Scroll to the bottom to listen to Episode 10 of our Get Home Safe podcast, in which Austin and Andy talk Penn State, this upcoming week's (probable) win against Purdue and whether an 11-win season cements 2015 as Northwestern's best season ever. (No, actually).
By Will Fischer
It’s the strangest job in sports. For most of the game, you’re stuck on the sideline, with nothing to do but watch. But when your number is called, the game rests solely on you – and you'd better not miss.
Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell knows it all too well.
“[Being the kicker] is very different than just about any other position in sports,” Mitchell said. “You have to approach it how it is. You know the game is going to come down to you more often than not. You just have to stay focused and keep your mental approach strong.”
If you read the headline from Northwestern’s thrilling 23-21 victory over Penn State on Saturday, Mitchell’s game winning 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left pins him as the hero, the saving grace for the Wildcats.
But a whole lot happened before that.
It was a kicker’s nightmare, as Mitchell missed a 39-yarder in the first quarter, an extra point in the second quarter, and a 47-yarder in the third. It was the first time in the redshirt junior’s career that he had missed more than one field goal in a game. But with just seconds to play, down 21-20, Mitchell trotted back out on to the field for redemption.
“I was reminded the entire time that the game was pretty much on me,” Mitchell said after the win. “It wasn’t a good day for me. If I made my field goals and extra points we would have been up by six at that point. You just have to try to not let yourself get down at all, even though you’re not doing well. Just stay up, Fitz was telling me the whole game that you’re going to be coming up big for us at the end of the game and I just tried to stay as focused and calm as possible.”
On the surface, sports are physical – the focus is on becoming bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled. But for kickers, the mental side of the game is even more significant.
“The mental aspect is the most important thing by far when it comes to kicking,” Mitchell said. “It’s basically everything.”
Every kicker can drill a 35-yard field goal in practice. But can you do it when the clock is ticking down, the crowd is deafening, and the pressure is crippling?
For kickers, this is normal – this is expected. The fate of the game often rests in the smallest guy’s hands, the one who has been on the field for less than 10 plays, the one who is barely a part of the game.
“I don’t even watch a lot of the game – a lot of the game I’m sitting down or I’m just watching it on the video board,” Mitchell said. “[During the Penn State game] I was sitting on the heated benches with my sweatpants on. You’re not really a part of the game for most of the time. You just have to stay focused, stay with your routine, stay warm and stay loose.”
A kicker had better stay focused and loose, as the difference between a missed or made field goal in a key spot seems to carry greater weight these days.
After Alabama kicker Cade Foster missed three field goals (one of which was blocked) in Alabama’s devastating 34-28 Iron Bowl loss to Auburn in 2013, he received death threats and slews of malicious tweets. In 2010, Boise State kicker Kyle Brotzman missed two key late field goals in a 34-31 loss to Nevada. He, too, was the recipient of numerous death threats and even more hate mail.
The pressure on kickers is enormous. They are either carried off on their teammates’ shoulders or cursed out under their teammates’ breath. They are either revered or despised. The hero or the goat.
All for one kick. How does Mitchell do it? Simple.
“You just have to treat it like any other kick,” Mitchell said. “The crowd is going to be loud, but you just have to focus and realize that it’s any other kick. Just visualize it and stay as calm as possible.”
While the laid-back California kid makes it sound easy, Mitchell has excelled under pressure before. Most remember Mitchell’s name from his game-tying and game-winning field goals in South Bend, where he led the Wildcats to a 43-40 overtime upset over No. 18 Notre Dame last year. It was a remarkable performance, as all of Mitchell’s four field goals were longer than his previous career record of 29 yards, including a 45-yarder to tie the game with 19 seconds left and a 41-yarder to win the game in OT.
“Gaining that experience and being in that situation before is huge,” Mitchell said of his performance in the Notre Dame upset. “Having that preparation and knowing that I’ve done it before gives you that extra confidence that you need.”
Mitchell, a two-sport athlete, also plays outfield for the baseball team at NU. Like kicking, baseball poses countless mental challenges, although in different ways.
“Baseball is different than kicking,” Mitchell said. “Kicking, you’re expected to go 100 percent so it’s a bigger deal when you miss. Baseball, if you go 3 out of 10, you’re doing very well. You kind of just apply that sort of mental approach to the kicking side of it. It’s another [challenge that deals with] responding.”
It's hard to tell where Mitchell's multifaceted athletic career will take him, but for now, he will keep on kicking. He will continue to possess that mental toughness that all kickers must have. He will make some big kicks and he will miss some big kicks. Sometimes he will be the hero, and sometimes he will be the goat. But one thing is for sure - he will never shrink from the moment.
"I knew it was going to come down to me the whole time," Mitchell said after the Penn State game. "You just have to expect that."