CHICAGO – Joey Slye could have quit. Most would have.
The Buccaneers didn’t want the kicker after a rookie minicamp tryout last summer. Neither did the Browns. Then after spending all of last season away from football, Slye got a chance with the Giants in May. He was cut a week later. The Giants called again on the eve of training camp last month. He was cut four days later.
So why keep going?
“I promised my brother, who passed away in 2014, that I would make it,” Slye explained after making field goals of 29, 42 and 55 yards in the Panthers’ preseason-opening win over the Bears.
If you were watching closely, you might have seen Slye hold up six fingers after each of his makes. 6 is the number AJ Slye wore in high school before heading to play linebacker at Salisbury University.
“He came home after his first semester and was diagnosed with leukemia. He then passed away 14 months later,” said Joey Slye, who has two tattoos on his back. One represents the Slyestrong#6 Foundation. The other is the tattoo AJ Slye was supposed to get when he beat cancer.
For Joey Slye, Thursday was why he keeps kicking. It was also a huge high in what’s been a roller coaster kicking career.
After walking-on at Virginia Tech, he became the Hokies’ all-time leading scorer. But Slye went 15-for-22 on field goal attempts his senior season, and the NFL wasn’t all that interested in a kicker who made just 68.2 percent of his tries.
“Coming out, I didn’t have a very good product to where a lot of teams were kind of iffy on me. I’ve just been working my butt off to get an opportunity to come back and show that I got,” said Slye, who once made a 70-yarder:
“Ultimately, I’ve got a big leg. And that’s why everyone says that accuracy has always been an issue.”
So Slye spent the past year meticulously working on the part of his game that too often let him down. If he could improve the accuracy, it may all come together.
It sure did last Wednesday in Spartanburg.
After the Panthers had finished their sixth training camp practice, a handful of offensive line prospects worked out for front office staff and coaches. Meanwhile, on and adjacent field, Slye quietly had his own tryout. That ended with a bang when he nailed a 66-yarder.
“I hit a 56 or 58 and I didn’t even realize where we were at. (Coach) asked me if I wanted to back up and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go 66,’” Slye said.
The Panthers added Slye because Graham Gano has been battling what head coach Ron Rivera said is “a tired leg.” That’s why it was Slye and not Gano kicking against the Bears. Still, Slye’s impressive debut made some speculate whether this could turn into a competition. But according to Rivera, Slye’s role is to give Gano “rest.” Plus, it’s not like every team (see: Chicago) has a settled kicking situation. So the kicks Slye made Thursday could be more valuable than just helping the Panthers win a preseason game.
“It’s an interesting set of circumstances because of what’s going on throughout the league. There’s always a need for good players, and when you have a lot of good players, people will call you, people will reach out and ask,” Rivera said. “So we’ll see what happens. Joey did a great job. He was given an opportunity and he took advantage of it.”
He also gave teammates a reason to get to know him better.
“Literally one of the offensive linemen dapped me up after one of the field goals and was like, ‘I didn’t even realize you were the kicker,’” said the 5-foot-11, 213-pound Slye, who doesn’t look like a kicker.
“I’ve been getting that since I was in high school.”
And it's continued into the pros for a guy who professed, “I’m in love with the weight room.”
Which led to this story:
“I tried out and got on the (Panthers) and am getting my locker all set up and everyone’s kind of walking past me, not realizing that I’m the kicker. And I started hitting kicks in practice and half of them are like, ‘I thought you were brought on as a linebacker.’”
Added quarterback Kyle Allen:
“The swole kicker? ... He’s impressed. Good for him for taking advantage of his opportunities.”
So for one night, at least, Slye lived out the dream. But to kick in games that count – that’s the promise to his brother he still plans to fulfill.
“This is preseason. Ultimately these are kicks that are live on film, but as soon as the regular season starts, that’s the ultimate game,” Slye said.
“This isn’t a journey that’s going to end quickly.”