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Kickers fall head over feet

TAMPA, Fla. -- Five days every week, Doug Brien steps into the basement closet in his suburban New Orleans home. There, in the soothing darkness, he contemplates his navel for 40 minutes -- actually, it is a spot several inches below and behind his navel, but we'll get to that later -- and practices his powers of concentration.

Doug Brien
The Saints' Doug Brien says maintaining the mental edge is the most important aspect to kicking.
"No," says Brien, the New Orleans Saints kicker, "I'm not crazy. Seriously, it helps me focus and that makes me a better kicker."

These meditative moments are Brien's daily oasis. They shelter him from the stress that comes with a new baby, a nearly completed MBA at Tulane and, of course, a career as an NFL kicker. Most players in the league do not consider kickers to be real athletes but, mentally speaking, the good ones are true champions.

Kickers generally place the mental/physical ratio of the job around 90/10. Brien, who as a rookie converted all seven of his extra points for San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX, thinks it's more.

"You can go as high as 95 percent," Brien says. "The guys who are consistent, year in and year out, are the ones who master the mental part of the game."

Welcome to the kicker's couch, where a few inches can be the difference between a good year and a very, very bad one.

Kickers, as you might expect, are well-versed in denial. There is an undeniable power to positive thinking.

"There is always going to be pressure on a kicker," says the Giants' Brad Daluiso. "I try not to think about it. You want pressure, try family pressure. My wife and I had twins one and one-half years ago (Mia and Renato). Now that's a touch-and-go situation. Bringing life into the world is a lot more pressure than kicking a little ol' football."

Baltimore's Matt Stover, Daluiso's counterpart in Super Bowl XXXV, says, "You do not think about the possibility of failure. You put yourself only in positive situations."

It doesn't always work out that way. Two Super Bowls have come down to a field goal in the final seconds: Super Bowl V and Super Bowl XXV. Baltimore's Jim O'Brien made his kick from 32 yards out and the Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13. Buffalo's Scott Norwood missed his attempt from 47 yards and his Bills fell to the Giants 20-19 right here in Tampa.

"I still kind of refuse to think about what it would have been like if I hadn't made it," says O'Brien, who oversees development projects in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "It wasn't in my vocabulary or thought patterns to think about missing it. Nor was it in Scott's until it happened."

Matt Stover
Ravens kicker Matt Stover says he never thinks about failure.
The Norwood miss, a difficult kick considering the grass field, a breeze and the chill of the late hour, is the Rosetta Stone for all kickers. All truths of human character are revealed in that tragic series of events. And, besides, it was the holder's fault.

"That kick was bad the whole way," Brien says. "It was a bad hold. (Frank Reich) puts it down and the laces are to the right. Of course, the ball tails off to the right."

Norwood himself understands the fickle lens of history. While he and O'Brien both grazed our national consciousness for the requisite 15 minutes of fame, O'Brien is seen as a winner. And Norwood? Well ...

"People are entitled to think what they want," says Norwood, who sells insurance in the Washington, D.C. area. "It doesn't have any impact on what kind of person you are."

Norwood never got an opportunity for redemption; he played in the next Super Bowl but was out of football by the next season. O'Brien, after his accuracy fell dramatically, lasted only three seasons beyond his epic kick. Professional football is a difficult business, but kickers are legendarily disposable. The Washington Redskins went through four this season, and Daluiso played for three teams in two seasons before landing with the Giants in 1993.

This explains why so many kickers turn to psychologists to keep their heads in the game so that their feet can win it. Most of the league's kickers have talked to experts who are the mental equivalent of Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods' swing guru. Orlando-based Jim Loehr was asked by the Ravens to counsel their kickers for this ultimate game.

The key to kicking success, experts say, lies in keeping to a routine and maintaining a balanced perspective.

Brad Daluiso
Giants kicker Brad Daluiso says he feels more pressure in his off-field life than he does in trying to put the ball through the uprights.
"A kick is a kick is a kick," Brien says. "The first kick in practice, the last PAT, the big field goal. It doesn't mean you'll kick 100 percent, but it's the way to be consistent."

Brien's guru of psyche is Dr. Joel Kirsch, president of the American Sports Institute in Mill Valley, Calif. Kirsch was a kicker at Cal State-Los Angeles and was "as accurate as hell." He got his start working with the San Francisco Giants, helping players like Jack Clark and Bob Brenly.

When Brien was cut by the 49ers in the middle of the 1995 season, he knew he needed help with the mental side. He has since had six successful seasons in New Orleans.

"There's nothing magical about it," Kirsch says. "There are eight major areas that athletes talk about that determine success or failure: concentration, balance, relaxation, power, rhythm, flexibility, instinct and attitude. The most important, by far, are concentration and attitude."

Kirsch studied martial arts and borrowed some of the age-old concentration techniques.

"There is a point around the belt buckle, in the middle of the abdominal cavity, at which the body is perfectly balanced," Kirsch says. "That's where the athlete must focus his attention, because it's the spot from which all coordination emanates. It gives you a focus of attention so that it basically shuts down your thinking.

"For a placekicker, as soon as you start thinking, you're finished. When Doug takes his two steps back and three to the left, he is totally concentrated. He's thinking: every kick means absolutely nothing."

If it sounds sort of like Zen, it is. Whatever works.

"I was talking to my brother (Paul) yesterday," Stover said on Tuesday, Media Day at the Super Bowl. "I said everybody will ask me about Scott Norwood but no one will bring up Jim O'Brien. It's harder for the media to sell the positive than the negative.

"When they say, 'What if it comes down to you? Have you thought about becoming the next Scott Norwood?' Well, I told my brother no one will believe me, but they'll be asking me a question I don't ask myself."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for

head over feet 

Garber: Stover, Daluiso could decide it

Garber: Ten years after Norwood's Super miss

Focal Point: Special teams

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