Ryan Longwell has been such a steady and clutch performer for eight seasons that it would be easy to take him for granted. After all, when he enters the game you just know points are going in the Packers' favor.
Yet, anyone that overlooks Longwell and his accomplishments is making a huge mistake. For a player that went undrafted and almost unnoticed altogether coming out of the University of California, Longwell has turned into one of the best kickers in team history.
Given Longwell's great success you might think his career has been as smooth as his motion on a game-winning kick, but that really isn't the case at all. In fact, the team's all-time leading scorer had to buck all odds just to make the team in 1997.
The Packers drafted Penn State kicker Brett Conway in the third round of '97's draft and they clearly were giving the high draft choice every chance to make the team. Meanwhile, Longwell went undrafted and signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent. They gave up on him two months later and the Packers picked Longwell up on waivers.
That didn't mean Longwell had it made in Green Bay. Although Conway struggled through an injury-filled preseason, he still was favored to make the roster. However, his quadriceps never responded to treatment and Longwell received all the reps in the exhibition games. Just as he would do for the next eight seasons, Longwell handled the pressure just fine and connected on all his field goal and extra point attempts.
The Packers couldn't overlook Longwell's consistency and he was named the opening day kicker; Conway was placed on injured reserve.
The rest, as they say, is history.
While most people doubted Longwell's chances to make the roster, he never did.
"I knew when I was coming in here there was a drafted guy in front of me, but at the same time, before I got on the plane to come out here I told my dad I was going to be the kicker on Monday night, which was the first game of the year," Longwell said.
"I knew I was good at what I did, I knew that my strongest suit was my head and I knew that would get me through a lot of the pressure of the NFL. It got me a job in the first place and it really made it more doable for me to go through the makes and misses and keep on an even keel."
The even keel that Longwell talks about guides him in all of his challenges as a kicker. And although he's gone through very few tough moments, he still takes lessons from one kick in particular.
The one I remember the most is the second game of my career (a 10-9 loss in '97) when I missed a game-winner at Philadelphia," Longwell recalled. "It's not so much that I even want that kick back because I learned so much more about the NFL, the media and bouncing back from a tough kick."
Longwell has performed at such a high level that he should be the one giving lessons. After passing Packers legend Don Hutson in 2003, Longwell now stands first on the team's all-time scoring list with 932 points. He also ranks first in the club's history with 199 field goals.
While those numbers certainly are remarkable, they become even more impressive when you consider that Longwell battles the conditions of Lambeau Field every season. In addition to that, he may have been a better punter than kicker in college. He earned first team All-Pac 10 honors as a punter and second team as a kicker for the Cal Bears, but he knew all along what position he would thrive in.
"I knew that I was a very, very good college punter, but I was not an NFL punter," Longwell explained. "I knew my shot would be at kicking, but I didn't tell anybody that because I wanted them to make that decision for themselves in case someone wanted me as a punter."
Mental Toughness Separates Longwell From Peers
Obviously, Longwell has come a long way since being an undrafted free agent, but he said his success isn't all because of his right leg.
"I think leg strength has nothing to do with it," Longwell said. "It's all about the mind and I think there are a million guys you could go get off the streets right now and bring them in here and they would kick the ball higher and farther than I could a hundred times out of a hundred.
"But when the game is on the line and the kick's got to go through, there aren't many guys - including the guys in the NFL - there's not many that can do it. It's all about having an even keel, a strong mind, and a very short memory both in success and failure. I think that my strongest asset is my head."
At first glance, Longwell's reasons for success may seem unusual, but you can't argue with the results. In a key game against the Minnesota Vikings earlier in the season, Longwell nailed a 33-yard field goal as time expired to win the game and just a week later Longwell was back at it again. This time Longwell booted a 46-yarder to give the Packers the win over the Houston Texans.
Opponents know just how clutch Longwell is as well. In the Houston game, the Texans burned a timeout to "ice" Longwell, one of the game's most accurate kickers. To "ice" a kicker means giving him extra time to think about the kick he is about to attempt with the hopes of him missing it.
However, Longwell said opponents shouldn't waste their time on such tactics because it often leads to the opposite result of what they are looking for.
"I think it's definitely a myth because you give guys time to make sure the field is perfect, make sure the spot is perfect and to really figure out the wind," Longwell said. "You're just increasing their odds of making the kick. When you give them more time to think about it and get everything under control, I think it helps them."
So, what does go through his head when he attempts a kick that may decide the outcome of a game? According to Longwell, his thoughts remain the same all the time.
"I realize that there's nothing that I'm going to do in that 10 seconds or two minutes or whatever it is that's going to help make or miss that kick," Longwell said. "It's what I've done previously in working out in the summer, working out that week, and working with (long snapper) Rob Davis and my holder so I just go through my routine.
"You focus on the routine, you don't focus on the situation. That's actually what makes the first quarter field goal just as important or just as unimportant as the game-winner."
Whatever Longwell does, it's working. No matter what the situation - a close game or a blowout - Longwell's body language never changes. He handles every kick with such ease that it looks like anybody could do it, but looks can be deceiving.
"I think everybody can go in their backyard, kick a field goal and say, 'Hell, I can kick it forty yards," Longwell said. "Taking that a step further, there's a million guys out there that can take a snap and a hold and kick it 60 yards and make it.
"But when it comes to crunch time and you have to get the kick through, I don't think there's many people in this room that can do it. So I think it's a very difficult thing to do that a lot of people take for granted."
Kicker Surpasses Legend In Packers History Books
Perhaps another thing fans take for granted is the work ethic it takes to be a successful kicker. Many purists act as if kickers get away from the "physical" work that other players have to endure, but Longwell disputes that theory.
"I've always taken the mindset that if I was an offensive lineman out there for 60 plays a game and it came down to a game-winning kick and the guy missed a field goal when I have never seen him run or work out, I would have issues with that," Longwell said.
"I work hard at what I do; I just am not out on the field for 60 snaps on game day. But on the other side of the coin, my position is the only position on the field where you have to be perfect every time you're out there. You don't get a second or third down, you don't get another drive."
Fortunately for the Packers, they don't have to worry about second chances very often when Longwell enters the game. Longwell has been so successful in Green Bay that he could take the lion's share of the credit, but that's not his style. Instead, Longwell gives a great deal of credit to his long snapper Davis and his current holder Bryan Barker.
"Rob is amazing," Longwell explained. "He's been here all eight years I've been here and he's so steady. He's the best there is. The biggest thing for success in field goal kicking is rhythm. And his rhythm - regardless of the weather conditions - never changes. That has allowed me to have several holders and have success.
"Bryan's holding for me now, and he's also been great. So we work hard at what we do and we set our standards very high."
Longwell certainly has the right to expect greatness. After all, he has set over 15 team records and the list is growing. He offers no hesitation when asked what record he holds in the highest regard, however.
"I think the scoring record is awesome," Longwell admitted. "Don Hutson, everybody said he's one of the best receivers to ever play in this game.
"For a kicker from Bend, Oregon to be the leading scorer in the history of the Green Bay Packers is pretty amazing. It's not like being with any other franchise. It's different doing it with the Green Bay Packers so that makes it very special."
Does that mean that the Hutson Center, the state of the art facility across from Lambeau Field, should feature Longwell's name instead?
"No, maybe give me a closet or something in the Hutson Center, rename the restroom or something, but no, they don't need to change the name," Longwell said with a chuckle.
Perhaps Longwell is right. There is no need to change the name of the Hutson Center, but if Longwell keeps rewriting the history books, it won't be long before his name adorns a prominent building as well.