By: Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS—In the NFL, drama at kicker during training camp is more overstated than most positional battles. When it’s early in camp and neither competitor has made a clear, stark cut toward the finish line, a quiet tension bubbles underneath. Kickers are that much more difficult to evaluate than other players, especially on a limited sample size. On but a few practices, there’s so much of the track left, and so many obstacles to run through unimpeded, that it’s comparable to a rigid race in Mario Kart. You and your friends, rather, your competitors for the next five minutes, are sloppily working your way through the Mushroom Cup. The person that ends up victorious is not always the most skilled or technically gifted, but rather the person who happened to have the best performance in a cursory span. Or they happened to simultaneously enjoy the boasts of good fortune at the exact right moment and at the exact right time. Timing is a virtue lost on the overzealous.
They may not come out on top again, but for a moment they can adorn a first-place ribbon and all of the childish bragging rights. An arbitrary roll of the dice can and often does take place later.
A day after Elliott Fry started the Bears’ kicking competition with a bang—multiple in fact, in the form of several powerful shots through the uprights—his counterpart Eddy Pineiro proved he would not recede into darkness. The Bears want resounding responses from their kickers on a meticulously crafted alternating schedule. They want them to establish a rhythm and stay in sync, stay in the zone. Each must stew in the overwrought mental process of their heads for a practice while watching the other make a grasping reach, and they have to keep their cool. To shy away from the realities of this competition before either Fry or Pineiro have even taken snaps in a preseason game would be to prematurely admit defeat.
If you’re Pineiro, the only way to follow Fry’s opening 7-of-8 act capped by a 60-yard blazer, would’ve been to match his accuracy down to the granular details. To top it, to utterly steal the show and receive an encore, Pineiro either had to make 100 percent of his kicks, or have his final strike eclipse Fry’s. Lo and behold the former Raider answered the bell. In the midst of a second straight scaldingly hot day at Olivet Nazarene University, Pineiro absorbed Fry’s haymaker. He not only took it straight on, he came back with a flurry of body blows.
Following a similar format to Fry during his close-up in Sunday’s practice, Pineiro took on the chin and kept plowing away. He made several kicks of increasing distance, and didn’t let up. A free throw, another attempt, and a bead on ideal ball placement the way a red hot three-point shooter seemingly can’t miss from deep in basketball. All that’s was missing was an NBA Jam announcer enthusiastically proclaiming he was “on fire.” After nailing a called-shot 63-yarder, Pineiro was appealing to the camera and breaking the imaginary fourth wall, rather than shying away from it. A raucous crowd of just about 8,000 chanting “Ed-dy, Ed-dy, Ed-dy” wouldn’t let him walk away. They wanted more, and Pineiro kindly obliged.
The former standout SEC kicker was, perhaps is, at home.
“When I was in Florida, they used to do that, too,” Pineiro said of the approval from ONU’s capacity audience. “It’s nothing new, it makes me better. I’m used to it, and I appreciate it.”
Kicking for a powerhouse college football program shouldn’t be different from attempting to win a job with a Super Bowl contender. It could be considered a loftier gauntlet in front of rabid, impassioned fans who want nothing more but to tear your head off when you miss, and subsequently give you a more emotional hug than they would to any immediate family member following a make. In his final year at Florida in 2017, Pineiro channeled this near-religious energy from Gainesville and made over 94 percent of his kicks: best in the nation. If he can accomplish the same in Chicago, if he can rise to the occasion and ignore the static, then this Bears kicking competition has more intrigue than originally believed.
Trading off days in an active competition is nothing compared to responding to the whims of 100,000 people worked up to the highest fervor.
“I love it. I think alternating practices is awesome,” Pineiro glowingly remarked on the Bears’ plan. “It gives the whole day for that person, instead of just going in one-on-one and one-on-one. I think it’s a good idea because it lets me settle in.”
“All eyes are on me, and I like it.”
It’s a credit to Matt Nagy that first Fry and now Pineiro have taken in their coaching and evolved. An opening weekend with only two official misses is everything Nagy and the Bears’ staff could’ve hoped for. It’s early affirmation someone wants this kicking mantle, desperately, and they’re going to take it by force. When each wants a crack at the belt with lengthy, unorthodox 60-yard kicks, it’s a sign of maturity. It’s earning every bit of your paycheck and an unspoken confidence every kicker needs.
“It’s not dealer’s choice,” Nagy said of the Bears’ thought process on Fry and Pineiro’s respective extensive kicks. “They have to earn those in our eyes, and they have.”
In this welterweight kicking fight, someone’s eventually going to end up on the mat. One unexpected shot, one surprising kick, may be it all takes to win over the judges sitting ringside—otherwise known as the Bears’ coaches. But until someone is completely down for the count, Fry and Pineiro are going to take as much as punishment as humanly possible. A budding instant classic down the pay-per-view reel demands their sacrifice.
So does Nagy and the Bears.
“How do you not love two kickers battling for one spot, competing their tails off?”
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.