Snap judgment: A teammate’s selfless act helped preserve Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano’s career

08/16/2014 4:09 PM

08/16/2014 6:22 PM

Before he was one of the NFL’s most efficient and highest-paid kickers for the Carolina Panthers, Graham Gano was a 23-year-old trying to hang on to his job.

On a cold, rainy December afternoon just outside the nation’s capital four years ago, he wasn’t doing a very good job of it.

Gano, then a second-year kicker with the Washington Redskins, had missed a pair of short field goals early in the Week 14 game against Tampa Bay.

The Redskins were in the midst of a miserable season under first-year coach Mike Shanahan, and were desperate for a win when Donovan McNabb pulled Washington within a point with a late touchdown pass.

If Gano could make the extra point, he would tie the score at 17 and give the Redskins a shot in overtime at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

Gano never got the chance.

A botched snap on the extra point – a play so automatic the NFL is experimenting with a longer version this preseason – cost the Redskins the game. As the boos poured down from the rain-soaked fans in the stands, Gano and the team’s other two specialists knew the gaffe would cost one of them their job.

It turned out to be veteran punter and holder Hunter Smith.

Smith’s decision to take the blame for mishandling the snap on the failed PAT resulted in his release two days later. Smith was a 12-year NFL veteran who had won a Super Bowl ring in Indianapolis, but he never played another game after the 17-16 loss to the Buccaneers on Dec. 12, 2010.

But his selflessness helped keep Gano and long-snapper Nick Sundberg employed. Four years later, both Gano and Sundberg are still in the NFL.

Gano, who received a four-year, $12.4 million contract in February to re-sign with the Panthers, doesn’t talk much with Smith, who is in a country rock band and does a lot of speaking engagements in Indianapolis.

But Gano has never forgotten the second chance Smith gave him and the impact he’s had on his personal and professional life.

“It still affects me to this day. He might not even realize that,” Gano said. “But the conversations we had and what he did for me there still affect me today.”

An NFL chance

Gano was born in Scotland, where his parents met while Gano’s father was stationed there for the Navy. Gano grew up outside of Pensacola, Fla., after his father returned to the States, and Gano was recruited to Florida State.

After punting his first three seasons, Gano took over the kicking duties at a school infamous for a series of “Wide Right” missed field goals against rival Miami.

Gano won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker in 2008 after converting 24 of 26 field goals, with a long of 53 yards. He signed with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent, but went to the upstart United Football League after the Ravens cut him.

Gano will always have a place in the annals of the now-defunct UFL, which lasted four seasons before folding in 2012. Gano scored the league’s first points, kicked the longest field goal (53 yards) and booted the championship-clinching kick for the Las Vegas Locomotives during the inaugural 2009 season.

Gano’s success caught the eye of the Redskins, who signed him in December 2009 after they waived Shaun Suisham, who had missed a short field goal in a loss to New Orleans.

Gano was 4-for-4 on field goals during his monthlong tryout, and the Redskins brought him back in 2010 after Shanahan replaced the fired Jim Zorn.

Gano struggled the following season, as did the Redskins. Through 12 games, Gano had made 21-of-29 field goals, and Washington dragged a 5-7 record into the game against Tampa Bay on a dreary day in D.C.

It was raining when the game started at 1 p.m., and it never let up.

Gano failed to drive the opening kickoff into the end zone, a sign of bad things to come for the Redskins’ special teams.

A rough day

After McNabb, who’d joined the Redskins that offseason after 11 years with NFC East rival Philadelphia, moved Washington into scoring range on its first drive, Gano jogged out for a 34-yard field goal attempt.

The snap and hold were good, but Gano banged the ball off the left upright. Television replays showed Gano glancing back at the goalpost, almost in disbelief, as he returned to the sideline.

He missed another field goal – this one a 24-yarder – in the second quarter, then nearly blew an extra point when he pulled it just inside the left upright. Even after hitting a 25-yard kick before halftime, Gano began to wonder if he might suffer the same fate as Suisham a year earlier.

“I missed two very makeable kicks and I’d never experienced that before. It was kind of one of those things in my head, I was like, ‘How is this happening?’ ” Gano recalled recently. “I remember going back to the bench near the end of the game and I was like, ‘Hey guys, this might be it.’ I’d missed some kicks earlier on in the year, too. So I just thought this might be my last opportunity.”

Gano was more optimistic when McNabb drove the Redskins deep into Tampa Bay territory in the final minute. McNabb’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss cut the Bucs’ lead to 17-16 with nine seconds left.

“I was thinking at that point, OK, we’ll hit this extra point and then we’re going to go into overtime and I’m going to kick the game-winner and it’ll be good to go.”

While the Redskins were lining up for the PAT, color analyst Daryl Johnston sounded a cautionary note on the Fox broadcast.

“Folks, this isn’t over yet,” Johnston said. “Because Graham Gano is 0-for-2 on field goals (1-for-3 actually), one of them very short, and he just snuck an extra point inside the left upright earlier this game.”

Almost on cue, Sundberg’s high snap sailed through Smith’s hands and past Gano, who turned around and tried to scoop up the ball. The Bucs’ E.J. Biggers drove Gano into the turf and another Tampa Bay player fell on the ball.

“It was a nightmare,” Gano said.

While Johnston talked about the play symbolizing the Redskins’ season, the Fox cameras showed Gano writhing on the ground in pain. He’d suffered bruised ribs on the hit from Biggers, forcing Smith to try the onside kick.

Smith’s kick failed to get a high hop, and Tampa Bay made an easy recovery on what turned out to be the last play of Smith’s career.

