by Ken Crippen
May 15, 02014
Before landing the kicking job in Kansas City, Nick Lowery was cut eleven times by eight teams in his young professional football career. However, after he unseated future Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud, Lowery went on to become the Kansas City Chiefs’ all-time leading scorer (1,466 points) and earned a bust in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
Not knowing if he would ever make it as an NFL kicker, Lowery focused on his education. According to Lowery, “I had a chance to go to some of the big colleges, but I was fortunate to go to a wonderful school called St. Albans school in Washington, D.C. I was able to really focus on my education, knowing that the chances of making it in the NFL for anyone wasn’t that high. I figured that if I was a good placekicker, I would be able to count whether I had a good percentage and did well. I got into Princeton and Dartmouth, and went to Dartmouth. My goals were to get a good education. I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to study. I started off in theatre.”
Lowery continued, “That was the era of Watergate in the Washington, D.C. area. Growing up next door to a Supreme Court justice named Byron ‘Whizzer’ White, who led the NFL in rushing twice (1938 and 1940), and the award named for humanitarian work by players is named after Justice White. That was my next door neighbor.”
He added, “I was inspired out of that Watergate era to think about, ‘Gosh, what is missing in government?’ That was also six years after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed, and the Vietnam War and that era. I was thinking about leadership and I switched to a government major and interned for Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island. He was the last of a generation of Republicans and Democrats who could work together. It is kind of a tragic thing to say. He was a Republican in a Democratic state, was able to get Clean Water Act passed, and the Clean Air Act. He just knew how to pass legislation that would improve the quality of life; more important than political party. I can’t express how highly I respected Senator Chafee. What a great role model he was. That is what I was aiming to do if I didn’t make it in the National Football League.”
While working with Senator Chafee, Lowery mentioned, “I worked on Carter’s Energy Program. Even back in the mid-70s, you might remember that we were thinking about how much we were dependent on foreign oil. I worked on coal conversion for Senator Chafee as an intern. I actually worked under the steam pipe tunnels, under the Capital in the summer of 1976 with Jim Rehnquist. He was the son of Chief Justice Rehnquist of the Supreme Court.”
But, he had aspirations of making in in the NFL. Lowery’s journey was one of persistence. Lowery recalled, “I went through a lot of rejection before I finally made it.” He continued, “I graduated in 1978. I signed with the Jets. I did well, but I screwed up in the third preseason game and they cut me. I went up to Dartmouth to do some theatre and language stuff. I got a job as a waiter. The opportunity with the New England Patriots came.” Patriots’ kicker John Smith suffered a thigh injury and was out. After he finished his shift at the restaurant, Lowery drove to Foxboro. Lowery continued, “I literally showed up on their doorstep in the fading light at Foxboro. Luckily, [head coach] Chuck Fairbanks was still there. I convinced him to take a look at me. I kicked lights out. A week later, they signed me. I played two games for the Patriots. We beat Oakland, in Oakland. It went down to the last few minutes. A guy by the name of Steve Grogan ran 22 yards down to the two-yard line with about a minute left. We scored a touchdown. Otherwise, I would have had to try a 42-yard field goal to beat the Raiders. We won both games, the next week against San Diego. But, I wasn’t ready for prime time yet, and they cut me. A lot of my story, to me, is how if you keep putting yourself out there, that is the only way to make it in the NFL. Whether you are a number one pick, or if you are somebody who didn’t even get drafted, like myself. It takes a while to get used to that level of pressure. You have to learn a lot about yourself.” Lowery was replaced by David Posey.
After being cut by the Patriots, Lowery returned to government work. “I got a job again with Senator Chafee. I worked on the Title V Regional Commissions with the Environment and Public Works Committee, which he was the ranking minority on.”
Lowery never gave up on his dream to kick in the NFL. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it [in the NFL]. The plan was that I was going to work in the U.S. Senate, and then try out for a bunch of teams the next year in 1979. One was Cincinnati [Bengals]. I remember Homer Rice, their coach, saying, ‘I don’t remember seeing you miss any field goals. Ever.’ I said, ‘Then why did you cut me?’ But, they did. Then the [Washington] Redskins signed me. I came back home. I played two games with the Redskins. The long and the short of it is that each time in the 1979 season, I tried out with San Diego. I almost made it when Rolf Benirschke was near death.” In 1978, Benirschke was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a form of colitis that forms ulcers on the large intestine. While returning from a road game, Benirschke collapsed on the team plane. After having two surgeries to remove his large intestine, Benirschke returned to the field the following year.
