People ask me all the time what it was like to hold for the Lou Groza winner, the honor awarded annually to the best college kicker in the country. I won't ever be able to put that feeling in writing, but I can tell the story of a bond that formed two years ago -- a bond that became so strong that it led to something unimaginable.
It's well documented that Brad Craddock came here from Australia three years ago primarily as a punter. It's also well documented that he had his struggles when his role changed from punting to placekicking. But what's not as clear is how close he was to hanging up his cleats and not returning to the United States after going home for winter break that January.
It was hard for me to see Brad go through those initial struggles. At that point our relationship was still developing, but I knew he was a great kid and I could see that he had the heart and potential to be special. I did not hold for Brad that first season, so most of what I saw that year was from a distance.
When that first offseason started, I knew I could help Brad. He needed a drastic change, a change that would allow him to start over. For a kicker, bringing in a new holder is a drastic change. I like to compare a holder in football to a caddie in golf. It's a unique partnership that is built on reliability and trust, things that don't form overnight.
So that offseason, we worked. We spent hours and hours trying to perfect the timing and chemistry that's required to become a successful field goal operation. At the same time, I saw new life beginning to emerge from Brad. A small flame that had always been there inside of him started to burn more visibly. Kicking became an obsession and he was determined to put the past season behind him.
At this time, Brad began working with former Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who turned out to be the missing piece to the puzzle. With time, Matt was able to take the raw talent that Brad had and turn it into a more consistent movement built on form and technique.
When camp ended and the first game of the 2013 season arrived, neither of us knew what to expect. We wanted to take it a kick at a time and just see where it went. On the first extra point of that season, we missed it right. Notice how I said "we." I always believed I was just as much at fault for missed kicks as Brad. This mentality quickly strengthened our reliability and more importantly our mutual trust.
After the missed kick, it would have been easy for Brad to slip into a slump like the one he faced the prior season after that extra point miss, but this was a new Brad. Neither he nor I were going to accept mediocrity. We continued to work almost every day staying late to get extra kicks after practice. Most days, we were the first on the practice field and the last ones to leave.
A few games into the 2013 season, we got into a rhythm. The timing became muscle memory, and I began understanding what I needed to do to help get Brad ready. Some days I could sense that Brad was in the zone and he didn't need me to say anything to him before kicks. Other days I could identify patterns in his technique that were slightly off, where he needed me to provide constructive instruction before each kick like, "Swing your arm," or, "Trust your line and get your hips through the kick." Then there were times when he needed confidence-building comments like, "Trust yourself and swing away." Of course, there were also times when I made certain comments depending on the situation that wouldn't make sense to anyone but the two of us.
We ended that season having made 21 of our 25 field goals. We also went perfect on extra points after that first miss. For most kickers that season would be satisfying, but not for Brad. He was named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza award that season, but besides that, he wasn't acknowledged by any other conference or national award. We felt like we deserved more respect after that season, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. It became the motivation behind the most successful season for a kicker in Maryland history. By the time the 2014 season rolled around, Brad's confidence was at an all-time high. Brad stepped into a leadership role on the team and was highly respected by everyone from linemen to specialists. I hadn't seen Brad so determined to be successful.
The start of a new season is a unique feeling. You're staring at a blank canvas trying to envision what your painting will look like when the season is over. For me, it was my last blank canvas; the final piece to my Maryland football gallery. But winning the Groza wasn't even a thought. To be honest, an award like that seems so beyond reality that it didn't even cross my mind, especially at the beginning of a new season.
By this point, Brad and I were basically one unit. I knew what he was thinking and he knew what I was thinking at all times. Our relationship went far beyond football as well. There wasn't one aspect of our lives that the other didn't know about.
So the 2014 season began and Brad immediately lived up to the preseason hype. Each game went by and the field goals just started racking up. I felt like once I got the ball on the ground I didn't even need to look up at the uprights to see if the ball was going through.
