COLUMBIA — A 24-year-old landscaping company manager and a few friends are sitting in a bar. They're at a bachelor party in the Country Club Plaza area of Kansas City, and the group is watching the New Orleans Saints try to preserve an undefeated season against the visiting Dallas Cowboys. Already holding a seven-point lead, the Cowboys offense has driven down to the New Orleans 7-yard line, and with 2:19 left in the game, Dallas kicker Nick Folk has a chance to kick a 24-yard field that will likely put Dallas ahead for good. Folk has already drilled a 47-yarder at the end of the first half, but he's missed a league-high nine field goals this year, and before the field goal unit trots onto the field, a montage of pregame shanks plays on the screen.
Dallas lines up for the kick. The ball is snapped. The hold is down. Folk swings his right leg through. The ball clanks off the right upright before falling to the turf amid a group of celebrating Saints.
One of the members of the bachelor party turns to the landscaping company manager.
"We're driving to Texas tomorrow," he says. "Let's go see (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones."
The comment is only half in jest. This isn't an armchair quarterback quipping sarcastically at a buddy. Because this time, the buddy is one of the most accurate kickers in the history of college football. This time, the buddy is Jeff Wolfert.
Wolfert spent the year out of football working with his father's landscaping company in Olathe, Kan. And despite three seasons as one of the nation's best kickers, including two that earned him All-Big 12 honors, the former Missouri kicker has earned tryouts with just three NFL teams and is struggling to find a job as a kicker at the professional level.
Wolfert didn't make the drive to Dallas, but he did the next-best thing. Two days after Folk's miss, Wolfert was making a call to Cowboys' Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones. Wolfert left a message. He never heard back. That same day, the Cowboys cut Folk and replaced him with Shaun Suisham, who had been cut by the Redskins after missing a kick in a nearly identical situation to Folk's.
The scenario is typical of transactions involving kickers in the NFL. When searching for a replacement, teams often look to players who have been with a team for at least the preseason, a situation that Wolfert anticipated in his first year out of college.
"I thought for sure I’d at least be able to get into some team’s preseason camp," Wolfert said. "I thought that was going to be kind of a worst-case scenario.
"And if you’re not in someone’s camp to get preseason film, whether you get cut or not, you’re not going to have any opportunities afterward."
Rather than sticking with a team through the preseason and giving himself a chance to land a job once teams began cutting struggling kickers, Wolfert has only been granted tryouts with three NFL teams. The first of which was the Chicago Bears, whose coaching staff worked Wolfert out in Columbia while he was still at MU and again at the team's rookie minicamp. The second was this past spring with the Kansas City Chiefs, and it was then that Wolfert discovered the change from kicking in college to kicking in the NFL.
For many positions the transition to the NFL from college is a difficult one that involves an increase in speed and complexity of the game. As a placekicker, Wolfert says, it actually gets easier. The hashmarks on NFL fields are much closer together than those on a college field, which results in field goals with much easier kicking angles. For a kicker who made 86.3 percent of his field goal attempts from inside of 50 yards in his collegiate career, it would be reasonable to assume that accuracy was translate to the pro game. But in speaking with Chief's special teams coach Steve Hoffman following his tryout, Wolfert learned that accuracy wasn't as valued as he once thought. Hoffman told him that he wanted someone who could put kickoffs through the back of the endzone. He could teach anybody to kick field goals.
"That’s pretty much the opposite of what I am," Wolfert said. "I can kick field goals at a very accurate rate, and I feel that my kickoffs are adequate for the NFL level. But they’re not eye-popping."
Wolfert said that in each of the tryouts he's attended, including a trip to Atlanta last week to work out for the Falcons, it's the guy with the biggest leg that gets the most attention. It's not whether the ball goes between the uprights. It's how high it flies above the crossbar.
"It’s stuff that I feel could be overlooked," Wolfert said of the qualities he thinks coaches are looking for. "They should look on paper. Look at numbers at who’s making more field goals."
Wolfert says that the process has been a frustrating one. With his production at the collegiate level and the relative struggles of professional kickers this season, it seems like an opportunity is long overdue. But the lack of chances hasn't stopped Wolfert from taking every possible step toward catching on with a team next season. Wolfert's agents represent two NFL kickers.
"They just keep saying, ‘Keep knocking on the door. Your opportunity will come. Don’t be discouraged,’" Wolfert said. "That’s kind of how it is. If you’re willing to put forth the effort and the right offer comes in, hopefully you can make the best of it."
Wolfert hasn't looked into the possibility of kicking in an indoor football league or with the recently-formed United States Football League, and while he said that he would kick in Canada if no opportunities came along, Wolfert believes that he belongs at the highest level.
"I feel like I should be kicking in the National Football League, but the opportunities that have been granted to me don’t prove that I’m worthy of that," Wolfert said.
"It’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time," Wolfert said. "I think that if I can get into preseason somewhere and get some film, when they do the kicking carousel thing again next year, I’ll be on people’s short lists."