Lowery continued to list the teams where he received tryouts: “With New Orleans. Again with the Baltimore Colts. Each of these times, I was getting so much closer and out-kicking guys that I was not clearly out-kicking the year before, so I knew I was getting better. But, I didn’t make it.”
Lowery went back into government. “I got a permanent job with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. There were eleven attorneys, and me and a lady by the name of Chris Wilkes. We were the only non-attorneys. That was what I was going to do. I was going to work on the Senate Committee, which is great. If you know about a Senate Committee, if your Senator loses the election, you do not lose your job. You are still on the committee. If you worked for a Senator, if he or she loses, you are done.”
While with the Committee, Lowery worked on airline seat safety. “I could go into chapter and verse on that. Things that 30 or 40 years later, still have not been addressed. Aviation seat regulations are one-sixth as stringent as cars. If you plane has an issue, and your plane is not going 60 miles-per-hour, but going 250 to 350 miles-per-hour, those seats are going to come apart. That was the last thing I was working on.”
Lowery left his work on the committee after getting a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs. “I left in May. They brought me out several months early. I got to train. I got to get over that intimidation factor and to prepare earlier. It was tough to give up a job like that in Washington. Those kind of jobs are jewels. As I look back, I am glad that I did.”
Lowery recalled how he got the opportunity in Kansas City. “Right after the season, I will never forget, it was the Saturday of the first wildcard games. A guy by the name of Jim Schaaf, then the general manager of the Chiefs, called up and said, ‘I am sorry, but I just had back surgery. Marv Levy, our coach, really believes in special teams and we think that you have some real potential.’ I said, ‘Thanks, but I have this great job,’ and I hung up. I think about how many of us have those moments of truth, where the path can go one of two ways. As I hung up, I was thinking, ‘What a minute. Why did I just hang up?’ I had to find him back in his hospital room. Meanwhile, I turned down offers from the Colts and the Cleveland Browns. But, something about the tone of voice of this guy said that I should trace him back. I didn’t know how to spell his name. I called the directory and started asking for hospitals. I finally said, ‘Where would he be if he had back surgery?’ I found him at Research Hospital. I kind of impressed him that an hour after he called me that I was able to find him. We talked for an hour. A week later, they flew me to Kansas City to get the physical and to meet with Marv Levy and Jim [Schaaf]. They gave me a $2500 bonus, which today would be something of a joke for a lot of players, but for me it was a sign to try just one more time.”
But, Lowery needed to beat out mainstay and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud. “Jan was the heart of the team.” Lowery continued, “He was the last member of the Super Bowl champions that was still on the team. Jack Rudnay had been a backup on that team, but Jan was the star on that team. He was kind of a father figure. He was 37 and going into what would have been his 14th year with the Chiefs.” Lowery won the job.
Lowery said, “Needless to say, he didn’t like me a whole lot when he was cut, but now, all of these years later, we are friends. Now, he sees how that rejuvenated his attitude on how to prepare, and if you look at his career in Green Bay and Minnesota, he kicked really well. He got a little more practice snaps during the week, which head coaches back in the 70s didn’t understand how important that was. He finished his career with a flourish. Jan was, career-wise, 58-percent at Arrowhead Stadium. I was 85-percent at Arrowhead Stadium. It was good for Jan to leave Kansas City in the long-run, and I think he agreed with that. It was hard, because he had his whole life there. It was hard for me after 14 years to leave for the Jets. I knew it would be a great challenge, but I knew I was ready and I think that I proved that.”
He recalled how persistence helped him win the job: “What is interesting is that if you pay your dues and you work as hard as you possibly can, what may seem impossible or hard to understand from other people, can seem more natural. I felt that I had paid so many dues. I had so much heartache. Being cut by the Patriots. Being cut by the Jets. Outkicking Mike Wood in San Diego, and yet he got the job in San Diego. Outkicking the kicker in New Orleans, Russell Erxleben. He was supposedly the new god of kicking, the first number one pick of a kicker. I will never forget coming into the showers afterwards and here is this guy, who is supposed to be the ultimate kicker, going, ‘How do you kick the ball so far and so high?’ I just knew that I was getting better and that I paid the price. By the time that I got to Kansas City, I knew that I had to outkick Stenerud every day, at everything. I was really clear about that. I had noticed how much better I had gotten. I had just turned 24. Everyone on the outside, and probably some on the inside like my family members, thought I was crazy. I just knew that it was my time.”
