CARSON, Calif. — To the ignorant eye, Jake Elliott’s warm-up routine before the Eagles’ 26-24 victory over the Chargers on Sunday was an unsightly, troubling display. Kicking toward the south end zone at StubHub Center, he missed a few tries, pulling them to the left, including one that hooked so badly that it sailed past the netted screen that hangs behind the uprights. Whatever magic that had allowed him to boom that 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants last week appeared to have left him, at least for the moment.
As it turned out, Elliott was being fairly savvy about his preparation for Sunday’s game. StubHub Center has what Elliott described as “an interesting surface”: low-cut grass on dirt pocked with divots that had been filled with sand, as if the stadium were the crummiest public golf course you could find.
Yes, he admitted, he had mishit those pregame kicks, but if nothing else, now he had a better understanding of and familiarity with his work station Sunday. So when he made all four of his field-goal attempts, it was a fine reminder of the reality of his or any other craft. The magic doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. It comes from meticulous practice, an ethic that demands complete devotion: doing, then adjusting, then trying again, then adjusting, then trying again, then succeeding, then doing again and again and again.
Where would the Eagles be this season without Elliott and the success that he has found with them? They are 3-1, in first place in the NFC East, and they needed him last week against the Giants—not only for that stunning 61-yarder at the gun, but a 46-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter to tie the game. And they needed him Sunday against the Chargers. They dominated the first half, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive, then advancing into Los Angeles territory three more times only to stall and call on Elliott. A 45-yarder, a 40-yarder, a 53-yarder—each straighter and truer than the previous kick. Then he drilled a 47-yard attempt in the third quarter to stretch the Eagles’ lead to 19-10—the points that proved decisive, that allowed the Eagles to melt down the game’s final 6 minutes, 44 seconds without panic.
“It’s great to have a kicker who’s automatic,” center Jason Kelce said. “If we miss one of those field goals, it’s a completely different drive there at the end because then we’re behind and we have to put up points. That changes what we’re doing.”
Elliott has made his last six field-goal tries, none of which has been shorter than 40 yards, and in doing so he has become one of the unlikelier Philadelphia sports folk heroes in recent memory. It’s not merely that he pretty much stumbled into placekicking as a ninth grader in suburban Chicago, trying it on a whim at a pep rally, finally giving up what had been his first love, tennis, to concentrate on football. It’s not merely that he has rallied from an inauspicious start to his NFL career—getting cut by the Cincinnati Bengals, signing with the Eagles after Caleb Sturgis injured his groin in Week 1, missing a 30-yard field goal in Week 2 against the Chiefs—and emerged as the latest and most lovable underdog story in a city that can’t get enough of such stories. It’s how he looks and carries himself, too.
Twenty-two years old and listed at 5-foot-7 and 167 pounds, Elliott is so small compared with his teammates that, after a game, it seems he ought to be managing their equipment, chucking socks and towels into hampers and toting bags out to the team bus, instead of dressing alongside them. He has a scraggly blond beard that gives him the countenance of an Eastern philosophy major who can usually be found on a coffee-shop stoop, wearing sandals and a tie-dyed T-shirt and strumming a guitar, and he has an understated, relaxed aspect to himself, even after all that’s happened over the last seven days.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Elliott said. “This is what you dream about, coming in here and trying to contribute as much as possible. I feel confident in myself. It’s a fun ride, kind of the life of a kicker. It’s always different with every kicker around the league. I’m just taking the opportunity for what it’s worth and running with it.”
Since joining the Eagles, he’s been staying in Northern Liberties, crashing with a friend of his sister’s fiance. There have been only a couple of autograph requests, because there are only so many people who would pass him on the street and recognize him immediately as a professional football player. After one practice at the NovaCare Complex last week, he arranged for an Uber car to take him back to Northern Liberties. “The lady picked me up,” he said, “and she wasn’t much of a football fan, but she had called her husband and asked, ‘Is there a guy named ‘Jake’ with the Eagles? I’m picking him up right now.’” When Elliott climbed into the car, she asked if she could get a picture with him. Such are the demands and spoils of Jake Elliott’s job these days. Chance favors the prepared leg.