The Bengals kicking competition is so even heading into Thursday’s 7 p.m. preseason finale in Indianapolis (Cincinnati’s Channel 12) that Mike Nugent doesn’t even get an edge for Who Dey karma.
That was the simple two-word text he sent to his mother when the Bengals signed him back in April.
“I had to call him and ask him, ‘Is that what I think it means?’ ” says Carolyn Nugent.
Mike Nugent is the Centerville, Ohio product who grew up Bengal. Or as his mother likes to say, he was a fan even before he was born. And that’s because a grand total of 51 days before he arrived on March 2, 1982, his parents went to the Freezer Bowl and watched the Bengals win the AFC championship in the wind-in-the-willows chill of minus-59 at Riverfront Stadium.
“I called my doctor to check to see if it would be OK to go. I probably called the day before when we found out how cold it was going to be,” Carolyn Nugent says. “He said, ‘Just keep warm. If you’re warm, the baby is warm.’ It was no problem staying warm. We never stopped jumping up and down cheering and yelling. It was so exciting. And he turned out OK.”
He turned out to be a second-round draft pick out of Ohio State 23 years later and began a tough career through the hills and valleys of NFL kicking. Nugent was good enough to be an 81.5-percent career kicker in his first three seasons in the league in New York, those days when the kids in Mrs. Nugent’s first-grade reading class in Centerville were wearing Jets jerseys. But a muscle injury in early 2008 wiped him out until he hooked on last year in short stints with Arizona and Tampa Bay. Even his four months in the offseason and preseason with the Bengals have been tainted by injury and uncertainty.
Until his 54-yarder Saturday night against the Bills on what was and is his only legitimate field goal try of the four preseason games.
“It feels good; it went well,” says Nugent, who missed two weeks with a groin problem that took him out of much of the rotation with
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons says it is too close to call. After all the practices at steamy Paul Brown Stadium and sweltering Georgetown College, all the individual sessions, all the simulated game situations, it comes down to four air-conditioned quarters in Indy and even then Simmons say it’s “a gut call.”
Even then, Simmons won’t rule out getting a third guy off the waiver wire Saturday. That won’t be as easy as it was when the Bengals picked off Shayne Graham in ’03 because they were first in line to claim waivers and now they’re 21st, but it is an option because there will be some free-agent veterans looming.
In this corner is Rayner, on his ninth stop and second with the Bengals, the only guy other than Shayne Graham that has kicked a field goal in the Marvin Lewis era. Rayner was a sixth-round pick of the Colts out of Michigan State the same year the Jets plucked Nugent out of the Big Ten. While Nugent healed this preseason, Rayner hit five of seven field-goal tries with misses from 44 and 34 yards and a long of 36. He’s taken double the kickoffs Nugent has taken (13-6) with one touchback.
In that corner is Nugent, local boy who made good trying to get his career back to good. He was the surest thing at Ohio State next to the band with a school-record 356 points and once kicked a ball through a 12th floor office at CBS to the delight of David Letterman. For awhile, he would have taken that here. Two penalties wiped out his field-goal tries and his only try before the 54-yarder had been a 59-yarder that was short at the end of the half Aug. 20 against the Eagles. He’s supposed to be shorter off the tee than Rayner, but he also has one touchback and three kicks to the 3 and 4.
The 54-yarder tied his career high, which he did Nov. 26, 2006 against the Texans in The Meadowlands.
“Sunny day, beautiful day," he said of the stadium where kickers go to die, or at least wide right, in November and December.
And he’s right. The records say it was 51 degrees and the wind was only going eight miles per hour on a day he kicked four field goals against the Texans.
Not exactly the Freezer Bowl.
“We had season tickets for almost 30 years and when Mike went to play at Ohio State and his brother played soccer there, we couldn’t go anymore,” Carolyn Nugent says. “It was football on Saturday and soccer on Sunday. But we would still follow them and see how they were doing. I think Carson (Palmer) is a class act.”
They haven’t met Palmer yet. There is the matter first of winning the job. And Simmons has been watching more than made field goals. Even when the kickers are off by themselves and not working in a team period.
“How do they react when they miss?” Simmons asked. “What are the mannerisms when they miss? Obviously we can’t simulate game conditions. We get as close as we can … eventually you can’t turn it on and off. You have to make field goals in practice. If you don’t, it eventually catches up to you in team periods and ultimately catches up to you in games.
“I told them the first day they got here, ‘I’m watching you and everybody else is watching you. Everybody is watching every single kick that you take. Just because we’re on another field don’t think that nobody ain’t watching. I’m watching everything.’ It’s all part of it. It all goes into deciding who is going to be our next kicker.”
Nugent gets it. Like Rayner, he keeps a running dialogue with Simmons as they grapple trying to find the balance of getting enough work and resting the body.
“He tells us what’s best for you is best for the team sort of thing,” Nugent says. “I’ve cut back on my warmups before a game. It’s one thing to get loose. But you don’t have to go crazy and have 40 kicks.
“Honestly, if they had made a decision by now, I think they would have done it. The game means a lot, but it’s how we kicked the ball today (in practice), how we kicked the ball yesterday. It’s like Coach said, 'In this industry you’re being evaluated every time you step on the field.' It holds true for every position on the field.”
Hometowns can do funny things to pro athletes. The distractions can kill them, but Nugent loves it. “A lot of my buddies already have season tickets," he said. "The support has been unbelievable. It’s been a lot of fun."
It is nice when the hometown team is nice. The first day Nugent arrived one of the veterans who had bounced around the league a bit like him told him, “This is the best locker room I’ve ever been in. The guys are great. You’re going to love it here.”
“And he was right,” Nugent said. “Everybody has been so nice and fun to be around.”
Of course, no one is probably having more fun than his parents. Like they did at Ohio State, they have gone to all the games.
“When the (public address) announcer says, ‘And now kicking off for the Cincinnati Bengals, Mike Nugent,’ ” Carolyn Nugent says, “it’s like a dream come true. I can’t hear it enough.”
Carolyn can tick off her favorite Bengals as easily as she can name her four kids: “Boomer Esiason. We love Boomer. Kenny Anderson. Cris Collinsworth. My favorite player is Boomer. My husband’s favorite is David Fulcher.”
Dan, who played football at Wisconsin and Dayton in college, took Carolyn to Miami for Super Bowl XXIII while six-year-old Mike and his siblings stayed back home with family and friends.
Which brings her to her favorite Bengals moment.
“It has to be when we returned the kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl and lost with 34 seconds left,” she says. “That was terrible. So close. And there was Ickey Woods and 'The Ickey Shuffle.' We loved that.”
She admits the past month has been stressful, but this is also a month she’ll always have no matter what happens and she knows what it means for her son to put himself in this position. “He’s worked so hard,” she said.
Thirty years and four kids later, what has changed? The Nugents are going to a Bengals game Thursday night and it is going to be slightly warmer than the Freezer Bowl if the air conditioner isn’t going full tilt. But they will probably get some chills knowing what it all means.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Carolyn Nugent says as she is about to click off the phone.
A minute later she is back on the line.
“About my favorite Bengals moment,” she says. “How about the day Mike Nugent signed with the Bengals?”