Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff has been kicking nearly all his life, and more recently has also been teaching others through his Cundiff Kicking Camp. In a recent interview, we discussed his kicking career along with various matters of the foot and mind.
Going all the way back to the very beginning, what is your earliest recollection of kicking a ball (any kind of ball, not necessarily a football)?
I started out playing youth soccer. I was probably playing soccer by the time I was eight, or around that age. I played soccer all the way through high school. I moved to Iowa when I was about eleven years old, so then I ended up playing club ball. We had to drive to Omaha, which is 45 minutes from where I moved, a small town named Harlan. I played club ball all the way until I got into high school. Our high school did not have a soccer team - everybody in my small town wanted to play football. I had been playing football since junior high, where I was the quarterback and also happened to be the kicker because of my soccer background. It was a natural progression - I just kind of fell into kicking. But I had been kicking objects, whether it was footballs or toys in frustration from a young age.
Regarding your high school days at Harlan, what is your most vivid kicking memory?
Probably to be honest, it was a string of them during my sophomore year. I was playing varsity. I had four field goals during the regular season and I had four or five field goals in the playoffs, so I doubled my numbers. In the second round I had a game winner to beat our big rival in overtime. Then in the third round, the semi-finals, my field goal ended up being the difference - we won 10 to 7. In the finals, I broke the record for the longest field goal in a finals game, which was 38 yards. I added another field goal, I don’t remember what length. It was just that little run there, but that’s when I started to really get a taste of what could be. I was having a lot of fun. It was fun to play on varsity and then make all-state as a sophomore. That’s when I really started to enjoy it. Before that it was kind of something I did on the side. But at the time I realized it was fun winning football games.
What is your most vivid kicking memory from your college years at Drake University?
Probably the game where I hit a 62 yarder. We were playing at home. In the Midwest early in the year it’s pretty windy. I was warming up pre-game and was hitting 65 yarders pretty easily, because we had probably at least a twenty mile an hour wind going straight down the middle of the field. It was going only in one direction, going towards our scoreboard, from the south headed up north – a nice warm wind. On the opening drive of the game we stalled right around midfield and the coach looked at me and asked ‘do you want it?’ I replied, ‘of course I do!’ So we went out there and I think the other team was shocked, they thought we were going to run a fake or something. We kicked it. I hit the ball - probably one of the best kicks I’ve ever hit. I cleared it with five to seven yards to spare. It set the school record for longest kick. That year I believe it was the second longest [NCAA] kick of the year. It was a lot of fun. The most pressure I felt on a kick was the next kick, which was about a 32 yarder, because you can’t make a 62 yarder and then miss a 32 yarder.
Heading into the NFL, does the K-ball used in games really make as much difference as we’re led to believe?
It does and it doesn’t. It depends where you’re playing. Just to give a little background, the equipment guys are given roughly 45 minutes before the game to work in the footballs, and the referees watch them, so they can’t really do all that much. They can rub them down with a wet to towel to try and get some of the wax off. They can try to beat in the edges a little bit so it’s not as pointy. The way guys have figured out to get around the rules, if you’re playing at a place where you have an older kicker, generally they’re going to have the balls worked in a little bit more, so generally it’s not as much of a factor. Some teams, if they don’t have a kicker that’s really vigilant about it, and make sure that he gets his equipment guys to break in footballs, you can get bad footballs. I’ve had bad footballs that I thought I just killed and then had a kickoff that only goes to the five yard line. Just for a good example, we were playing Indianapolis in a playoff game, and granted it’s indoors, but we had nice footballs and my first kickoff went seven yards deep. That’s a big range between the five yard line and seven yards deep. The K-ball is there, but there are ways to get around it and guys have figured it out.
During your break from having an NFL regular season job, I assume you were working with your kicking camp during those years?
Yea, kicking camp stuff and private lessons are something I do on the side. It helped me to stay connected with the game, especially when I wasn’t playing in the NFL. I was able to help out of bunch of kids. I also have I guess you could say a “real” job, working for a venture capital firm in Phoenix. The kicking camp was a way for me to say “well, if I’m done playing football, how can I help out some kickers take their game to the next level, and how can I myself stay connected to the game.’
Is there anything you acquired or learned through the coaching role that helped you when you were kicking with the Browns and then the Ravens this year?
Yea, there’s a lot of things. The big thing is you’ve got to practice what you preach! There’s a lot of times where I felt like I maybe didn’t demand of my students as much as I should have – whether it’s keeping your head down, or where you focus your eyes, or how to approach certain kicks. I was always ‘you need to do this and you need to that’, and then I would get into a game and think ‘okay, if I was coaching what would I say? Well, this is what I’d do, why don’t I just do that.’ Simple things such as on short field goals don’t try to aim it, you’ve just got to pick your spot and kick through the ball. Same thing with long field goals, you can’t try to guide the ball and try to just put it through, you have to let it go and trust that you’ll have enough distance and that it will stay true to your line if you stay disciplined with your technique. Little things like that, like on kickoffs not trying to be really aggressive, but straddling the line between being aggressive and too aggressive. As the game would go on I would always find things where I’d think, ‘I know what to do here, I’ve taught kids this hundreds of times. I need to just go out and do it’.
You just discussed some of the techniques during a kick. What goes through your mind during the process of a kick?
I try to create a process that is the same each and every time for field goals and one that is the same for kickoffs. I do all my preparation before I actually go on the field, so whether it’s getting my leg warmed up, or going through the different situations doing some visualization. That way when I get onto the field - whether it’s a 25 yard field goal or a 50 yard field goal – I know exactly what I want to do and I’m just going to go out there and make the kick. I’ve got my routine which involves making sure my breathing pattern is the same, using my cue words, and making sure that I don’t over think. Instead I try to not think at all and trust in that I’ve done thousands and thousands of reps. I essentially just try to let go.
How do you achieve clearing you mind?
Sports psychologists will always tell you that ‘you can’t block out, you can only focus in’. When you focus in on something so much, then you naturally block out all the other distractions. In football, coaches because they feel like they don’t know how to talk to kickers, will always say, ‘oh, don’t worry about all this stuff, just kick the ball’. Instead they should say, ‘just focus on the kicking and the rest will take care of itself’. They try to tell you to block it out. Well, you can’t block it out. It’s impossible – you’re mind just doesn’t work like that. If they tell you what to focus on, try to instill a little bit of confidence, they wouldn’t have to worry about all the extra stuff.
Name one thing about being a kicker that most people probably don’t realize.
I think that kickers are really good athletes. If you start looking in the NFL and start looking at the backgrounds of some of these guys, the kickers and punters are not these tiny, non-athletic players anymore. It’s not like the days of the past. Guys were all-state in other sports, as well as football, when they were in high school. This idea that guys are a kicker because they can’t do anything else is nonsense. Most of the players happen to fall into kicking because they’re competitive athletes and they just happen to be pretty good at kicking. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do anything else and kicking was the only option.
This interview sponsored by the National Combine Series.