BUCKHEAD, Ga. — Every player’s Super Bowl story begins somewhere.
Greg Zuerlein’s began in the kitchen at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Nebraska in 2010.
The college football program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he had been the kicker for three years, had just folded. An event was held on campus for players with remaining eligibility to meet with other college programs and Zuerlein was invited to attend, but he had to work his shift at the restaurant. Those blazin’ wings don’t sauce themselves!
But there was one college program, Missouri Western, that brought the meeting to Zuerlein. They sent two coaches to the Buffalo Wild Wings to pitch the already accomplished kicker on going there . . . and also to grab some lunch.
“My manager was nice enough to let me go out there and talk to them for a few minutes,” Zuerlein said this week about sitting down in the booth with the coaches to munch and chat. “They gave me their spiel about Missouri Western and it worked, I guess.”
He enrolled and thrived, setting a Division II record of 21 consecutive field goals made (including nine of at least 50 yards) and connecting on 23 of 24 attempts for the season to give him the highest percentage of any NCAA player in any division that season.
A few months later, he was drafted by the Rams in the sixth round, and on Sunday — two weeks after kicking the longest winning field goal in postseason history (57 yards) — he’ll handle kickoffs and field goals in the Super Bowl.
He’s been dealing with a foot injury he suffered in that NFC title game and has been limited throughout the week, but he insisted he’ll be fine for the Super Bowl. He kicked the game-winner against the Saints after suffering the injury.
On Friday, Zuerlein ended the Rams’ practice with seven field-goal attempts and four kickoffs.
“He felt good,” coach Sean McVay said per the pool report. “He hit the ball well. He hit the kickoffs and his field goals really well. That’s kind of what we expected, that’s what we hoped, and he’ll be ready to go.”
Division II players don’t usually make it in the NFL, but Zuerlein said that jump is easier to make as a kicker.
“It’s you versus the posts, and that doesn’t change from D-I to D-II,” he said. “The only thing that changes is the people in the stands. It can be easier for kickers because they don’t go against anybody.”
That’s the way Zuerlein said he’ll be thinking about any attempts on Sunday: him versus the posts.
The Super Bowl can add a layer of intensity and stress and anxiety to even the most routine football acts, and the 31-year-old admitted he isn’t sure how it will affect him. “I’ve never played in a Super Bowl, so I don’t know if I’ll be nervous,” he said.
But he also said he’s confident he won’t be.
“Every kick is like any other kick,” Zuerlein said. “It’s not for the Super Bowl, it’s just a kick, because that’s what kicking is. It’s just a kick. You don’t have to make it any more complicated or any bigger than it needs to be. It’s just a kick. It’s part of the game. You don’t want to overthink it too much.”
Seven of the last 10 Super Bowls and all eight of the previous Super Bowl appearances by the Patriots have been decided by one possession, so every point matters at this level. Come the fourth quarter, the result could be determined by a kick by Zuerlein, and he’s prepared. He won’t be winging it.