Scott Fowler

Six fingers skyward: Kicker’s breakthrough for Panthers honored his late brother

Joey Slye promised his older brother he would make it to the NFL one day.

And on Thursday night with the Carolina Panthers, the placekicker did. He hopes his brother saw it all. Joey acknowledged A.J. Slye — who died of leukemia in 2014 — by pointing six fingers to the sky every time he made a kick.

Slye was one of the surprise stars Thursday of Carolina’s 23-13 preseason Week 1 victory over the Chicago Bears, scoring 11 of the Panthers’ points. He rocketed in three field goals and two extra points without a miss. One of the field goals was a head-turner — a 55-yarder that would have been good from 65.

The Virginia Tech product emerged as a feel-good story for sure. But before we get to it, you might be wondering: Where was Graham Gano?

It turned out the Panthers left Gano, their primary kicker since late 2012, at home in Charlotte because he is dealing with what coach Ron Rivera called: “A sore leg. A tired leg.”

Rivera was careful in the postgame not to suddenly term this an open competition at kicker, instead saying simply that Gano needed more “rest.”

During the 2018 season, Gano made a game-winning 63-yarder in the final seconds, but he also missed the final four games due to a left knee injury. He has been kicking during most of training camp, but not recently.

Panthers kicker Graham Gano (9) didn’t make the team’s first preseason trip of the year to Chicago because his leg is “sore,” coach Ron Rivera said. He was replaced during the game by former Virginia Tech kicker Joey Slye. Jeff Siner

In the meantime, Slye is Virginia Tech’s all-time leading scorer and joined the Panthers a week ago. He impressed the coaches in his tryout when he hit one field goal from 58 yards and then moved back and banged home a 66-yarder. Leg strength has never been a problem for Slye; accuracy has.

Slye looks a bit like an undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds. His biceps bulge, so much so that quarterback Kyle Allen has started to call him “the swole kicker.”

“I get a lot of ‘You don’t look like a kicker,’” Slye said. “Last week when I got on the team, I’m getting my locker all set up and everyone was kind of like walking past me, not really realizing I’m the kicker. I started hitting kicks in practice and they were like: ‘I thought you were brought on as a linebacker.’”

Slye said one of the Panthers’ offensive linemen congratulated him after his third field goal Thursday and said: “Dude, I didn’t even realize you were the kicker.”

Brother diagnosed with leukemia

If you look at old pictures of Joey and A.J. Slye, you see two grinning, muscular youths who look very much like the high school linebackers they once were. They used to hold kicking competitions in their backyard, using a V-shaped tree as a makeshift goalpost. Because their father was in the military and the family moved a lot, the brothers drew closer, often having to navigate new towns together.

They played high school football in Virginia, where A.J. was an undersized all-state linebacker. He wore No. 6. A.J. enrolled at Salisbury University, a Division III school in Maryland, to continue playing.

He came home after his first semester.

A.J. had acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that generally starts in the bone marrow and moves into the blood. For the next 14 months, the Slyes tried everything they could to save him — numerous hospitals, countless treatments. None of it worked. He died at age 20.

joey slye head shot
Joey Slye, Virginia Tech’s all-time leading scorer, kicked in place of Graham Gano in the Carolina Panthers’ Week 1 exhibition win vs. Chicago and made three field goals, including a 55-yarder. Scott Fowler

That was slightly more than five years ago. Joey Slye still has numerous reminders of his brother, including two tattoos on his back and a charitable foundation that the family maintains in A.J.’s honor.

Slye finished his Virginia Tech career in 2017. He didn’t make the NFL in 2018 and said he didn’t perform well enough in a couple of tryouts that he had.

“A lot of teams were kind of iffy on me,” Slye said. “So I’ve just been working my butt off, trying to get an opportunity to come back and show what I’ve got…. I’ve got a big leg, that’s ultimately what everyone says, but accuracy has always been an issue.”

‘I was going to make it’

As a senior at Virginia Tech, Slye made 68 percent of his field goals. In the NFL, any kicker who makes under 80 percent is in serious danger of being fired.

“A lot of guys quit after their first year (out of college) when they don’t get the (NFL) calls,” Slye said, then listened as a reporter asked if he had ever been close to quitting.

“I’ve been wanting to play in the NFL since I was four years old,” Slye said. “I promised my brother ... that I was going to make it. So this isn’t a journey that’s going to end quickly.”

Even if Gano comes back at full strength and Slye is released by the Panthers — and that remains a very strong possibility — Slye’s three field goals has probably bought him another NFL chance. It might even come with the Bears, who have had their own kicker problems.

“Graham is a great kicker,” Slye said. “… He’s kicked here for many, many years. Whatever the situation is, I just want to give the coaches a lot of hope and trust in me. If they’re going to go with me. If they’re going to go with Graham, I hope I at least give them an opportunity to look at me. I just have to make kicks, man, I’m not worried about all the logistics on the outside.”

Rivera said Slye had done a “really nice job” Thursday, also pointing to Slye’s four touchbacks on kickoffs in six attempts. “The first couple of days of practice, I think he missed three the first day and two the second,” Rivera said. “And then he was 8-for-8 or whatever it was in practice. He seemed to get his confidence.”

The Panthers are likely beholden to Gano, whose latest contract pays him in the neighborhood of $4 million a year and goes through the 2021 season. But another possibility for Slye is trying to be this year’s Harrison Butker.

In 2017, Butker narrowly lost a training-camp battle to Gano. The Kansas City Chiefs later plucked Butker off Carolina’s practice squad and he has flourished.

As for Slye, he hopes to be able to point to the sky with six fingers in a regular-season game next — for somebody, somewhere.

“I feel like I have the capacity to be a really good kicker in the league … Hopefully that turns out to be a pretty healthy career — and ultimately winning a bunch of games.”

Whether it does or not, the Slye family will never forget what happened Thursday night.

A breakthrough for one brother.

A tribute for the other.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”