Character (Ac)Counts, Take 2: Steelers Kicker Shaun Suisham
This post started out as an extraordinarily long one about Shaun Suisham, and in the end I split it up. To see Part 1, which focuses on his tenure from the football angle, click here.
Kickers as a group aren’t known for their physical style of play, but Suisham has made more than a few tackles in his career. Unfortunately, the attempted tackle in the Hall of Fame Game a week ago ended badly. Very badly. Suisham was seen in the locker room after the game, on crutches and with tears in his eyes. He isn’t the only one.
A couple of the beat writers noted at practice last week that the crane from which the practice videos are shot had a Suisham jersey hanging from it. As Mike Tomlin said, part of the reason Suisham is so well-regarded among the players is because of his record of being a football player, not just a kicker.
We’ve all seen kickers get out of the way when the returner is coming with a full head of steam, despite the fact that he may be the last line of defense. If you consider having the same place kicker all season to be more important than any individual touchdown, that makes a lot of sense. But Suisham isn’t wired that way.
As noted in Part 1, Suisham was brought in for the last six games of the 2010 season (and then also kicked in the post-season) because the team released Jeff Reed. Suisham was one of the few kickers on the couch at that point in the season. He had been cut from the Washington Redskins after ten games in 2009, signed with Dallas for the last two, and struggled there.
His overall regular season numbers with Washington were actually quite good in every year except 2008, when he only made 74.2% of his kicks. But he was generally not great in the post-season, and the post-season was what sealed his fate with the Cowboys.
So even if most people were relieved to be done with Jeff Reed’s increasingly tiresome antics, Steeler Nation was a bit underwhelmed by the pickup. But is this reasonable?
As my research into some of the “greats” in kicking has demonstrated, even the most consistent kicker is going to have a few down years if they kick long enough.
One of the really interesting things you note when you start looking at kickers is how powerful perception is in the public eye. Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, etc.) wrote a piece for the New York Times about kickers. He spent considerable time with Adam Vinatieri (one of the “great” kickers in my previous article) trying to puzzle out the psychology of a very reliable kicker. As is the case with pretty much anything Lewis writes, it is vastly detailed and interesting. He concludes:
…it is extremely difficult for a field- goal kicker to be a hero. He can perform a miracle, but the world will always find some way to shove him back in his place.
He gave several examples of this, including former Steelers kicker Gary Anderson, who isn’t remembered for his perfect season (with the Minnesota Vikings) but for the kick he missed in that post-season. One of the other examples is the classic case of Scott Norwood, who had a fabulous six-year career, right up until the moment he missed a 47-yard field goal which would have won Super Bowl XXV for the Buffalo Bills.
As another well-regarded kicker, Jason Elam, said, “A great, great, great kicker was Scott Norwood. And he’ll only be remembered for the one that he missed.”
Lewis said it took quite some time, but he finally managed to get Vinatieri’s assessment of himself:
Every year for the past 12 seasons he has found himself in a training camp with a handful of kickers, many of whom have stronger legs than he does. What sets him apart, he is certain, is his character, though he never uses that word. A combination of innate traits and learned skills has rendered him extremely well suited to handle the pressure of the position.
Despite being the all-time leading scorer at Bowling Green University, Shaun Suisham went undrafted. The first team who gave him an opportunity was the Pittsburgh Steelers. He spent camp as Jeff Reed’s competition, and was cut at the end of it. He bounced back and forth between the Cowboys and Washington, although the bulk of his time was in Washington.
After his 2009 contract expired with the Cowboys and they declined to offer him another, the Suishams sold their house in Virginia and moved to Ohio, where his wife’s family lived.
During the offseason he had tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and the St. Louis Rams. Neither team chose to pick him up.
None of this is likely to be good for one’s confidence level. And place kicking is an endeavor which requires confidence as well as preparation. It is far more important than any particular physical attribute. You have to have the confidence that when your foot connects with the ball it is going to go through the uprights.
It’s easy to see why Suisham would have been considering calling it a day and looking for other work.
As Suisham told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2010:
“In one way, I hated being out of work,” Suisham said. “But in another way, it was a blessing. We ended up back in Ohio for a reason.”
One of the reasons, at least, turned out to be his mother-in-law, who died of a massive heart attack on November 1st. As Suisham said:
My wife got to spend the most time with her mother since she was in high school. My daughter got to be around her grandparents. [Gloria] was such a great grandmother …
A deeply religious man, Suisham, 29, believes in God’s will. He had been out of work all season and said he “was going to visit [retirement from the NFL]” after this season.
Two weeks after the call informing Suisham and his wife that her mother had died, the Steelers called. The following Sunday he was in uniform, kicking for the Steelers.
As he said when Jeff Reed’s mostly excellent record with the Steelers was mentioned:
“How could I [worry about that]?” he asked. “I mean, I wouldn’t be any better for this football team if I worried about it.
When I came in here in 2005 to [Steelers] training camp, Jeff was great to me. I’ve always remembered that and certainly appreciate it. But you just take the opportunities when you get them. To be with a new team and to come through for them is special.”
The second week he kicked for the Steelers, he made four kicks of over 40 yards in Buffalo, winning the game for the Steelers. The team awarded him the game ball, and he was named AFC Special Teams player of the week.
As I wrote at the time:
Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review went looking for him in the locker room, hoping to get some good quotes. He was lucky to catch Suisham, game ball under his arm, clad in an overcoat, doing his best to escape before anyone found him.
As Starkey related on The Fan the next day, any attempts he made to get Suisham to say something good about himself were futile. “How did it feel to kick the game winner, Shaun?” “I was just doing my job. I could do it because a whole lot of other guys had done their job to get us to that point.” “But what about kicking at Heinz Field? Isn’t it a pretty difficult place to kick?” The Kicking Canuck, as Craig Wolfley calls him, came right back with this: “Heinz Field is my favorite field in the NFL.” Further attempts elicited praise for Greg Warren, his long snapper. Joe finally gave up and let him go home.
Here are some excerpts from a Steelers.com video made in March of 2014 titled “My Football Story”:
I grew up playing football in southern Ontario. I certainly didn’t dream of playing football… My uncle was my high school football coach, [he] coerced me into playing…
We played 12-man football, Canadian rules…everybody played both ways. I actually never practiced kicking on my own until I was in college…
[Making kicks is] my job. It’s very easy for anyone to evaluate how I did. The same for myself. There’s nothing to hide behind, nothing to run from—it is what it is, and I own it. I take pride in the way I prepare for the game to put myself in the best possible position to succeed.
It’s been an improbable and strange journey—I’m happy to be here.
In demeanor and attitude Suisham probably reminds me most of Troy Polamalu. The same self-deprecation, the same deeply religious, family-oriented nature. I hate the thought of the Steelers not only missing his skills but his presence in the locker room this season, and wish him all the best during his rehab.