- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

In what might have been his first and last game with the Washington Redskins, Nick Novak made the go-ahead extra point in an unlikely comeback victory at Dallas. However, it was what he did after giving Washington the lead that many will remember.

Novak, a former Maryland star and the ACC’s all-time leading scorer, is a stand-in while John Hall recovers from a strained quadriceps. He made his NFL debut on “Monday Night Football,” kicking two extra points as the Redskins took a 14-13 lead on the Cowboys with two touchdowns in the last 3:46.

Novak’s final kickoff went to return man Tyson Thompson, who found a seam and headed up the sideline toward a possible game-winning touchdown. That’s when the 6-foot, 190-pound kicker made a game-saving tackle in the Redskins’ biggest win since coach Joe Gibbs returned to the team last season.

“He was gone as far as I could tell before Nick made the play,” Gibbs said. “My heart went right up to my throat on that one.”

Novak knocked Thompson out of bounds at Washington’s 49 with 2:28 left, and the defense preserved Washington’s first win in Texas Stadium in a decade.

“I saw him coming up the hole,” the kicker said matter-of-factly. “I just tried to cut the angle off and use the sidelines. I was just watching his hips. I always heard DBs talk about watching the receiver’s hips. I was trying to stay low and watch his hips. He took it outside and I just dove at him and pushed him out. I don’t think it was too difficult. If it was open field, it might have been a little harder.”

It was not surprising that Novak — who never shied away from tackles at Maryland, although the results could be comical — would be in position to make the play. It is more surprising that he is here in Washington at all after three prior attempts to make the NFL this season.

“I don’t take [getting cut] as a negative,” said Novak, a two-time All-ACC kicker. “I feel like all this is a journey. The experience is what is going to make me better as a person and a kicker. I really got a good sense of what the business is like in Chicago. It is really a performance-based business. You have to get into that mentality every day. Every kick is important.”

The introspective and soft-spoken Novak spent training camp with the Chicago Bears as one of four kickers brought in to compete with 12-year veteran Doug Brien, and he was the last challenger sent home. Novak was picked up by Dallas and kicked in the final preseason game, making a 49-yard field goal. But the Cowboys kept incumbent Jose Cortez.

The Baltimore Ravens quickly called. Novak was among four players invited to a one-day tryout, but he returned home unemployed to West Lafayette, Ind., where both his parents are professors at Purdue.

“He never really looks back,” said his father, Bob Novak, an audiology professor. Nick’s mother, Julie, heads the nursing department. “I think that is one of his major strengths. If he misses a kick, he doesn’t think about it, he doesn’t talk about it. It is just on to the next kick. I think that is good. Some athletes dwell on what might have been.”

A week after Novak was home, the Redskins called and asked him to compete for the role as Hall’s replacement.

Novak shined in the four-man competition, which included 10 field goal attempts from various lengths and eight kickoffs. He was the only one to make all 10 of his kicks. Tyler Jones, a rookie from Boise State, nailed nine. Before Novak experienced “Monday Night Football,” there was Tuesday afternoon angst as the four were sent to a locker room while the coaches picked a winner.

“You just sit and wait,” Novak said of the 20 minutes of uncertainty. “I was more nervous for that than I was for ‘Monday Night Football.’ ”

Novak signed and has been staying at a nearby motel. He plans to move in with relatives in Loudoun County this weekend to save money and avoid the risk of signing a lease. Once Hall is ready to return, Novak may be back in search of a job.

If that is the case, Novak will move on to his next stop feeling better for the experience with a professional resume.

“The funny thing in the NFL is … they all want experience,” said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who was a San Diego Chargers assistant from 1992 to 1996, the final three as offensive coordinator. “They don’t want to take a rookie kicker unless he can prove he can kick for the next 15 years.

“The thing he did is he kicked off very well. That is a concern in the NFL, how well you kick off. That, I guess, has been the knock on Nick. I talked to [Redskins special teams coach] Danny Smith and he told me he really kicked off very, very well. He helped himself, because he is on tape with what he can do.”

Novak credits much of his success to Friedgen’s drills after Monday night practices in College Park, where the kicker, holder and long snapper must launch a made field goal in 1.2 seconds. If the kick is good, the three move back 5 yards. A miss or too much time results in the punishment of immediate running. The drill, which goes out to the 35-yard line, is repeated until the coach is satisfied.

“Four years of Friedgen standing right behind me, that is good practice,” Novak said. “It really comes down to performance and how you are doing when everybody is watching. He was good to me. He really cared about special teams.”

Novak won the job at Maryland as a redshirt freshman by beating out a senior. Although he struggled early in his first season, he etched himself in Terps’ lore with a 46-yard strike to force overtime at Georgia Tech (he later kicked the game-winner). He quickly became dependable as Maryland won the ACC and went to the Orange Bowl.

“Georgia Tech was kind of the beginning of the maturation process,” said Novak, whose 393 points make him fifth on the NCAA all-time scoring list. “[Maryland special teams] Coach Ray [Rychleski] told me it’s a short walk from the outhouse to the penthouse. I kind of realized that when I made that kick. I think I needed to go through that adversity early in my career to be as mentally tough as I think I am.”

Novak shined off the field as well and was named the ACC’s top student-athlete his senior year, graduating with nearly a 3.5 GPA in kinesiology, the study of motion. He plans to take prerequisite courses to get into a physical therapy school perhaps as soon as this offseason.

“He didn’t have much of a social life,” Bob Novak said. “Between academics and all that took and football, there wasn’t much time left. He amazes me by how he keeps it in perspective.”

And how he just enjoys the moment.

“We talked to him before the game,” said Bob Novak, whose family was at the game Monday in Dallas. “He stayed at the Four Seasons. He thought that was great. He had a massage before the game. He was just taking it all in. After the game, he had the same nonplussed kind of attitude he always has and was telling me not to get so excited, ‘Hold it down, dad.’”

Nick ran down a catalog of big kicks in his mind to keep his confidence high while running through his in-game drills to stay loose.

“I have a very good warm-up,” said Novak, who even had a brief on-field chat with ABC’s Al Michaels before the game. “I just felt very confident. When I got on the field, I just wanted to stay calm and act like I had been there before. And not get the big eyes and start looking around. Just try to be a professional. At this level, you have to perform every time you are on the field.”

And if or when he gets the bad news that his time in Washington is over, he will be a professional and thank the team for the opportunity. He is in kicking for the long haul.

But for now, he is relishing playing for Washington and its Hall of Fame coach.

“I just love where I am at right now, and am taking it one day at a time,” he said.

“Obviously you want it to work out as quickly as possible. Sometimes you have to really work for it. That’s just the way life is. It makes it that much sweeter when you actually accomplish your goal.”

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