Seahawks rely on a Polish kicker, Australian punter and Harvard grad

RENTON, Wash. — Seattle Seahawks punter Michael Dickson had some explaining to do.

Dickson had gone rogue in an October win over the Detroit Lions, taking off running out of his own end zone on what was supposed to be an intentional safety. But the explaining wasn’t to special-teams coordinator Brian Schneider or coach Pete Carroll. The Seahawks’ head coach had actually told Dickson a couple of weeks earlier to consider running for it if he ever had a wide-open lane (ideally in a safer part of the field). Besides, Dickson made the first down.

No, the explanation went to Dickson’s parents back in Australia, who had no idea what they had watched their son do.

“I had to explain to them what taking a safety was and why we do that, and how stupid it was for me to do what I did,” Dickson said. “They laughed and said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty crazy.'”

The play was a quirky moment during Dickson’s otherwise sensational Pro Bowl rookie season. The tutorial he had to give afterward was a reminder of the diversity of the Seahawks’ kicking battery. It’s three players from three countries who took three different paths to the NFL.

“They keep it interesting,” Schneider said of kicker Sebastian Janikowski, Dickson and long-snapper Tyler Ott. “One’s from Poland, one’s from Australia and one went to Harvard.”

No ordinary kicker

At 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds, with a barrel chest and bulging biceps, Janikowski looks like he should be hoisting boulders and pulling cars like the power lifters in the World’s Strongest Man competitions.

While he hardly looks like your typical svelte NFL kicker, one thing he has in common with many of them is a soccer background. He traveled throughout Europe playing the sport as a child. His father played professionally for the Polish national team, then came to America late in his career. Janikowski followed him, moving to Florida as a sophomore in high school.

He weighed 235 pounds as a senior, easily making him the biggest player on the pitch.

With his heft, you can imagine Schneider’s surprise when the two were with the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and he watched Janikowski stand flat-footed under a basketball hoop, jump straight up and hang on the rim.

“Back in the day,” said Janikowski, who’s in his first season with Seattle after 18 in Oakland. “I’m 40 now.”

Which makes him the NFL’s fifth-oldest player behind fellow kickers Adam Vinatieri, Phil Dawson and Matt Bryant as well as Tom Brady. According to Spotrac.com, Janikowski’s estimated $53 million in career earnings over his 19 seasons makes him the highest-paid specialist in league history. That includes around $2 million in salary and bonus money from the Seahawks, who signed him to a one-year deal in April after suffering through Blair Walsh’s horrendous second half of last season.

Janikowski has hardly been perfect, but he’s been much better than his predecessor in going 22-of-27 on field goals. His 33-yarder to beat Arizona on Sunday was the third time he’s kicked a game winner as time expired this season.

A hell-raiser at Florida State and earlier in his career with Oakland, Janikowski is now an easygoing family man. When Ott uses the term “laid-back” to describe him and his weekly routine — he’s very much on the veteran maintenance program — it brings to mind a common image from training camp of Janikowski moving languidly about the practice field with a can of chewing tobacco stuffed in one of his calf-high socks.

“He might be the only guy on the team who reads a newspaper every morning,” Ott said.

The paper copy, mind you.

“I’ve got to know where my money’s at,” Janikowski said with a hearty laugh. “Money page and sports page, every day.”

Ivy League to the NFL

If Janikowski entered the NFL through the front door as the 17th overall pick in 2000, Ott had to go around back and wait in line for a while.

Not that you’d expect an NFL career to come easily for a long-snapper from Harvard. According to the Ivy League’s website, only 18 players from the conference were on a 53-man NFL roster at the start of the season, including eight from Harvard.

Ott ended up there after being initially recruited by Dartmouth as a tight end, which gave him the idea to send his tape to all of the Ivy League schools. He was verbally committed to Tulsa, his hometown school, but couldn’t say no to Harvard once he visited the campus and met with the coaches.

Save for the games against rival Yale, playing in the Ivy League usually meant playing in front of small crowds. The listed attendance was 5,838 for a 2012 win over Columbia when Ott made his first college reception.

“We have more bookworms than we do sports fans,” said Ott, who earned his degree in economics in 2014.

With the help of some connections he had made during a college internship, Ott landed a job at UBS, a private wealth-management firm in Boston, after graduating. He worked there full time and then at Northwestern Mutual while training at Harvard. He believed he would eventually stick with an NFL team, but he first had to make the rounds on the tryout circuit and the fringes of offseason rosters.

Ott had two stints with the New England Patriots and a third with the St. Louis Rams before making his regular-season debut for the New York Giants in Week 17 of the 2015 season. He had another stint with the Giants and one with the Cincinnati Bengals before landing with the Seahawks during the 2016 playoffs following an injury to their long-snapper, Nolan Frese.

“I would go to training camp, do well, get some film in the preseason and then get released,” he said. “Most of the teams I was on, they had a guy that they were kind of set with. They were just kind of looking at other people, getting me some film. Every Monday, Tuesday, you never knew if you were going to get a call for a workout and if they were seriously looking at you or if it was just an emergency list or if they just needed a snapper to work out a punter or a kicker or something. I was always on the ready. It was kind of just like, hurry up and wait nonstop for those years.”

The Pro Bowl rookie

In one respect, it wasn’t at all surprising when Dickson became the first rookie punter since 1985 to make the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks thought they had that special of a player when they made the rare move of trading up to draft Dickson in the fifth round after his decorated career at Texas. He was the NFC selection as the league’s leader in net and gross average at the time the rosters were announced.

But the accomplishment is remarkable in a bigger-picture sense considering Dickson grew up playing Australian rules football and has been kicking an American football since only the spring of 2015. That’s when he moved from Sydney to Melbourne to enroll at Prokick Australia, a developmental program that helps young Aussies earn punting scholarships to American colleges. Dickson was punting for the Longhorns by that fall.

Making a Pro Bowl as a rookie would have seemed ridiculous to him at the time, right?

“I probably wouldn’t have known what the Pro Bowl was back then,” he said.

Learning to drive on the right-hand side of the road was one of the first major adjustments Dickson made once he moved to the States. His palate is still getting used to the flavors of American cuisine, some of which he won’t touch. Dickson and his cousin, current UT punter Ryan Bujcevski, will often talk about their distaste for certain foods like American barbecue. Dickson thinks of turkey the same way someone not from Australia might think of Vegemite spread.

“I wouldn’t eat turkey,” he said. “No way.”

Dickson’s thick accent is a source of humor in the Seahawks’ special-teams room.

“We make him talk like an American every once in a while,” Schneider said. “He really is distinct, like saying, ‘HAM-bur-ger.'”

It’s all good-natured.

“They’re just fun guys to be around,” Schneider said. “They get along really well.”

Carroll put it another way.

“They’re kind of like the Three Amigos, you know?” he said. “They kind of ride together. As soon as they put the hats on, they look the same. But really they’re totally different guys.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *