Of course it has crossed Jake Elliott’s mind. How could it not cross Jake Elliott’s mind? Elliott, the Eagles kicker, turned 23 just last Sunday, the same day his team beat the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, which means he wasn’t yet 10 years old by the time the New England Patriots had won two Super Bowls on the right foot of Adam Vinatieri.
People forget that about the Patriots. People forget that the NFL’s greatest dynasty of the 21st century hasn’t routed its opponents in America’s biggest game. The Patriots have won five Super Bowls: three by a field goal, one by four points, and one in overtime. This one could come down to a field goal, too, and it could be Elliott who has to make it, and yes, he has considered that possibility, though he tries not to.
“Obviously, the stage is a little bit elevated, but I’ll try to keep my cool as much as possible and stay as levelheaded with the highs and lows of the game,” he was saying after the Eagles had practiced Thursday. “That’s the game of football: How quickly can you respond? How quickly can you forget things from the past if things were to go wrong? If it comes down to that, it’s the same as any other game.”
Elliott is no dummy. He knows how that sounds. Any other game? This is the Super Bowl, kid. You think you’ll be ready for the pressure. Everyone thinks he’s ready for it. But it’s the freaking Super Bowl. Even Scott Norwood thought he was ready for it. Look how that turned out. “Exactly,” Elliott said with a laugh. “All those high school games under my belt …”
But all anyone can do in life is make the best of the opportunities that present themselves, and the funny part about Elliott’s rise into one of the most pleasant surprises in this pleasantly surprising Eagles season – he made 26 of his 31 field-goal attempts, including five of his six from more than 50 yards – is how often he keeps meeting the measure of those moments and how calm he has always been about them.
“His performance in those situations just blows me away,” Kurt Weinberg, the head football coach at Elliott’s alma mater, Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Ill., said in a phone interview. “If you have a chance to talk to him, you know he’s kind of just laid-back. In those situations, that’s what he’s like. He doesn’t bat an eyelash about stuff like that. He just doesn’t.”
So, about those situations. The first was in October 2011, during Elliott’s first season as Lyons Township’s varsity kicker. It was the school’s homecoming game, against rival Oak Park and River Forest. A Saturday afternoon, sunny and clear and crisp. Lyons trailed, 14-13, with less than a minute left in regulation, and had the ball at the OPRF 35-yard line. Weinberg called two passes into the end zone, trying for the winning touchdown, because even for the best, most talented high school kicker, a 52-yard field goal is as much a Hail Mary as … well, a Hail Mary. But Weinberg had watched Elliott kick at practice. More important and more revealing was this: He had heard Elliott kick at practice. He had heard “the ball explode off his foot,” Weinberg said. Now it was third-and-10, and the passes weren’t working, and there were 4 seconds left in the game, and Lyons Township’s record was 2-4. If the Lions lost this game, they would miss the playoffs.
“To step into that situation, you’re right, it’s not a game-winning kick in the Super Bowl,” Weinberg said. “But to a kid of that age and that time, it was major, major pressure. And he handled it like it was no big deal.” The football cleared the goalpost with air to spare. Lyons 16, Oak Park and River Forest 13.
The following week, on a Friday night, Lyons trailed by a point in the closing seconds again, this time 27-26, this time to York Community High School. This time, the field goal was 47 yards. Elliott drilled this one, too. The Lions reached the state quarterfinals that season.
Sound familiar? It should. In the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl, while he was at the University of Memphis, Elliott drilled a 54-yard game-tying field goal in overtime against BYU; Memphis won in double OT, 55-48. Now, go back to the Eagles’ 26-24 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 1. Elliott kicked four field goals that day, each of them at least 40 yards. Go back a week earlier, to the Eagles’ 27-24 victory over the New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 24, when Elliott boomed that 61-yard field goal at the gun and changed everything about this Eagles season. Do the Eagles go 13-3 this season without those two victories? Do they get home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs?
At the time of that clutch kick against the Giants, Elliott had been with the Eagles for two weeks, signing with them after Caleb Sturgis suffered a quad injury. He didn’t have his own apartment yet. He was crashing at the Northern Liberties home of Mike Treon, a friend of Adam Miller, the fiancé of Elliott’s sister, Karen.
“You see this guy you just met and who’s living with you,” Treon said, “and over the course of a quarter he basically becomes the most famous man in Philadelphia.”
Treon attended that game, sitting with Karen, Adam, and Elliott’s mother and stepfather, then joining the family in the Touchdown Club, the Linc’s gleaming, climate-controlled lounge, afterward. There, clusters of children stood near the entrance so they could get Elliott’s autograph. But when Elliott – listed, generously, at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds – bopped into the lounge, a backpack slung over his shoulders, none of them looked up. None of them thought anyone that small could be a football player.
“Like, people were in there waiting for Jake Elliott to come in,” Treon said. “He just walked straight past them with his little backpack on.”
He breezed right past the kids, found his friends and family at the bar, and ordered a beer, as if it was just any other game. He’ll try to treat next Sunday’s the same way, if he can. Who knows? The first Super Bowl victory in Eagles history may depend on it.
“If it comes down to that,” Jake Elliott said, “I’m ready.”