Can Eagles' rookie kicker Henery rebound from two misses?

Posted: October 08, 2011

Alex Henery remembers the exact place and time he received the call.

No, not that call.

This was just before the draft, when Henery was working at Memorial Stadium, the home of University of Nebraska football, where the kicker booted field goal after field goal on the way to becoming a Cornhusker legend.

But Henery wasn't on the field practicing his chosen profession, or at least the one he had hoped would entice an NFL team to draft him. He was waiting for an elevator that would take him to the skyboxes that were being built for the Cornhusker fans who consider Nebraska football a religion, and in certain cases have built shrines to the kicker from Omaha.

Henery, a graduate of Nebraska's construction management program, was getting paid as a student employee to help with, among other tasks, the installation of more than a half-million dollars worth of TVs in the new skyboxes.

And that's when his cellphone rang. It had been vibrating almost nonstop for weeks as he fielded calls from NFL scouts. But this call stood out. The unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line was questioning Henery's leadership skills.

"He acted like he was a grad assistant or something," Henery said. "And he was trying to convince me that I wasn't a leader. . . . He was asking me weird questions. I think I just told him how I was a two-year captain."

On April 30, Henery found out who that caller was. The Eagles had just drafted the kicker in the fourth round and the team called to welcome Henery aboard. When Howie Roseman took the phone the general manager fessed up: Remember that call? That was me!

"I guess he just wanted to see how my personality was," Henery said recently, "and how I would handle certain situations like that."

The Eagles had done their homework until that point, sending special-teams coordinator Bobby April to Lincoln, Neb., to meet with Henery and his coaches. But if the team were to draft a kicker - essentially signaling the end of David Akers' long tenure with the Eagles - it had to make sure Henery had the right stuff.

The numbers said so. He finished his collegiate career as the most accurate kicker in NCAA history. He made game-winning kicks, was perfect in conference championship games, and even handled punting duties his last two seasons.

But did Henery have what it took to follow Akers, to survive in hardscrabble Philadelphia and to bounce back when confronted with adversity?

Those answers may come sooner rather than later. After an under-the-radar start to his career, Henery found out firsthand what it's like to fail in front of Eagles fans. He missed two fourth-quarter field goal attempts last Sunday - kicks that would have been enough to beat the 49ers.

And when he was wide right on the second - a 33-yarder - the boos rained down at Lincoln Financial Field as the typically reserved Henery went to the sideline and threw his helmet to the ground.

"A kick like that - it got to me a little bit more than usual," Henery said. "I've just never missed a kick like that - one that close."

In fact, Henery has never missed a big kick, as far as anyone can remember. The question now - one that Roseman and the Eagles had hoped to discover in their scouting - is, can the rookie bounce back?

If he can't Sunday at Buffalo - or even over the next few games - the patience for specialists is significantly shorter than it is for the other players.

"They can be cut in an instant - at any time," April said. "Kickers and punters - those guys walk the plank every Sunday. That's the reality."

A tenacious competitor

In Philadelphia, bullets whiz by as kickers walk the plank.

"You always hear that the Philadelphia fan base is the toughest - not in the NFL, but in all of professional sports. It is ruthless," said Mike Bailey, Henery's high school soccer and assistant football coach. "It is perform or they will turn on you. I'll be honest, it concerns me a bit."

In truth, there are enormous pressures on kickers in every NFL city. And every kicker misses. The ones who last in this league are the ones who can shake off the misses. By the middle of last week, Henery said that he had moved on.

Teammates such as quarterback Michael Vick and wide receiver DeSean Jackson, Henery said, had shown their support. Long-snapper Jon Dorenbos said the kicker had a strong week of practice.

But this is new territory. John Papuchis, Henery's special-teams coach at Nebraska, said that he could recall the kicker missing only "one kick outright" in college. There was a 50-plus-yard attempt into the wind, a block, and several other meaningless misses. For his career, Henery connected on 68 of 76 field goals (89.5 percent).

"At practice when he missed or the very few occasions pregame when he wasn't quite on I would go up to him afterward and ask, 'Are you all right? How are you feeling?' " Papuchis said. "And he would just kind of fluff it off and say, 'I'll be fine. Don't worry about me.' "

Henery is described by himself and by those who know him as "even-keeled," "quiet," or "mellow." He appears innocent, especially compared to the usual NFL player.

