TDT Digs Up One Story You Need To Hear:
$100 Cash, A Lie & a Poker Club: How Pat McAfee Became an NFL Punter!!!
Long before he partied with Playmates, dated a beauty queen and took that infamous dip in the Broad Ripple canal; before there ever was The Pat McAfee Show, @PatMcAfeeShow and a weekly guest spot on “Bob and Tom”; before the same kid who grew up dreaming of one day living in a house with a staircase bought a million-dollar mansion in Geist; and before he became the NFL’s best punter and most lethal onside kick specialist, there was that smoky, seedy restaurant basement in Pittsburgh where a high school senior refused to let his dream die.
That basement is where it starts. It’s where a boy borrowed $100 from a friend, lied to his parents, snuck into a poker club and doubled down on his future. It’s where Pat McAfee turned $100 into $1,400. It was the money he needed to buy a plane ticket to Miami to prove to college football coaches from across the country he was the best kicker they’d never heard of.
Then he did. It was the final day of a national competition highlighting the best field goal prospects in the nation, and McAfee was angry. He’d been ignored and overlooked all weekend. He had a flight home to catch that afternoon, so he went first.
And he didn’t miss. Not from 25 yards. Or 30 or 35 or 40. Not from 45 or 50 or 55. Not from 60. Not from 65.
He drilled nine straight while the chatter swelled in the coaching box above. Who is this kid? Not until he boomed one from 70 – six yards longer than the current NFL record – did he miss, and even that one had enough leg on it before it sailed wide right.
His holder that day was NFL punting legend Louie Aguiar, and before McAfee darted off the field, caught a cab and headed for the airport, Aguiar turned to him and said, “I don’t know who the hell you are, but you’re going to do big things.”
McAfee shrugged. He didn’t know it at the time, but that day changed everything.
Because without that day, Tony Gibson, the West Virginia football team’s recruiting coordinator, isn’t tapping McAfee on the shoulder in his high school lunchroom in Plum, Penn. the next afternoon, offering him a scholarship. And without McAfee’s four years in Morgantown, punting and kicking his way into the WVU record books, he doesn’t catch the eye of NFL scouts. And without that, there isn’t a phone call from Bill Polian on April 26, 2009, asking him, “Are you ready to be an Indianapolis Colt?”
Eating dinner at a restaurant not far from his new home, McAfee shakes his head, reliving the wild, wondrous ride he’s been on since he sat at that poker table in the basement of that restaurant a decade ago.
Then he smiles. He remembers the hand that earned him his biggest take.
Pat McAfee owes his NFL career to a pair of pocket jacks.
At first, he was supposed to be a professional soccer player.
Then a kicker at Penn State.
Then a Dallas Cowboy.
“So many little things had to happen for me to end up here,” he says of Indianapolis, his adopted home.
If it was fate that brought him here, it wasn’t without trials. Soccer was his first love. It ate up weekend after weekend, but the McAfees kept piling into their Subaru Impreza and driving to tournament after tournament. The sport was Pat’s life. It was the family’s life.
“We probably drove a billion miles in that thing,” says Tim McAfee.
It’s his mom, though, that can take credit for his start in punting. Sally McAfee was scouring the Internet one day when she stumbled on a Punt, Pass & Kick competition. This had Pat written all over it, she thought. Her son would spend hours thumping a soccer ball as hard as he could against the brick wall of their one-story home outside of Pittsburgh.
“You’d hear a boom … another boom … then crash,” Tim recalls, making the sound of a window breaking.
Pat won that competition. And the next. And by the time he was a high school sophomore, he was a national Punt, Pass & Kick champion. Though still a soccer star – to that point he’d never played a down of high school football – he was invited to give field goals a shot at Penn State’s kicking camp.
By the end of that week, McAfee says, the Nittany Lion coaches promised a scholarship. “You’re our guy,” they told him. He kicked field goals for his high school team that fall, then returned to the camp the next summer only to find out the staff had invited a lefty named Kevin Kelly to compete with him for the week.
“I beat him,” McAfee says. “We think everything’s good, so we don’t even worry about recruiting. And then, like a few months later, I hear on the radio one day that Penn State has offered Kevin Kelly a scholarship.”
Pat was crushed. He shifted his attention back to soccer. He was done with football.
“What a waste, a complete waste,” he told his parents.
But Tim McAfee wasn’t one to let his son quit. He scrapped together a highlight film of Pat drilling field goals from as far as 60 yards and mailed it to every Division 1 college he could think of. Kent State was the only school that called.
That’s where he was headed until his phone buzzed in the middle of physics class on a December day his senior year. McAfee answered. It was Mike McCabe, a kicking guru who was hosting a national competition for high school players in Miami in a few days. A hundred or so college coaches would be in attendance. Any interest?
McAfee was in. The only problem? The trip would cost $1,500. Tim and Sally held firm: You’ve made a verbal commitment to Kent State, they told their son. You need to honor that.
