Updated: Friday, September 29, 2017, 6:40 PM
Jake Elliott sat in the bleachers at a pep rally as a freshman at Lyons Township High School in suburban Chicago in 2009. He didn’t play on the football team, so he wasn’t a notable attraction that day. In an effort to generate student participation, random students were picked from the crowd to attempt field goals. Elliott was one of them.
Elliott was a tennis player at the time, never once playing organized football. He didn’t consider himself a passionate football fan, either. He watched the Bears on television and played football with his friends in the schoolyard. But Elliott couldn’t discuss technique with the school’s kicker.
An all-around athlete, Elliott knew he wouldn’t embarrass himself attempting a field goal. But he also didn’t think that moment would lead to a career. The ball was placed about 30 yards from the goalpost. Elliott went to kick, and Kurt Weinberg heard a boom.
“When the ball comes off someone who knows what they’re doing, it makes a very distinctive sound,” said Weinberg, the head football coach at Lyons Township.
Except Elliott didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know that his right foot could pay for college, could earn him a spot in the NFL, and could create that same sound eight years later on a record-breaking, 61-yard game-winning field goal for the Eagles that will be immortalized in Philadelphia sports history. He just kicked a football at a pep rally. He didn’t even tell his father when he got home.
“I just went out there and had fun with it,” Elliott said, “and called it a day.”
Elliott declined when the Lyons Township coaches asked him to come out for the team. He was fine playing tennis. He had become the school’s No. 1 player as a freshman, and that occupied enough of his time. He didn’t need to kick.
Two years later, Elliott finished the summer playing tennis with his friends. The football team badly needed a kicker. A coach walked over the tennis court and tried convincing him again.
“Why not?” Elliott thought. “I’m not doing anything in the fall.”
Elliott kicked a few field goals, and they were ready to give him a uniform. He returned home and discussed it with his family.
“Showed up the next day, and everything just kind of happened from there,” Elliott said.
During the homecoming game that year, Lyons trailed by two points with four seconds remaining. They were beyond their 30-yard line, and Weinberg confessed the team was out of options. He sent Elliott onto the field. With little kicking experience or formal training, Elliott drilled a 52-yard, game-winning field goal – a moment similar to the 61-yarder last week.
“That was pretty crazy,” Elliott said. “Didn’t even know what I was doing out there. No technique, no anything.”
One week later, he nailed a 47-yard field goal as time expired. His big right leg was noticeable. So was his calm temperament.
“It went from ‘Who is this kid and what is he all about?’ to ‘This kid is supremely talented,’ ” Weinberg said. “In a heartbeat, really.”
It still didn’t register with Elliott that this could become his future. He was just having fun kicking. His stepmother found information on a kicking showcase. Elliott met other kickers during that summer after his junior year and they asked who worked with him. He didn’t have a private coach – most of the other kickers had had one since high school started.
When the letters starting piling up during his senior year, college football became a serious option. But the offers were still relatively mild. Memphis was the only school to offer him a full scholarship. Some Big Ten schools in the area said he could try out for the team. Elliott attended Memphis, where he became a four-year starter and one of the nation’s most productive kickers. He studied marketing and imagined that his post-college life would include a sales job. He didn’t go there with plans to reach the NFL.
“How often do you think your kid’s going to go the pros?” said Bruce Elliott, Jake’s father. “That never registered with us.”
On Eagles’ radar
The Eagles were set at kicker this year with Caleb Sturgis returning after connecting on the most field goals in franchise history in 2016. That didn’t stop Eagles special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp from studying and keeping notes on all the draft-eligible kickers. Elliott participated in the Senior Bowl and the combine, and Fipp rated him as one of the two best kickers in the draft.
“Had a bunch of information on him,” Fipp said. “I did have him as a draftable player who could play in the NFL.”
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Elliott in the fifth round. Usually, a kicker drafted that early would have a roster spot. But the Bengals decided to keep veteran Randy Bullock and put Elliott on the practice squad. The time in Cincinnati helped Elliott – most longtime kickers don’t stick in their starting place, and Elliott said the preseason built his mental resolve. A practice squad player can be signed by any of the 31 other teams, so not all doors closed on Elliott. But it’s harder for an inexperienced kicker to find a team during the season.
After Sturgis injured his groin in Week 1, the Eagles needed a replacement. Fipp watched Elliott’s tape from the preseason. The Eagles then worked out three kickers, two with notable NFL experience. They couldn’t hold a workout with Elliott because he was employed by the Bengals. The veteran candidates didn’t offer Fipp what he wanted. Elliott was their man.
Elliott’s second field-goal attempt was a 30-yarder in Kansas City, the same type of kick he eased through the uprights with no experience or technique as a high school freshman. Except this one in Kansas City sailed wide left. In the NFL, there aren’t many opportunities. That was an ominous sign. Fipp wasn’t concerned, though. Sturgis flopped in his first game in 2014. Fipp avoids overreaction.
“If you’re going to be that quick to give up on somebody, then you’re always going to be looking for somebody,” Fipp said. “Obviously, you can’t keep missing kicks. There’s a point of no return. But I wasn’t nervous.”
Elliott came back and connected on a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter. He had a nice onside kick at the end of the game that the Eagles recovered. Elliott adheres to a one-minute rule – good or bad, he moves on from the kick after one minute.
With the Eagles trailing by three points in the final minute last week against the Giants, Elliott tied the game with a 46-yard field goal. Fipp believed that kick was more pressure-packed than the 61-yarder. There were few expectations for the 61-yard field goal. But if the previous kick missed, the Eagles would have lost and Elliott’s reputation would be far different this week.
After the Eagles reclaimed possession, Elliott pleaded with the coaches for a chance. Pederson sent Elliott onto the field for the record kick even though the team went into the game thinking his range was 52 yards. And when the ball boomed off his foot, Pederson and Fipp heard the same sound that Weinberg remembered in 2009.
“With all the great kickers, the big-leg guys, you can always hear it,” Fipp said. “Right when it came off his foot, I thought there would be a chance.”
‘Hard to believe’
Deion Sanders called for an interview. That should have been an indication of what his life would become this week. A friend of Elliott’s is cleaning out his apartment in Cincinnati because he needed to leave so quickly, so he’s still getting situated in Philadelphia. Elliott can blend in; he’s 5-foot-9 and 167 pounds. But it’s been hard to avoid the hoopla this week.
“It’s a position of ultimate highs and ultimate lows,” Elliott said. “You can’t get caught up in that.”
Weinberg thinks Elliott’s easygoing personality helps him with those pressure kicks. Certainly, it’s aiding him this week. His father said he’s always been that way – it helped on the tennis court, too. Some kickers track every kick they take. Elliott doesn’t, preferring to simply focus on the next kick.
This has all happened so fast for Elliott. And it could end quickly in Philadelphia — the Eagles will have a decision to make when Sturgis is eligible to come off injured reserve after Week 9. But Elliott is proving he’s an NFL-caliber kicker. When he closed his eyes and dreamed of his future as a kid, it never included this.
Elliott hasn’t stopped to think what his life would be if he wasn’t randomly selected at the pep rally as a freshman in high school. He guessed he would have attended a Big Ten school and settled in the Chicago area. Instead, he’s in the Eagles record book and traveling to Los Angeles this weekend for an encore.
“It’s one of those stories that’s hard to believe,” Weinberg said. “If you did a screenplay and did this story, people … would say it’s too unbelievable.”