In October of 2012, writer Tim Layden called us. He was worried. One of the longest standing NFL records was on the brink of being broken, and he wanted to tell it’s story before that happened.
It’s a record that had stood since 1970 when Tom Dempsey, a club-footed kicker for the New Orleans Saints, booted a 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions 19-17 on November 8.
Since then, only three other kickers had ever managed kicks of 63 yards - Jason Elam, Sebastian Janikowsky and David Akers.
We talked the story over and decided to all travel together to the four kickers in three locations - Janikowski and Akers were both in the Bay Area, kicking for Oakland and San Francisco, respectively. We would all work together to interview them each on camera. This made it more economical from a budget standpoint, and more likely that each of the players would agree to the story since they would only have to sit for one, not two, interviews.
We wanted it to be simple. Video interviews, historical images and a voice-over by Tim to connect the stories.
Our first stop was New Orleans to visit with Tom Dempsey. He lived in a small house decorated with his football paraphernalia, including his specially made shoe.
Dempsey at the time was suffering from the early signs of dementia. When we first arrived he seemed scattered and suspicious, ranting about the NFL bureaucracy, Democrats and everything in between. But he settled down and talked easily about the kick - a known clear spot in his foggy memory.
He told us about the late night he and his teammates had had the night before - they had just fired their coach - the hangover he was nursing during the game, the dusty ground he kicked off of and being carried off the field after his improbably game-winning kick.
From there we went to northern California. David Akers and Sebastian Janikowski were in the middle of their respective seasons, so we had to find a week when they were both home and available.
We went to Janikowski first. He is a famously difficult person to track down. He would always give media time, but on his terms. He’s not rude, just very short and to the point.
We waited outside the Oakland practice facility as the team finished working. We watched the entire team return to the locker room, but no Jano. We waited longer. Finally, he came out.
“So you want to take a picture,” he finally came out to ask wearing his jersey and a backwards hat.
He took us out to the empty practice field and showed us the field goal uprights.
“This will work,” he said in his famous Polish accent, allowing no room for discussion.
It was 1pm in Oakland, California. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky. It was an almost impossible situation from a portrait standpoint. Regardless, Bill positioned him under the upright and took as many frames as Sebastian allowed.
From there we moved inside for the interview.
As we set up we talked about his college years at FSU and his home in Jacksonville, FL, where he and his wife live in the off-season. He reminisced with Bill and Tim about his younger, wilder years in Tallahassee.
“Everyone grows up,” he said with a chuckle.
He then told us his wife had given birth to twin girls a couple weeks before and he was looking forward to getting home to them. We worked quickly and he answered every questions perfectly.
We talked about his kick - a 63-yard kick against the Denver Broncos on a rainy day in Denver on September 12, 2011.
“I didn't really hit it that good,” he told us, “but the ball goes an extra 7, 8 yards there [Denver].”
He went on to predict that whoever would eventually break the record would do so in Denver. He thought the altitude and thin air made it easier than other stadiums.
We met David Akers the next day, who was one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. His 63-yarder bounced off the cross-bar and through the upright in Green Bay just before halftime against the Packers on September 9, 2012. He was the newest member of the 63-yard club.
Akers had his family at the practice facility that day. His kids and wife all had on Akers jerseys so we included them in the photo, which doubled as their Christmas card that year.
Our last stop was Alaska to catch up with retired Denver Broncos kicker Matt Elam.
I was upgraded to first class on our very early flight out of Jacksonville. I got on the plane as soon as I could and rested my head against the window, ready for a nap. I watched as people filtered on the plane. Then, a tall and somehow familiar man got on. I knew his face, but couldn’t place him. He sat down next to me and I saw him put his backpack under the seat. It was an official Jacksonville Jaguars team bag with #10 on it. I was sitting next to Josh Scobee, beloved Jaguars kicker.
I chuckled and he looked up.
“You’re my favorite Jaguar,” I told him, adding, “You score points.”
He laughed, said thanks, and extended his hand in introduction.
Bill was sitting across the aisle so we all started talking. We told him about the story we were working on, the personalities we had met. We discussed each kick, Scobee dissecting the conditions of each one.
We told him our hope for the beginning of the video was to get a close-up of a foot hitting a ball in slow motion.
“I’ll do that for you,” he told us. “When you get back just call up the office and tell them I already agreed to the shoot and we’ll set it up.”
We arrived in Alaska on a cold but clear October day. We got all of our stuff and Tim, and took off for the Kenai Peninsula to meet up with Jason Elam, who had moved there after retirement.
Elam’s kick came on October 28, 1998, just before halftime against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Denver. He was the first kicker to join Dempsey in the record books.
As soon as we left Anchorage, the drive became a series of Ooohs and Ahhhs from Bill, Tim and I. If you’ve never been to Alaska, go to Alaska. Every turn is stunning. It was taking us so long to drive the what-should-have-been two hours to Elam’s house that we had to stop taking pictures (which is a real shame).
On top of the amazing landscape was a plethora of wildlife. A buffalo here, a moose there. I felt like I was driving through a national park (which we may have been).
Elam and his wife, Tamy, decided to move their family to Alaska in 2010. They love the outdoors and the quiet lifestyle. They hunt, fish and home-school their five children. The home is full of animals they have killed (and eaten). They have two satellite dishes on their home, but Jason doesn’t watch the NFL. He got his fill in his 17 seasons in the league.
Of the kickers, we spent the most time with Elam. He’s the only one who’s retired and healthy. He showed us around his property, then took us to the small local airport where he keeps his two planes.
“Does one of you want to go for a ride,” he asked Bill and I?
The backseat of his two-seat plane was tiny, so I got the nod.
The plane was glass on all sides, so their was always a view. There was not a view, however, of Elam, who was the subject. I tried to make pictures of him as he turned his head from side-to-side, but the flight ended up being a much better life experience than photograph.
We left his home with a couple hours of daylight left. As we began our long drive northeast to Anchorage, the weather took a serious turn for the worst. What had started as a crisp, cool day turned into an impossible-to-prepare-for blizzard. One minute it was sunny with blue skies, the next snow was falling in sheets and roads were dangerous.
We didn’t know if we should pull over and let it pass, or continue and hope we make it back before roads close. We opted to stop for a half hour, pulling off into a park that was covered in 6-inches of now in the blink of an eye.
Luckily, the storm passed as quickly as it started, and we were able to continue the trip back to Anchorage.
We finished shooting and immediately started editing as Tim raced to finish the written story. Every week that passed was a week that the record could be broken, making the story obsolete.
As soon as we got home we called the Jaguars and scheduled our shoot with Scobee. She showed up with various sock options and a holder and kicked the ball for about 20 minutes for us. Then we stayed and talked for another 30.
The story was wrapped and published by the end of the month, a full 13 months before the elusive record fell.
It fell as predicted, in Denver. On December 8, 2013, Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos lined up for a 64-yard field goal just before half time against the Tennessee Titans. His kick sailed through the uprights, officially sending the 63 yard kickers and the 43 year record into history.