it is just getting back to fundamentals this offseason. Working on steps, body position at contact and really getting through the ball."

Novak knows better than to take anything for granted. There's always going to be another camp leg coming into preseason practices ready to steal a job. So he goes about his new job with quiet confidence, ready for anything. And grateful — always grateful — for the ups and downs, a family and a girlfriend, coaches and teammates, and a steadfast faith in God's plan for his life that have helped to make his improbable journey possible. ​​

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