CHARLOTTE – A day after he officially found out he’d start the season as Carolina’s kicker, Joey Slye had some adulting to do. He spent his Saturday apartment hunting, eventually settling on a place conveniently near Bank of America Stadium. But the biggest perk may be that it’s fully furnished, which means no more trips to the local coin-operated laundromat.
“I’ve been having to wash my clothes a bunch since I’ve been here cause I packed for a week,” said Slye, who had been living out of a hotel the past few weeks.
“I’ve got five pairs of underwear, five pairs of pants, five shirts and I’ve been cycling through them. I’ve been washing them and re-wearing them, so I feel like half the people don’t think I wash my clothes because I’ve been wearing the same stuff around.”
You can’t blame Slye for not packing much when the Panthers invited him to Spartanburg last month. They had an established kicker in Graham Gano, and the past year-plus had shown Slye not to get his hopes up.
Virginia Tech’s all-time leading scorer, Slye graduated in December 2017 with a degree in human nutrition, foods and exercise. He finished a semester early to focus on that spring’s draft, only to go undrafted. The Browns and Chargers gave him a shot at their rookie minicamps, but neither were interested. Neither were the Buccaneers after a tryout in August. So Slye spent last fall living at his parents’ place in Stafford, Va.
“I moved my stuff down into the basement just so I wasn’t in my old childhood room,” he recalled.
So there he was — an unemployed college graduate living in his parents’ basement not knowing if he’d get a chance to kick again.
“It was a really weird feeling that I wasn’t going to be playing during the season,” Slye said. “I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ You can’t go to a job interview and say, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, I could get a call tomorrow, and I could be gone for six months, or I could be gone for six hours.’ Literally, I could fly there, do the workout and come back, which is what happened in Tampa.”
As he waited for another chance that wasn’t guaranteed to come, the “swole kicker” started to train high school athletes in nearby Fredericksburg, Va. It was a backup plan in case the phone never rang again.
It did in April.
The Giants were on the other line, and while it was an opportunity, it wasn’t much of one. Because New York already had a Pro Bowl kicker in Aldrick Rosas, who went 32-for-33 on field goal attempts last season, Slye had no real chance to stick around long. He was cut after a week. Then, after the Giants brought him back on the eve of training camp, Slye was released four days later.
Such is the life of an undrafted guy with a dream.
“Everyone sees a kid get drafted, they go into camp, they buy a nice car, they buy a house, they have everything kind of set up,” Slye said. “But when I first got signed with the Giants, I went back home, and everyone was like, ‘What are you going to do with the million dollars?’ I’m like, ‘I got a $500-dollar signing bonus, and half of it went to the hotel I just paid for, and the other half is probably paying for the gas I’ll need to drive back.’
“There’s a whole other path that people don’t realize, and I’ve been living that path recently.”
But the road that led Slye to a pair of pit stops up North indirectly gave him his big break.
The Giants’ special teams coordinator is Thomas McGaughey, who spent 2016-17 in a similar role with the Panthers. When McGaughey left, Chase Blackburn took over the unit, and the two stayed in touch. So when Gano’s non-kicking leg started to act up early in training camp, one of Blackburn’s calls for help went to his former boss.
“The time came when we had to think about bringing another guy in, so I reached out to Thomas for information on Joey, who they had just released,” Blackburn said. “He was very optimistic about Joey, so we decided to give him a chance, and he’s made the most of it to date.”
When Slye signed with the Panthers on August 1, few thought much of it. The assumption was he was just a camp leg. When he made all three of his attempts in the preseason opener at Chicago, he was a neat story that could potentially turn into trade collateral. But as the preseason went on and Gano remained sidelined, the possibility that Slye could have an extended stay in Carolina quietly gained momentum. It helped that he kept hitting kicks.
Slye went 7-for-8 on field goals in the preseason, with three of those makes coming from 50-plus yards. His only miss was when the Steelers blocked a 48-yarder last Thursday. So when the Panthers decided to put Gano on season-ending injured reserve, Slye’s success made the move easier to stomach. But for this feel-good story to continue to — feel good — Slye now has to excel in games that count.
“I like those adrenaline situations,” he assured. “When I was a kid, I was a pitcher in baseball, and a lot of times I would load the bases. Like I’d walk three batters, then I’d strike out three in a row. It was just because as soon as the pressure got on me, I locked in a little bit more. I feel like I thrive in those situations.”
While we wait to see how a first-year kicker handles the pressure of a regular season, Slye also needs to prove he’s past problems that haunted him at Virginia Tech, where he made just 72 percent of his kicks.
No one questions Slye’s leg strength. The 23-year-old can boom it. Accuracy is why he’s had such a winding road to the pros. But Slye believes he’s learned from that past and issues that began after he teamed with a new long snapper and holder his junior and senior seasons.
“I tried to scoot myself up a little bit so I could be quicker to the ball. But it ended up messing up my form,” Slye said. “I was jamming myself up, and that’s why a lot of balls missed right. Then when I tried to slide myself back to get my hips through, [the process] would be slow.
“It’s like if you’re golfing and you’re too close to the ball, you jam yourself up and you’re going to leave it right. If you pull yourself too far away from the ball and start swinging around your body, you’re going to pull it left.”
So to correct course, Slye now starts his run-up about a quarter of a yard further than he did in his final seasons at Virginia Tech. It may not sound like much, but it’s enough that he can be quick to the ball while also getting his hips through properly.
“It’s a combination of confidence, trust in my operation and all the work I put in the past year. It’s finally come out,” Slye said.
But if you read the stories coming out of Slye’s debut in Chicago last month, you know he doesn’t believe he’s doing this himself. He feels he’s alongside his brother, AJ, who passed away in 2014 after a fight with leukemia. Before that, Joey Slye described the two as “best friends” who were bonded by a love of sports.
“We talked about trying to be on ESPN when we were little. Every day we’d wake up and watch ESPN again and again and again,” Slye said. “We’d wake up at like 6, leave for school at like 8, so we’d watch two complete run-throughs of the same thing. We’d watch it all the time and we always wanted to get on there.
“I’ve been on there a few times, so I’m trying to get AJ to be on there and have his name talked about just to continue his legacy, to let people know that this is what I’m doing it for.”
Which is why Slye puts up six fingers each time he makes a kick, honoring his older brother who wore number 6 in high school. Slye also promised his brother he’d make it to the NFL.
As he clarified after that game in Chicago, preseason games wouldn’t fulfill that promise. Slye had to make a regular-season roster. Now that he has, he wants a whole lot more.
“I want to be one of the top guys who’s ever played,” Slye said. “It’s not a mindset of I’m only doing it for accolades or getting to the top, but it’s that I promised my brother I’m going to give my best effort. I feel like I have the potential to be a top kicker in the league.
“We’re on a mountain climbing, and once my career’s over, hopefully, I’ll be sitting on the top of the mountain happy with what I’ve accomplished.”
View all of the headshots of the 53 players on Carolina's roster before Week 1.