Thursday, October 08, 2009

Hauschka gets his kicks with NFL's Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens placekicker Steven Hauschka (6) follows through on a point-after during the game against the New England Patriots on Sunday Oct. 4, at Gillette Stadium.

By Sean Jacquet

October 7, 2009

Needham —

Some might look at Steve Hauschka’s whirlwind journey to the National Football League and consider it a detour on his road to a career as a dentist.

But somewhere along the line, the NFL became the destination. Dental school can wait.

“If the NFL comes knocking, you pursue that with everything you have,” said Hauschka in an interview with the Baltimore Sun last week. “Maybe I can go back to dental school later.”

The Needham native and Baltimore Ravens placekicker made his first trip to Gillette Stadium Sunday, drilling all three of his extra-point attempts in a 27-21 loss to the Patriots. The homecoming was just the latest high point in a five-year odyssey that has taken him from football neophyte kicking at Division III Middlebury College to the game’s highest level.

The 24-year-old Hauschka’s story is well documented in these parts but for those unfamiliar, here’s the Cliffs Notes version. A soccer and lacrosse player at Needham High and as a freshman at Middlebury, Hauschka, at the behest of his football player roommate, walked on to the gridiron as a sophomore. He thrived almost immediately, earning second-team All-NESCAC honors as a sophomore and junior (2004 and ‘05). As a senior, he broke the school’s single-season record with 10 field goals - eventually finishing with a career record 20 — making the All-NESCAC first team as the Panthers won the conference title.

“I was about as raw as it got for talent,” said Hauschka in the Sun interview. “Somehow, they ended up going with me, and I did pretty well. And I remember thinking: ‘What am I doing here? I’m a soccer player.’ I never even played football, and there were these recruits and everyone was talking about these recruits that they brought in. So I had those nerves and worried that I might not win this. But the only way to get over that is to keep your head down and get better as a kicker, and those things took care of themselves.”

After graduating from Middlebury with a degree in neurosciences — he finished with a 3.59 grade-point was accepted into five dental schools — Hauschka took his remaining year of NCAA eligibility to North Carolina State in 2007. He earned the starting gig in 2007, becoming a finalist for the Lou Groza award as the nation’s top kicker.

To this point, Hauschka’s journey closely resembles his father’s path. Peter Hauschka was a soccer and track star at Amherst College — now a NESCAC school — in the mid ’60s before earning a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys in 1967 despite never having played organized football. He also had a short stay with the Chicago Bears before attending dental school. His son had taken a similarly circuitous route to the NFL before a likely second career in dentistry.

But that’s where the paths diverge.

Steve signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2008. The Vikings placed him on waivers, but the Ravens snagged him the next day, signing him to their practice squad. Activated on Oct. 30 to share kicking duties with veteran Matt Stover, Hauschka hit his first field goal attempt, a 54-yarder against the Houston Texans.

After releasing Stover — the starting kicker since the franchise’s inception in 1996 — on March 5 this year, the Ravens re-signed the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Hauschka two weeks later. Despite some early struggles, Hauschka beat out Graham Gano for the starting job, hitting six of his last seven field goals to end the preseason. So far this season, he’s connected on four of five attempts, nailed all 16 of his extra points and even made a solo tackle in a Week 2 win over the San Diego Chargers.

“He’s done a great job,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a conference call last Wednesday. “I think he’s improved tremendously in the last year with Randy Brown, who is one of our coaches who helps him. He has a lot of talent. He’s a big, tall, strong guy and he’s very athletic. He has to prove himself, but he has a chance to kick in this league for a long time. He may miss a kick here or there and work through it, but he may not. So he does a good job.”

He also has a good job — the NFL league minimum is $385,000 — even though, in this profession, he’s liable to have his teeth knocked out as opposed to being the one to repair fractured molars. And he’s got another good gig lined up once his kicking days are through.

But that will have to wait.

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