During the season, it's what every NFL player that's not on a team can't wait to see. Their agent calling in the middle of the week. It means that there's a chance.
That being said, stepping into a locker room and into a starting role in the middle of the season is difficult. That's what I had to do here last fall when Andy Lee got hurt. There is a lot of pressure for things to be seamless.
But, I was fortunate that the team that called on me was Carolina.
That prior spring I was here working for a spot, and I had built camaraderie with kicker Graham Gano, long snapper J.J. Jansen and other players and coaches. Obviously, you never wish an injury on another player, but I was excited to return to the locker room because of those relationships that I already had and because it was the opportunity that I was waiting for.
I thought that I punted pretty well in those last seven games of 2016 for Carolina. After a fall of bouncing around from different cities, it was nice to have a jersey each week and to have your number called.
However, it led to the spring and summer of 2017. It was stressful. Andy Lee returned from injury and we had two punters battling for one spot.
I am no stranger to adversity or stress or the constant lack of clarity, since I had done it for three years prior to that with Oakland, St. Louis, Carolina, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Atlanta and then Carolina again. I had bounced around everywhere, and I knew that this was a big chance for me.
I love competing. I've been a competitor ever since I was little, and I embraced that this summer. But it was stressful, not just for me, but also my family. I have a fiancé and two kids who are 6 and 7 years old. I think my fiancé has been so strong, dealing with the constant back and forth of me not being home. It's hard on the kids at that young of an age to conceptualize and understand why it was that I had to go from St. Louis to Baltimore to Cleveland for work. It doesn't make sense to them. They are probably stronger to adversity than I am, just because of the things they had to endure.
During the summer, they would come up from Atlanta some weekends to watch practice. It was like a new vacation to see a different place and do different things which was special to them and special to me. It brought them a lot of joy. But underneath that joy I know there was some sadness to it and a little extra motivation for me to go to work every day and do everything I can for them. To give our family life a little more stability.
It's almost impossible to win a punting competition in practice. Especially against a Pro Bowler. It's a pretty unique situation because most places will just bring in backups to have some insurance. You rarely get a truly even offseason punting competition for a starting job, but that's what happened. It was probably one of the most competitive situations that I've ever been a part of. Andy's career and his production spoke for itself, and while I was competing, I took every opportunity I could to learn from him.
If having a punting competition was rare, then having a kicking competition going on at the same time is even rarer. It was amazing to sit back and see the battle that went on between Andy and myself and the battle that went on between Graham Gano and Harrison Butker. I think what was more unique is the friendships we forged. In the meantime, we went on the field and competed and did everything we could, but we all understood the business side and there wasn't any animosity toward each other. Between us, it was like we've been together forever. That was the unique part, that we could build those relationships in such a competitive environment where guys may get territorial and standoffish. But I came to respect all of those guys so much and was privileged to get to be a part of that with them.
Coach (Thomas) McGaughey was a big part of keeping us all together. Not a lot of people know it, but when I came out of college at Tennessee, he was the special teams coordinator with the New York Jets and they brought me in for rookie minicamp. He also coached against me when he was at LSU and I was at Tennessee. So it was just a neat dynamic between the two of us. I think he's brought out a lot of confidence in me.
The week of the San Francisco game to open the regular season was a whirlwind. I had won the starting job not long before, and when I stepped onto that field I literally felt like it's where I belong. Of course I'd been waiting for this opportunity for four years, and to be able to get a real opportunity to compete for a real starting job and go out in the first game was so much fun. I wasn't nervous. It was like I had been there for years. That was the point that I realized, "I know I can do this. I belong." Hopefully I can keep doing it for a few more years.