Five years ago, Steve Hauschka was playing soccer and lacrosse at tiny Middlebury College in Vermont. Now he kicks for the Baltimore Ravens, who might be headed to the playoffs.
“It’s so funny when I look back on it,” he said.
Hauschka is not the first of his family to wrestle overwhelming odds. His father, Peter, nearly pulled off an even more unlikely feat. Although he ultimately would fail at making the Dallas Cowboys‘ roster as the longest of long shots, he came closer than he or anyone else believed he would.
It was 1967 and Cowboys had Tom Landry, “Dandy Don” Meredith, Bob Hayes and Bob Lilly. They were a good team on the rise. They had almost beaten Green Bay in the NFL championship game the year before, but they did have one weakness: the kicking game.
Would-be kickers certain they could outdo Danny Villanueva, the incumbent kicker and punter, flooded the Cowboys with pleas to try out, sparking the fertile mind of then-general manager Gil Brandt. He produced a novel concept: the Kicking Karavan, a coast-to-coast, 40-day, 29-city open audition.
“We just thought we’d get all these kickers out of the way to see if they were any good,” said Brandt, now an analyst with NFL.com.
Peter Hauschka, along with about 1,400 others nationwide, gave it a try. He learned of the tryout from a friend who saw a flier in Harrisburg, Pa., the tour’s final stop.
“I thought, ‘That’ll be fun,’” he recalled. “I jumped at the chance.”
An Amherst graduate working on a doctorate in biophysics and biochemistry at Johns Hopkins, the 6-foot-6 Hauschka was a talented rugby player. He nailed a 45-yard penalty kick for the Baltimore Rugby Club against a powerful team from Argentina and once drop-kicked a ball 55 yards through the uprights that the referee disallowed because he refused to believe it was a drop kick.
Hauschka, now an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston, practiced kicking a football for about a week. In Harrisburg, he kicked soccer-style, a rarity in those days, and punted as well. He was the only one picked, one of 30 to be invited to Dallas for a “kick-off” at the Cotton Bowl, where the Cowboys played back then.
Hauschka said he did OK at the competition, but he failed to make the cut.
“I was disappointed, but you rationalize things,” he said. “I chalked it up to a great experience.”
Brandt does not remember Hauschka. He does, however, recall several oddities, such as the Memphis bus driver who pulled up to the stadium and insisted he kick quickly “because I have a bus full of passengers waiting.” He booted a couple of long field goals wearing street shoes. The problem was when he had to change to football shoes. Then, Brandt said, the bus driver couldn’t kick.
Two kickers made the team. One was Harold Deters, who told Brandt he wanted to go home because he missed his dog. When Brandt explained that the pooch could join him, Deters, a Cowboys draft pick, changed his mind. But he missed three of four field goal tries and an extra point; Villanueva, who had remained the punter, reclaimed his kicking job.
The Cowboys again went to the championship game, where they lost to the Packers in the famed Ice Bowl. To this day, Brandt regrets not keeping Mac Percival, the other kicker who survived the Karavan. Dallas traded Percival - a teacher and former basketball star at Texas Tech - to the Chicago Bears, for whom he played seven seasons.
Hauschka said the Bears tried to contact him after he returned home, but they kept missing each other. By the time he finally got in touh, the Bears had Percival.
Now his son plays for the Ravens. One of Baltimore’s two kickers, Steve Hauschka handles kickoffs and long field goal attempts, while 18-year veteran Matt Stover kicks the shorter field goals. On Sunday night, when the Ravens host the Washington Redskins, Peter Hauschka and his wife, Barbara, will sit at home in Needham, Mass., and watch their son continue to live a dream that seemed impossible only a few years ago.
“It’s very exciting, and we’re all for him,” Barbara Hauschka said. “He just went about it in his own quiet way. This is a fabulous experience for him.”
Steve Hauschka, at 6-4 and 210 pounds, excelled at soccer and lacrosse at Middlebury, a private school with an enrollment of about 2,350 that competes at the lowest NCAA level, Division III. After his freshman year, his football-playing roommates talked him into trying out for the team.
“They needed a kicker,” he said matter-of-factly.
He kicked for three years, set school season and career field goal records and earned a degree in neuroscience. With an extra year of eligibility, Hauschka transferred to N.C. State. He made an ACC-best 16 of 18 field goal attempts and took a few graduate courses, including physics. His professor once said to him: “You’re on the football team? Football and physics are mutually exclusive.”
Hauschka, who has been accepted to several dental schools, caught the eye of NFL scouts and signed with Minnesota. When the Vikings tried to sneak him through waivers last summer, the Ravens, who saw Hauschka during a preseason game, grabbed him. He was waived after the season opener, re-signed to the practice squad two days later and signed to the active roster Oct. 30. He kicked a 54-yard field goal against Houston and has boomed several long kickoffs.
For the immediate future, at least, it appears his mother will remain the only dentist in the family.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” he said. “I’m putting everything I have into this right now. … Maybe an outsider would think maybe I don’t fit in because I’m pretty new to the football culture, but I don’t think of it that way.
“I think I belong here. I think I’m talented, and I think I’m gonna have a good career.”