But McAfee, ambitious and fearless to a fault, wanted to see what was out there. So he lied. A few nights later he told them he was sleeping over at a friend’s place. He snuck into the basement of that restaurant, won money off men twice his age and bought his plane ticket to Florida. One way or another, he was going to prove he could kick with the best.
And not until the following Monday, after McAfee had wowed the coaches at McCabe’s showcase before quickly bolting for the airport, did Tony Gibson present him with his trophy.
McAfee didn’t even know he’d won.
By the eighth game of his sophomore year in Morgantown he’d earned both the kicking and punting jobs. By his senior year, he’d compiled an average north of 43 yards a punt, knocked in 58 field goals (a long of 52) and was the school’s all-time leading scorer.
“If I’d ended up at Kent State,” he says now, “who knows if I’d even have kicked and punted? It’s crazy how things played out.”
At the time, he figured if he had a shot at the NFL, field goal kicking would be his meal ticket.
Left off the invite list for the NFL combine, he prepped for his pro day at West Virginia. Then, with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin running the workout in front of dozens of NFL scouts, he aced it.
“I had the best day of my life,” McAfee says. “Literally, the best day of my life.”
He later worked out for three teams: Indianapolis, Dallas and New England. It was Ray Rychleski, then the Colts’ special teams coach, who worked him out. Afterwards, he was brutally honest.
“I have two other kickers I want,” McAfee recalls Rychleski telling him. “I don’t want to be here, but Bill Polian made me come.”
“After that workout,” McAfee recalls, “I said to myself: Anywhere but Indianapolis.”
It was the Dallas special teams coach who reached out to McAfee the week of the draft, assuring him he was their guy. So McAfee invited friends over to his parents’ house on Draft Day to celebrate. He was going to the NFL. He was going to be a Cowboy. Life was good.
Then came a punch in the gut: Dallas’ late-round pick came and went. McAfee’s phone never rang.
They instead took USC kicker David Buehler. For McAfee, it was the rejection of Penn State all over again.
“The most miserable thing ever,” he remembers.
A few hours later, his phone buzzed. The Colts had swapped spots with Philadelphia to draft him. Polian, then the general manager, was on the line asking him if he was ready to be an Indianapolis Colt.
McAfee was shocked. Elated. Confused.
“The last time we drafted a punter, it was Hunter Smith and he lasted 10 years with us,” Polian told him. “We hope to do the same with you.”
It was then McAfee realized he wouldn’t be kicking field goals in the NFL. He’d be a punter. So the day after the draft, he and his dad drove out to his high school football field.
“We had to figure out how to friggin’ punt,” he says.
He has. Slowly. Steadily. With a few speed bumps, on the field and off. (See: Canal jumping.)
And, just as West Virginia provided the perfect platform for his football career to blossom, Indianapolis has welcomed him as one of its own. He’s become the people’s punter. He’s charming and affable in person, witty and wily on Twitter, a medium that’s helped his stardom soar.
“If DeMarco Murray was to square me up and hit me like he hit 77,” he wrote of the Cowboys running back last season, “I’d poop… No doubt about it.. I’d poop my pants.. Right there on TV.”
And, before a random drug test this season: “Drank a ton of SmartWater before the pee cup drug test … should test positive for intelligence.”
He hosts a weekly television show, hops on “Bob and Tom” regularly and appears on NFL Network once a week. He dated 2010 Miss Indiana Allison Biehle (they’ve since broken up), partied with Kendra Wilkinson, volunteers relentlessly and runs a foundation that provides assistance to military families.
Along with teammate Coby Fleener, he surprised a Purple Heart recipient this summer with a home overhaul – new home theater, new kitchen appliances, new furniture. He’ll host a Halloween party next Friday that will benefit Wish For Our Heroes, a charity that provides benefits for active-duty military.
He spends his free time writing screenplays and poetry, and when he bought his dream home in Geist this past offseason, he convinced his parents to move from Plum into his old house on the Westside.
It can appear, at times, that he’s the busiest man in the city. But there is a conviction in his words when he speaks about this season and this Colts team. He’s never had more fun playing football.
“Not even close,” he says.
It started this past summer: McAfee heeded the advice of veteran teammate Adam Vinatieri, began cutting the junk food from his diet and taking the weight room seriously. He cut 15 pounds. The result is nothing short of the finest season of his career.
He has met every expectation that came with the five-year, $14 million contract the Colts rewarded him with in March. He leads the league in net punting average, kickoff touchbacks, and nine-iron celebrations. He’s pinned 13 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, constantly swinging the field position battle in the Colts’ favor. He’s converted three onside kicks, most in the league.
It’s not a reach to say he’s changing games.
“In the past, we never really unloaded that clip,” says long snapper Matt Overton, one of McAfee’s closest friends on the team. “This year, we have. And you’re seeing what kind of a weapon he can be.”
The accolades have poured in: AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September, then a Player of the Week nod earlier this month. His first Pro Bowl is not out of the question.
“We can be the most dominant special teams unit in the history of the NFL,” he proclaims. “And we know that. And we want that.
“My goal is to change the way people look at punters and kickers.”
The craziest thing about that statement? He already has.
By: Zak Keefer