‘Let me take the heat’

As Smith returned to the sideline – the Bucs had to come out for a final snap to run out the clock – he found Sundberg and Gano. Four years later, all three remember the conversation the same way.

“He came to us and was like, ‘You guys are both still young. Let me take the heat for this one,’ ” Gano said. “He looked at Nick and I and was like, ‘You guys have a lot of years left. I’ve played plenty of years, and I’d like to take the heat.’ ”

The Fox cameras after the game stayed on Smith and Sundberg, who’d been cut by the Panthers and Baltimore in 2009 before catching on with Washington in 2010. Sundberg, Smith and Gano joined several players from both teams in kneeling at midfield for a postgame prayer.

During media interviews in the Redskins’ locker room, all three players took responsibility for their roles in the loss. But Smith was adamant the aborted field goal was his fault.

“I have to catch the ball. It doesn’t matter where it is,” Smith told reporters. “I’ve caught a lot of high snaps.”

Reached by cell phone four years later, Smith said he wasn’t trying to be a martyr in accepting blame.

“If I’m completely honest, it wasn’t Nick’s best snap. It was just one of those deals where it was wet, (and) it slipped through my hands,” Smith said. “It was really more about me. It was a responsibility I had and I was unable to complete. In the name of being honest, I went to the locker room, went before the media and told them the truth. ‘This was my bad and if anyone should lose their job, it should be me.’ ”

The call

At Redskins Park the next day in Ashburn, Va., players went through their usual day-after routine – watching video of the game and meeting with coaches. Shanahan said players needed to shift their focus to Dallas, their next opponent.

Smith, 33 at the time, said he was at home, icing his leg on the couch, on Tuesday when a Redskins official called to tell him he’d been released. Before going to Redskins Park to turn in his playbook and retrieve his gear, Smith ordered Bibles engraved with the names of Gano, Sundberg, special teams coach Danny Smith and a couple of other people in the organization he was close with.

He wrote notes by hand in each Bible and put them in the players’ locker stalls while a security official kept an eye on him.

“I wasn’t out there crusading,” Hunter Smith said. “I was just expressing the gratitude I had for their friendship and our time together.”

Gano still has the Bible, and takes it with him when he goes to Bible studies or when he speaks to groups about his faith.

Gano and Sundberg both experienced survivor guilt in the days after Smith’s released.

“I’ve watched the tape a bunch of times,” said Sundberg, who is beginning his fifth season in Washington. “The snap wasn’t perfect. I know Graham missed a couple of field goals that day, too.

“We both felt like we could’ve done more to help him still be on the team. Had we played a little better, had we done our jobs at a higher level, he might still have a job.”

‘The Jersey Effect’

Instead, Smith went home to Indianapolis and co-wrote “The Jersey Effect,” a book that encourages athletes, parents and coaches to put sports in proper perspective. The final chapter is called The Snap, and addresses Smith’s exit from the NFL.

“I do think about it from time to time. I think about how things might have gone different had I caught it,” Smith said. “But I look back and say Graham and Nick are still playing. I’m spending more time with my children than I ever hoped to spend. I’ve moved on to another career.”

Besides doing public speaking associated with the book, Smith writes music and performs in the Hunter Smith Band, a five-man group he fronts.

Meanwhile, Gano has found success in Charlotte and brought stability to a position that was shaky in the first season and a half after John Kasay was released.

Gano returned to Washington in 2011 and worked with Danny Smith, the special teams coach, on shortening his approach from three steps to two on place kicks. Gano made 31-of-41 field goals, and tied the team record with four kicks of at least 50 yards. Five of his field goal tries were blocked.

Washington cut Gano at the end of the preseason in 2012, replacing him with Billy Cundiff, who moved in around the corner from Gano. Gano would borrow footballs from Cundiff to practice kicking while waiting for a team to call.

After 10 weeks the Panthers did, bringing Gano to Charlotte for a workout. They were looking for a replacement for Justin Medlock, who had followed Olindo Mare in the wake of Kasay’s release.

Gano, 27, made 9-of-11 field goals in 2012. He was better last year, making 24-of-27 for a career-high 88.9 conversion rate, and set a team record and tied for the league lead with six field goals of 50 yards or longer.

On kickoffs, Gano’s 77.8 touchback percentage was the highest in the NFL and the highest since the league moved the kickoff spot up 5 yards in 2011.

Danny Smith, the former Redskins special teams coach who’s now with Pittsburgh, said Gano’s always had a strong leg. It was just a matter of harnessing it. He said switching to the two-step approach helped Gano’s accuracy.

“I think a lot of Graham Gano,” Smith said. “He’s a good person and a good player.”

Hunter Smith doesn’t follow the NFL very closely anymore. He didn’t know about Gano’s contract extension with the Panthers until an Observer reporter told him.

“That’s great,” Smith said. “I know this sounds crazy. I walked away and life was so busy and I just haven’t paid attention. That is outstanding news.

“You never know what the ripples are going to be of your life. You’re never know what impact you’re going to make. I’m happy, genuinely happy, that things have turned out the way they have, and in retrospect I wouldn’t change anything.”

Gano said he has tried to pay Smith’s gesture forward by offering words of encouragement to younger players going through rough patches. He also has shared Smith’s story during at least one public speaking appearance.

“The impact he had on me has followed me throughout my career and I’ve been able to impact other guys, as well,” Gano said. “I think the big thing is just perseverance, trying to make the most out of every opportunity.

“Sometimes you do get other chances. Just try to take advantage of it.”

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