"I don't think that's too far off," Bailey said. "He kind of comes off as that 'gosh, aw shucks,' kind of guy. But the thing that a lot of people don't see because they maybe haven't seen him in those moments . . . is underneath all that he is a tenacious competitor."

Soccer Screech

Soccer, like it is for many modern NFL kickers, was Henery's primary sport growing up in Omaha.

"He was kind of a playground legend coming into high school," Bailey said. "He was just doing things that other kids couldn't do at that age."

Bailey suggested to Henery to come out for the football team as a freshman since the two sports' seasons didn't overlap in Nebraska. He had other soccer players that had also kicked for Burke High.

Henery was game, but it took some convincing for his mother, Mary.

"I didn't want him getting hurt, to be honest with you," Mary Henery said.

Bailey said Henery was about 6-foot-1, 125 pounds at the time.

"He looked like Screech from Saved by the Bell," he said.

Henery didn't play much as a freshman, but by his sophomore season the football coaches knew they had something special. In the first game that season, when a punt snap sailed over his head, the right-footed Henery picked up the ball, spun out of a tackle, and left-footed a boot that went 35 yards in the air and rolled another 35 for a 70-yard punt.

"Our head coach rips off his headset and yells down the sideline, '. . . Did he just kick that with his left foot?" Bailey said. "It was just one of those moments when you went, 'He's just got it.' "

His athletic gifts helped, but so, too, did the confidence he gained from being an elite-level striker in soccer, Bailey said. Just like kicking, you may get only a few chances to score, and by the way his coach told it, Henery always delivered.

"I'm pretty confident in myself," Henery said. "Something I take pride in myself is my mental stability. It doesn't take someone to scream at me to raise my confidence."

Henery was so good at soccer that nearby Creighton University, one of the top programs in the country, offered a soccer scholarship. He had burned out on the sport, however, and had planned to walk on at Nebraska, where he could also pursue his passion for engineering.

"Actually, I was surprised," Mary Henery said. "I just assumed he would do soccer. That had always been his major sport."

Instant celebrity

When Henery arrived in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers had just signed Adi Kunalic, one of the top kickers in the nation. No problem. Henery eventually beat him out.

When head coach Bill Callahan and his staff were ousted before Henery's sophomore season, new coach Bo Pellini had Henery compete for the kicker job again. No problem. He won it again.

By the regular-season finale against Colorado, Pellini and Papuchis knew they had made the right choice. Trailing, 31-30, with less than two minutes left, Nebraska faced fourth and 25 on the Colorado 42-yard line.

Pellini couldn't decide whether to go for it, have Henery attempt a 57-yard field goal, or call on Kunalic, who had a stronger leg at the time.

"I told Alex, 'If you believe that you can make it you need to walk up to Coach Pellini and tell him that you can make it,' " Papuchis said. "So he walked right up to Coach Bo and told him that he could make it. Coach threw him in there and the rest is history."

Henery kicked the game-winner and became an instant celebrity in the state of Nebraska. By his senior season his No. 90 jersey was everywhere. A street corner just north of Omaha was named in his honor. During fan day someone gave him a statue of himself. The two most popular people in the state of Nebraska, Bailey said, were Cornhuskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Henery.

It took Henery's wife, Johna - then his girlfriend - some time to adjust.

"She's good-looking so we would go out and everybody wasn't looking at her," Henery said. "They would be, 'Alex, Alex,' and she would be like, "You have more people looking at you than me.' "

It's the same way in Philadelphia with kickers. Akers, now with the 49ers, was beloved here. Just before last week's game, the past and present Eagles kickers met and Akers delivered this message to his replacement: "He said the fans are great," Henery said. "You'll love it here."

But he's got to make the kicks first.

"I think he understands that he has to do a lot to win these folks over," Bailey said. "But it's my understanding, sort of the beauty of the Philly fans is if they hate you you're not going to be around long, but once you can ingratiate yourself to them they'll fight for you to the teeth."

Said Henery: "You get the job done and they'll love you - the life of a kicker."


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.

 

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