HOTSEAT- Kickin' it: Novak believes in second chances
When the football leaves Nick Novak's foot, he knows he's pushed it wide. With just 31 seconds left, he trudges alone to the FedEx Field sideline. His missed 49-yard field goal leaves plenty of time for the Dallas Cowboys to drive deep enough into his Washington Redskins' territory to make the field goal he's just shanked.
The former Albemarle High School standout also knows that this thrill-of-victory/agony-of-defeat existence is precisely what he signed up for when he became an NFL kicker. But such a career was far from Novak's mind when Albemarle High football coach Rick Vrhovac persuaded the sophomore soccer player to moonlight booting field goals for the Patriots. He soon found himself making the game-winning field goal in the state quarterfinals against E.C. Glass.
"I remember the team piling on me," Novak says, "and thinking, 'I want to do that again!'"
For a time, Novak admits, his hardest decision was which sport to pursue. "I'd always played soccer with my twin brother, Chris. But I prayed about it, and this opportunity presented itself. It came down to which would help my family most with paying for school."
Although recruited by UVA, where his parents were professors, Maryland offered a full scholarship. "I used to watch UVA games from that big hill," he says. "The first game I played back in Charlottesville [as a Terrapin], I looked up at that hill and knew I had accomplished a goal."
Novak went on to become the all-time leading scorer in ACC history. But despite his impressive numbers, all 32 NFL teams passed on drafting him when he graduated in 2005. But when the Redskins lost kicker John Hall to injury later that year, they called Novak. Then, after his stint in Washington, he signed with the Arizona Cardinals, where during the off-season in the hot desert sun he treated the Cardinals' practice field as his proving ground.
"The misperception about kickers is that they're soft," he says. "But anybody who knows me knows I'm a team player and always train the way everyone else does."
Novak was reminded of the nomadic nature of life in the NFL when the Cardinals released him in August. "There are only 32 jobs out there," he says, "so the pressure is higher. But that's why you do it."
Unemployed but undeterred, Novak continued to practice. Last month, John Hall suffered a season-ending injury, and the Redskins rang again.
"It was awesome to get that call," says Novak. "I was literally coming off the field, having just finished a workout, feeling confident about kicking the ball."
At the Redskins-Cowboys game on November 5, that confidence is sorely tested. In his first home game, Novak stands on the sideline with six seconds to go, watching Cowboys kicker Mike Vanderjagt line up a 35-yard kick after Novak's 49-yard miss. One play might make him jobless again.
But then comes what players call the "double-thud"– the sound of a blocked field goal. Redskin Sean Taylor picks up and runs the ball into Cowboy territory. And with :00 on the clock, the referee announces there's a 15-yard penalty against Dallas. Suddenly, Novak has a 47-yard shot at redemption.
He does what he does every kick.
"When I take my three steps back, I find my target. I take a deep breath; I take two steps over and focus on taking everything to the sweet spot," he says.
That sound is the gasp of 90,000 people holding their breath. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs can't watch. The ball sails to the right again, but at the last moment, it curls back and barely nips through the uprights.
And the Skins win, 22-19. As Novak's teammates mob him at midfield, tears are streaming down his face.
How does this one compare to the one against E.C. Glass?
As he runs off the field, hoisting his helmet aloft, he smiles. "This one's a little different!"
Editor's Note: Hook reporter Lindsay Barnes picked a good game to see Novak.
What's best about Charlottesville? Moving from San Diego when I was in seventh grade, I wasn't used to seeing a lot of mountains and rolling hills and trees.
Least? A certain private school
Favorite hangout here? The Tavern. Best French toast I've ever had in my life.
People would be surprised to know about you: Most people don't know I have a twin brother.
What would you change about yourself? I wish I were a better public speaker.
Proudest accomplishment? Graduating after having been on the dean's list every semester I was at Maryland.
People find most annoying about you: I'm a little forgetful sometimes. I act like I'm 80 years old, but I'm taking my ginseng.
Whom do you admire? Coach V [AHS football coach Rick Vrhovac]. He's a great leader, strong in his faith, brings out the best in his players.
Favorite book? I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Subject that causes you to rant? Traffic
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Being in the NFL
Biggest 21st-century creep out? All these terrorist cells out there bother me.
What do you drive? A 2001 Ford Escape, and it's paid for.
In your car CD player right now: It's always changing. I listen to everything from reggae, to classic rock, to jazz, to country, to Eminem.
Next journey? To be the best kicker in the league. If I'm going to do something, I don't want to do it halfway.
Most trouble you've gotten in? I pulled the fire alarm in kindergarten, and when the school came outside, the principal put me on his shoulders for everyone to see who did it.
Regret: Being away from my twin brother Chris and my older brother Andrew so much. Whenever I get the opportunity, I try to see them, but in football you rarely get to go home for Christmas or Thanksgiving. I'd never change anything, but those are the repercussions.
Favorite comfort food: Chocolate chip cookies
Always in your refrigerator: Some form of chicken and lots of Vitamin Water.
Must-see TV: Heroes and House
Favorite cartoon: Family Guy
Describe a perfect day. Waking up, having an omlette and French toast at the Tavern, having a one o'clock game, kicking the game-winning field goal, celebrating with my family afterwards, then watching the sunset on a Pacific beach.
Walter Mitty fantasy: When my football career is over, I want to be a physical therapist.
Who'd play you in the movie? My twin brother
Most embarrassing moment? In the dining hall at Maryland, Chris Kelly pulled my chair out from under me in front of thousands of people.
Best advice you ever got? If you've never fallen, you don't know what it's like to get back up.
Favorite bumper sticker? Fear the Turtle
Washington Redskins kicker and Albemarle High alum Nick Novak booted a 47-yard field goal with no time left on the clock to beat the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, November 5.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER