Longwell Makes Most of Unexpected Opportunity


Rookie Ryan Longwell went from undrafted free agent to the Packers starting kicker.

On four hours' notice, Ryan Longwell had packed all his belongings and rushed to the airport to hop a plane to Green Bay, Wisconsin, a place he had never seen. To be a bridesmaid.

"I got waived by the (San Francisco) 49ers and the next day the Packers called," Longwell recalls. "They told me, 'We just claimed you. Your plane leaves in four hours.'

"I had no idea where I was going. All I know is that I was at the airport in Bend, Oregon, about to leave. But as I was leaving, my dad wished me good luck and said, 'Just do your thing.' I told him, 'You watch. I'll be kicking on Monday night.'"

On Monday Night Football? For the defending world champions? As a rookie free agent? Ha! Everyone knew that Ryan Longwell, despite his All-Pacific 10 kicking credentials at the University of California, was merely a training camp shadow for Penn State standout Brett Conway.

The Packers had spent a third-round draft choice pick on Conway so that he could replace nine-year veteran Chris Jacke. They even handed him a substantial signing bonus. Conway was Green Bay's immediate future.

Maybe Longwell really believed that he'd be kicking for the Packers when the regular season opened. Maybe he did not. But, more importantly, Longwell believed in himself, and that's why you will see him on the field as the Packers begin their push for a second straight Super Bowl title. His is a startling story.

Longwell was not drafted, but was picked up by his college coach at Cal, Steve Mariucci, who had assumed the head coaching reins of the 49ers. Yet by July 9, Longwell had been waived and headed back to his hometown of Bend. The Packers called the next day.

Longwell knew that Conway was Green Bay's kicker. But he was looking to get an opportunity to unveil his talents on the field, in case another team was watching. Then on July 31, as the Packers played host to New England in a preseason game at Lambeau Field, some bizarre episodes transpired that began to turn the tide in his favor.

Conway missed three field goals - all wide right - in the first half of Green Bay's 7-3 win. The media glare was on. Conway then overcompensated by kicking too much in practice the following week. Moments before the Packers were to kick off the ensuing game at Oakland, Conway was scratched with a thigh muscle pull. Longwell now had his shot.

He lined up a 25-yard field goal in the second quarter and it went...wide right! But the Raiders were offside and Longwell regrouped to make a 21-yarder. Then he connected from 44 and 34 yards out. Hmmm.

Still, Conway was presumed to be the Packers' primary kicker. But the thigh injury didn't get any better. Longwell suited up for the next preseason affair, a game against Buffalo in Toronto. Green Bay won 35-3, but Longwell wasn't able to attempt a field goal. The Packers then readied for their final preseason contest, a game against the New York Giants in Madison. It gave Longwell one last shot to make an impression.

Bulls-eye. Three field goals, from 28, 49 and 50 yards out, went straight through the uprights. Longwell had issued an emphatic statement. But was it enough to survive the final roster cut? Ironically, Longwell didn't think so.

"I wasn't confident I was going to make the team," he says. "I felt comfortable because I couldn't have done anything more than I did. That made it easier. But I still thought I had no chance to make the team."

Hence, Longwell huddled in his room at the Midway Hotel in Green Bay and prepared for the worst.

"I didn't even change my clothes for those three days," he says. "I just didn't want to unpack my things. So I just sat there and waited for the phone to ring."

It did. And when it did, Longwell presumably felt a lump in his throat, as would, say, a high school senior upon receiving a really thin letter from the college of his choice. But Longwell received far better news. He was a Packer.

Now came the hard part. Proving he belonged in the NFL. And Longwell couldn't have picked a bigger spotlight for his debut - Monday Night Football against the hated Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. He calmly drilled three field goals in Green Bay's 38-24 win.

But the honeymoon ended the very next week. In a tightly contested struggle at Philadelphia, the Packers drove to the Eagles' 10-yard line with 15 seconds left, trailing 10-9. Longwell trotted onto the field and missed the 28-yard kick, causing an upheaval among Packer backers everywhere. But Longwell handled the slip with remarkable ease and humility.

"If I take credit for the makes, I've got to take credit for the misses," he says. "I'm not one to make kicking any more than it is."

And since that miss, Longwell has been on a tear. He finished the regular season 24-of-30 on field goal attempts, with a long of 50. He made all 48 of his extra point attempts. He ranked third in the NFC in points scored with 120 points. In the Packers' 78-year history, only Chester Marcol had more points (128) in his rookie season. Not bad for a free agent.

"I think he has been outstanding from the standpoint of his mental approach and his ability as a young, undrafted player to handle the pressure that has been placed on him," Green Bay special teams coach Nolan Cromwell says. "Ryan got an opportunity and he1s made the best of it."

Indeed. And as the Packers march into January, Longwell will take a little bit of every kick into the postseason fire, even that one at Veterans Stadium.

"It was unfortunate, but I learned a lot from it," he says. "It will definitely help me when I kick in the playoffs."

No argument here. Longwell has nailed five out of six field goal attempts in the playoffs, including three in the NFC Championship Game. In July, he was an afterthought. On January 25, Ryan Longwell will tee it up in Super Bowl XXXII.

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