The routine became automatic. Find the spot; look back to see if Brad's set; get the nod; turn and start the cadence; catch the ball; get it on the ground and spin; see the foot through the kick; watch it go through the uprights; get up and give Brad our celebratory head-butt; greet all the lineman and then head to the sideline. In fact, the only time that routine didn't occur was when Brad made a big kick like the 57-yarder against Ohio State or the game winner against Penn State. Brad would get so excited that he would run away doing the most ridiculous looking celebration I've ever seen.
After the Penn State game last year, we knew we had something special in the making. The ending of that game was poetic justice. Here was Brad's first game-winning opportunity since the missed kick against North Carolina State Brad's freshman year. I don't care how successful a season you're having.
When you're put back in a situation that wasn't just a painful experience, but a turning point in your life, all previous stats are out the window. I could see it in Brad's eyes late in that Penn State game that the memories of the NC State kick were there. When we got the ball back with the chance to go on a game winning drive, I went up to Brad and said, "This is our time." It was a hard situation because my nerves were at an all-time frenzy during those last few minutes leading up to the kick as well, but I knew I couldn't show those nerves to Brad. I made sure to approach it like any other kick, and Brad told me after the game that my ability to look so calm as we jogged out onto the field for that kick helped him to relax. Coach Edsall told us all week that a win in Happy Valley would change our lives. For Brad, that couldn't be truer. The bus ride back to Maryland after that game was the first time the thought of his winning the Groza entered my mind.
One of my favorite games that season was the Michigan game. To go into the Big House at Michigan, too, and pull out a win is something special. This was also the game that, in my opinion, sealed the Groza for Brad. He hit three big field goals that ultimately helped us win a close game. After we got back to campus that night, Brad approached me as I was getting into my truck. He told me that the next day the three finalists for the Lou Groza were being announced. Those finalists would travel to Orlando for the ESPN College Football Awards Show at Disney on Dec. 11. Brad said if he was named a finalist, he wanted me to be there with him. I told him I wouldn't miss it for the world.
The next day, Brad was named a finalist. He was the only kicker in America at that point who was perfect on the season, and it actually seemed like he had a chance to win.
I've never been more nervous than I was entering the Rutgers game, our last of the season. Brad was one game away from a perfect season -- an accomplishment that I believe only one kicker in the modern day college football era has done. It felt like a pitcher in baseball who was perfect through eight and needed one more hitless inning. I just didn't want to do anything to mess it up.
The game presented a last-minute 54-yard field goal attempt in cold conditions. It would be a long shot for even the best professional kickers. When the ball left my hands and I turned to look up, everything felt like it rolled in slow motion. By the time the ball crossed over the line of scrimmage, I knew it was going left and it wasn't coming back. I struggled for a while after that game to accept the fact that we were so close to perfection and just couldn't quite pull it off.
We weren't sure how that miss would affect Brad's chances of winning the Groza. I still believed he had it, but you never know how the voters will vote.
Finally, Dec. 11 rolled around and it was time to head to Orlando. It wasn't until we got to Disney and made our way to the awards show location that I realized the enormity of this award. Everyone who is anyone in college football was at the show, including coaches, players and commentators. Sitting directly in front of me was Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, and sitting not far to my right was Alabama coach Nick Saban.
When it came time to announce the Lou Groza winner, my heart was pounding so hard. There isn't a word in the English dictionary to describe how I felt when they announced Brad's name. As he was making his way to the stage I was having flashbacks of memories from our two-year journey, of all those hours we put into perfecting our operation. After all the anticipation, there was now closure. We pulled off what I still think is a miracle. Brad won the Lou Groza.
I truly believe that God has a plan for us all and he puts us in certain places for a reason. I mean, who would have thought that a kid from Adelaide, Australia, and a kid from Charlotte, North Carolina, some 10,000 miles apart, would come together in College Park, Maryland, and win one of the most prestigious awards in college football?
Over the past two years, I received something much larger than any award or trophy. When you accomplish a dream that goes beyond anything you could have ever imagined, you realize that it wasn't the award itself that was so special, but the process that got you to that moment and the relationship that will live on for the rest of your life.