Scott Fowler

Is the Panthers’ Joey Slye really ready to be an NFL kicker? We find out Sunday.

Cam has confidence in new kicker Slye

Carolina Panthers quarterback shares his nickname for new kicker Joey Slye, and has confidence in his ability to perform his job.
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Carolina Panthers quarterback shares his nickname for new kicker Joey Slye, and has confidence in his ability to perform his job.

The way Joey Slye found out he would be the Carolina Panthers’ kicker Sunday in the regular-season opener was unusual: the guy whose job he was taking broke the news.

Slye was in the Panthers’ cold tub when Graham Gano walked in, having just been informed the Panthers were placing him on injured reserve for the entire 2019 season due to continuing leg problems.

“Graham said, ‘Hey, they just put me on long-term IR – so congratulations,’” Slye recalled. “And then we just kind of talked after that. Graham has been great to me.”

Gano has been the Panthers’ kicker since 2012, But he re-injured his plant leg — the same leg that forced him to miss the final four games of the 2018 season — and somebody had to replace him.

That somebody turns out to be Slye, the former Virginia Tech kicker whose impressive NFL preseason included hitting three field goals of more than 50 yards and making seven field goals in eight attempts overall (the eighth was blocked).

Said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton of a recent conversation he had with Slye: “I told him two weeks ago … if you keep kicking the way you’re kicking, you’re going to kick yourself right into a job. And that’s what he did.”

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Carolina Panthers kicker Joey Slye (4) makes a 59-yard field goal against the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday. He made seven of eight attempts this preseason. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Slye became one of the Panthers’ best stories of August. He was first hired to merely ease Gano’s workload for a few weeks during training camp, and only packed enough clothes for a week and has been washing them at a coin-operated laundromat in Charlotte.

But after making three field goals in Carolina’s first preseason game, Slye has ended up sticking around long enough to acquire his own nickname from Newton. “Swole Tweeder,” apparently in reference to both Slye’s muscular build and his resemblance to actor Scott Caan, who played Charlie Tweeder in the 1999 high-school football movie “Varsity Blues.”

At 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, Slye looks more like an undersized NFL linebacker than a kicker. “He may have the least body fat on a kicker in the last decade of kickers, honest to God,” Newton said.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what a kicker looks like. It matters if he can kick the ball through the goalposts. Accuracy questions have dogged Slye since his career at Virginia Tech, where he made only 68.2 percent of his field goals as a senior in 2017.

Slye couldn’t latch onto an NFL team in 2018; Sunday will be the first time he’s played in an NFL game that counts.

“I need to show everybody I’m ready to play in the league,” Slye said, “and that I can do what needs to be done.”

Slye’s warmup routine Sunday before playing the Los Angeles Rams will include some extra stretches at the 6-yard line. He always does that in honor of his older brother, A.J. who died of leukemia in 2014. A.J. and Joey played high school football together in Virginia, where A.J. wore number 6. A.J. Slye went off to play Division III football in Maryland but came home after a semester not feeling well. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that generally starts in the bone marrow and moves into the blood.

Despite numerous hospital visits and countless treatments, A.J. Slye died 14 months later, at age 20. The family has developed a charitable foundation in A.J.’s name.

His younger brother Joey points six fingers at the sky after every made kick to honor his brother. And Slye has also begun collecting grass or bits of artificial turf from the 6-yard line at every NFL stadium where he kicks. He only has three so far — Chicago, New England and Charlotte — but has hopes of getting some from all 32 NFL stadiums. “Plus London this year, so that’s cool,” Slye added. He’s hoping to persuade his parents to make a scrapbook with a page devoted to the souvenir from each stadium’s 6-yard line.

joey slye head shot
Joey Slye, Virginia Tech’s all-time leading scorer, kicked in place of Graham Gano in all four Panther exhibition games and now is set to be the team’s placekicker in 2019, too, if he can continue to be as accurate as he was in the preseason. Scott Fowler sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

All of this — the underdog tale, the compassion for his deceased brother, Newton’s funny nickname — makes Slye a feel-good story.

But Gano could tell him this, too — the first time you misfire on one key kick in the NFL, a segment of the fan base wants you gone.

John Kasay is the Panthers’ leading scorer by a mile, but fans still rue his out-of-bounds kickoff against New England 15 years ago. Gano made a 63-yarder against the New York Giants last season to win an incredible game, but what about those three extra points he missed last year?

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Carolina Panthers kicker Joey Slye (4) wears the same number as the Panthers’ all-time leading scorer, John Kasay. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Unless a kicker is perfect, it’s never enough.

Slye is about to play in his first NFL game Sunday. The biggest milestone after that? Coming back after his first missed kick and showing it was a fluke by making the next four in a row.

Despite an extremely strong leg — Slye has hit from 70 yards in practice — no one quite knows how this will turn out.

“I’ve been training for this, though, and thinking about this for a long time,” Slye said.

In elementary school, Slye was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said a professional football player. His mom told him he needed a backup plan.

“Then I’ll be a professional baseball player,” Slye said.

Unlike almost everyone, Slye is actually still on option No. 1 from elementary school.

Sunday, we get to see how ready he is.

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.”
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