SPARTANBURG Since 2007 Justin Medlock has kicked for the Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams, Toronto Argonauts, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Omaha Nighthawks (for two days), Toronto again, Edmonton Eskimos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“It’s just like a triple A player trying to get to the major leagues,” Medlock says. “Just fighting.”
The current fight is to become Carolina’s kicker. The competition is the incumbent, Olindo Mare, who is beginning his 16th NFL season.
“It’s very close,” says Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “We’d like to make a decision as we get into the third preseason game…Once we finish that third one we’ll have a really good idea of the direction we’re headed.”
Their work in Friday’s exhibition against Miami and in the Aug. 26th exhibition against the New York Jets likely will determine the winner.
“I’d love to get in a situation where we can do a hurry-up just before the half and do one at the end of the game for each guy because I think that’s a real good indicator,” Rivera says.
Medlock, who is left-footed, was drafted out of UCLA by Kansas City in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. The Chiefs traded Lawrence Tynes and handed Medlock the job. But he was 3 of 6 in the preseason, and in the season opener he hit from 27 yards and missed from 30. The Chiefs cut him and he hasn’t kicked in an NFL regular-season game since.
“When I was in Kansas City I just wasn’t ready for it,” says Medlock. “Everything was thrown on my plate, just given to me. It might have been better if I could have challenged somebody. Even having Olindo here, he’s a great kicker, and you learn things from somebody like that.”
Medlock’s first kick as a Panther was a disaster. After a Mare field goal Medlock kicked off. Trindon Holliday, a former track star at Louisiana State, caught the ball at the Houston 10 and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Medlock hit a 48-yard field goal that looked as if it would have been good from 60.
“It’s kind of funny because – it’s not funny but my field goal went farther than my kickoff,” says Medlock. “So that’s a bad thing. My kickoff was my first kick and I think I was a little jittery and I let my coverage team down and I take full responsibility for that return.
“I don’t get many opportunities so I could be gone in three weeks or I could be here for a long time. And that kickoff could be maybe a determining factor of why I didn’t make this team.”
The Panthers are the closest Medlock has come to an NFL roster since his rookie season. Triple A can be an adventure, as “Bull Durham” will attest. But Triple A is supposed to be a place you pass through en route to whatever comes next.
“This is probably my last go around,” says Medlock. “I’ll give it this whole year. I’ll give it my best and if I don’t make it then I don’t make it. I think I can kick in this league but at the same time you can’t chase this forever.”
Friends embark on careers, start families and develop equity in life. Medlock trains, waits and tries out.
“I’ve been kicking in Canada and I love Canada and that’s a great experience but trying to make it, it’s like I put my life on hold,” Medlock says. “You want to get married, you want to have kids. You don’t want to have kids if you’re jobless and unemployed. So that’s why I think this will probably be the last go around.”
At practice kickers stand and wait and kick with the other kickers. Then comes a quick whistle and they rush onto the field with the position players. Then they go back to their field. It’s like they leave the kids’ table to join the adults and then they have to go back to their own table again.
“All I want is just one game, enjoy it, show what I can do, see what I can do and if I can’t do it I can’t do it,” Medlock says.
He grew up a soccer player in Freemont, Calif., outside San Francisco. He also loved basketball. He especially loved North Carolina basketball. He loved their style and success.
“I used to watch every single game,” Medlock says. “When I was a little kid I wore a UNC ball cap during the game and I’d write the player of the game, Kris Lang or Ronald Curry, on the cap.”
He had to write a book report for school and did it on Tar Heel basketball recruiting. When he went to North Carolina’s football camp his mom asked him if he wanted to visit Duke.
“I was like, NO!” says Medlock. “I hate Duke.”
He even cheered for the Tar Heels when he kicked for UCLA.
Last December he’s at home in Palm Beach, Fla., where he lives with his girlfriend, Hannah Jun, a professional golfer out of UCLA who plays on the Ladies European Tour.
He walks through a mall and sees North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams coming out of a pizza joint.
Says Medlock: “I was like wow, Roy, and I was so shocked and I said, ‘What’s going on and what are you doing in Palm Beach?’ And he said, ‘I’m just recruiting a kid,’ and he’s like, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘I’m Justin Medlock but don’t worry about me.’
“I just, I couldn’t – it was shock for like 10 minutes. I was completely shocked because Roy Williams is like a god.”
I remind Medlock that Michael Jordan, a Tar Heel for life, owns the Charlotte Bobcats, and tell Medlock I often see Panthers sitting at or near courtside at Bobcat games.
“Well, that will be the goal,” he says.
If Medlock is still in town when the Bobcats open the season his six-year, 10-team journey finally will have come to an end.