He recalled how he improved over the years: “You have to learn to get the ball up more quickly and you had to get the ball off more quickly. Back then, the goal posts were almost 25-percent wider. Those are adjustments that you have to make. The biggest adjustment is believing that you belong there. There was physically getting stronger. I was skinny. I was 6’4 ½” and 187 pounds. I finished my career at about 225 pounds. I am very proud to say that it was from hard work. You get older and your metabolism slows down. Dave Reading was our conditioning coach in 1989. By 1989, I was 33. In 1989 and 1990, Dave said, ‘Stop running distance. As a kicker, you are not a marathon runner. You are doing sprints.’ I went that year from about 205 pounds to about 217 pounds. I got a lot stronger and led the NFL in scoring that year [139 points] and hit 24 field goals in a row going into the playoffs. I hit 21 in a row the next year and was 22 for 24 the next year. I don’t know how many kickers have had those types of years in a row. That process of constantly working to get better, that to me was what was refined. Realizing through all of those rejections: eight teams and eleven rejections. You never stop working to improve. You can never take things for granted. As Jan would say, it is always a phone number away for a kicker as a replacement. Learning that you always have to work to get better. Also, making the connection that you can do all of the physical training in the world, but you also have to do that mental training – particularly as a kicker – so that you are in the right place for those very few seconds you have to be totally on.”
Now – as he had throughout his adult life – Lowery spends his time giving back to his community and helping others. That sense of community and helping others goes back to his time living next door to Supreme Court justice Byron ‘Whizzer’ White. According to Lowery, “There are different types of mentors. Some mentors are with you every day, or almost every day, like Dick Johnson who was my mentor in kicking. He was a retired stockbroker and kept saying, ‘It is not how many times you fall down, but how many times you get back up.’”
Lowery continued, “I had a different kind of mentor. A Mount Rushmore figurehead human being. I will never forget. We moved in the same day. Byron and Marion White, and next door was Sidney and Hazel Lowery and their family. I remember the very next day, there was Bobby Kennedy with what I think was a Labrador retriever next to him. He walked over from Hickory Hill, which was about three miles away. Byron, unlike some of the Supreme Court justices today, was very careful about what he talked about that might reflect on any decision that he would have before the court. The discussions we would have would be about history and who he admired. He really admired Lincoln. If you look at Byron White, he was a guy that finished number one at Yale Law School the same year he led the NFL in rushing. There is a lot of weight behind every single word a man like that had. When he offered an opinion, it really counted. I asked him – in the midst of being cut by all of those teams – his advice. He said, ‘You will be respected not by anything you say, but by being a consistent performer on the field. Just learn to shut up and do your job, and that is how you will gain respect.’ Byron White just helped me have higher goals. I think that without Byron White, I would not have thought, ‘Why not? Why not try to make it in the NFL?’ Those are the things that help you stay with it, even when the other teams in the NFL are saying that you are not good enough.”
According to Lowery, “I see the work I do as doing what the government used to do, to some degree, and what the best of our leaders called us to do. John F. Kennedy being one of the most famous.” He continued, “The notion of service and the idea of solving problems that need to be solved. For me, it’s inspiring kids to realize when they are sitting at that desk in the classroom, that they are working toward a purpose that is unique to their God-given gifts and that they deserve to have a life and that they do great things that are an extension of their God-given abilities. When kids feel that purpose, they feel powerful, and they feel meaningful and important in the best way, not in an ego-based way. Giving that gift to kids, which pro football players can do. That encouraging few seconds of time that we have with a fan can change a life sometimes. I really admire the Walter Paytons of the world. Deron Cherry of my team and Albert Lewis were that way. They had a really great understanding of making a difference.”
Lowery continued, “What I do today is an extension of that. The NFL can do more, but it does a lot of great things in the community. I would like to help the NFL do more programs in the area of creating a leadership culture among varsity athletes. If you look at the school shootings that happened at Columbine and other places – not all of them, but a hauntingly high percentage of them – had a toxic environment where the varsity football players were a bit too cool. To me, when you interrupt the pattern with varsity athletes in general, you say that a true champion shares his power with others and doesn’t take it away. Those are wonderful things that are consistent with Commissioner Goodell’s vision that the players today have a privilege, they are stewards of the game, just like the owners are. Everything that we can do to express that sense of gratitude for having such a fantastic career in America’s best game, giving the kids that sense of power and purpose is the least that we can do. I think that a lot of players get it and I am hoping that maybe if we start encouraging kids when they start to be recognized early in their lives, that it becomes a habit. If you look at people like Steve Largent and other great NFL Hall of Famers that got it early, all of those lessons helped them become better football players. They had congruency in how they lived their lives on the field and off of the field. Government and charity. To me, it is about how we can give to everyone that we meet in our lives, in the few seconds that we have – if not more – the sense that their lives matter and that we can help encourage them to make the world a better place. That is what life is about.”
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