Forget about the stoic exterior you see on Sundays. Supreme confidence still remains beneath Billy Cundiff’s latest NFL jersey.
It’s been nearly 18 years since Harlan Community (Iowa) football coach Curt Bladt got his first sampling of that confidence. The Cyclones were tied in overtime during a fierce struggle with archrival Denison-Schleswig in Cundiff’s sophomore year, when he went out for a potential game-winning kick.
“He slapped me on the back and said, ‘Don’t worry. This one’s over.’ And he trotted right out and kicked it through,” Bladt said.
Nobody told Cundiff NFL kickers don’t come from Drake University. He won the Dallas Cowboys’ job as a 22-year-old rookie. Eleven years later, he’s still at it. Cundiff made his only field-goal attempt — a 40-yarder — and both extra points in Cleveland’s 31-17 loss to Detroit on Sunday. It’s his fifth NFL team, but he’s been signed and released by seven others.
Cundiff has seen NFL life from every vantage point. He was the AFC place-kicker in the 2011 Pro Bowl after converting 26 of 29 field-goal attempts and a league-high 40 touchbacks for Baltimore in the 2010 season. He has been signed multiple times as an insurance policy, only if the regular kicker became injured. He’s been asked to try out for several teams who had no real intention of keeping him.
Cundiff often thinks of a speech coach Bill Parcells made to the team when they were in Dallas.
“He told us to look at everybody in the room,” Cundiff said. “He said, ‘You will all be replaced, including me. You need to get used to that idea and move on.’ It’s just part of the journey. If you want to play professional sports, you have to be able to deal with a lot of things that are completely out of your control.”
The 33-year-old is in his second stint with the 3-3 Browns. This season the 6-foot-1, 212-pounder has made 9 of 11 field goals and all 12 extra points, to go with 18 touchbacks.
“He’s a resilient guy,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “He’s on our football team, and I have the utmost faith in him.”
Inner faith has never been a problem for Cundiff. In his senior year at Harlan, he scored 17 of his game-high 25 points in the second half of a 65-51 state semifinal win over Pella, stealing the spotlight from Dutch all-stater Kyle Korver, a future Creighton star and NBA veteran who had 19.
“He was the type of kid, you showed confidence in him and just sort of turned him loose,” Harlan basketball coach Mitch Osborn said. “He just sort of needed the reins off of him. You had to free the anxiety of him making mistakes and let him go.”
Cundiff quarterbacked Harlan to a state football title as a senior and was The World-Herald’s western Iowa athlete of the year in 1998 before moving on to Drake, where he kicked and also walked on to the basketball team, playing in nine career games without scoring.
Cundiff beat out Tim Seder for the Cowboys job in 2002, and the next year he tied an NFL record with seven field goals in an overtime win over the New York Giants. He was released during the 2005 season, and that’s when his patience was tested.
From 2006 to 2009, he competed for jobs in Tampa Bay, Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, Kansas City and Detroit. He spent a brief stint with the Saints as their kickoff man, but was waived by the others.
“Loyalty is non-existent,” Cundiff said. “Love and respect are strictly conditional. When I learned that, it helped through all the other times.”
Plans were developing for a life in Arizona without football for Cundiff and his wife, Nicole, who began dating in college. He attended Arizona State and eventually earned his MBA. He spent lonely hours training at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. He did an internship at a venture capital firm in Phoenix, and had a paid position there for two months. He passed on offers to kick in lower professional leagues, including the Canadian Football League.
“My wife was constantly encouraging me when I was training by myself,” he said. “She’s been unbelievable through all of this.”
Cundiff caught on with the Browns for five games in 2009, and finished the year with Baltimore. Then came the Pro Bowl year with the Ravens in 2010, after which he signed a five-year, $15 million contract.
In the 2012 AFC championship game against New England, Cundiff’s life changed. Baltimore’s Lee Evans had the game-winning touchdown catch in his hands, but had it knocked out with 22 seconds left. Two plays later it was fourth down, but many observers later confirmed that the scoreboard had been off by one down throughout the series.
In the confusion, Cundiff rushed onto the field later than normal. Out of his usual routine, he pulled a 32-yarder that could have sent the game to overtime.
Cundiff shouldered all of the blame. He didn’t see any other option.
“At the end of the day, I could kind of cover my own backside, or I could do what’s right and know that I could look myself in the mirror each and every day,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure my kids looked back at my career and looked at my character first, and my production and my talent second.”
Cundiff was released by the Ravens seven months later. He kicked five games for the Redskins in 2012 but was released. On New Year’s Day 2013, he was brought in by San Francisco to compete with a struggling David Akers. Akers retained his job and the 49ers went on to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Ravens.
Throughout his career, Cundiff said many of his low points have been blessings. More than once, he was cut at a time when one of the couple’s three children was an infant, allowing him to spend valuable time there while his wife practiced law.
Nicole Cundiff’s mother, Colleen Drury, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007. He was around often in the weeks and months that followed, able to lend support to his wife and her family.
And when Cundiff wasn’t signed by the 49ers in January 2013, he considers it a blessing, even though he might have been playing in the Super Bowl. Colleen had just been placed in a hospice facility, and Cundiff was able to help his wife through the ordeal. They all watched the Super Bowl together that night. She died 20 days later.
The couple started Colleen’s Dream Foundation in 2012. It supports research for early detection and early improved treatment of ovarian cancer.
After his mother-in-law’s death, Cundiff soon was kicking with another team. His wife remains fully on board, even though it took her husband across the country and left her again running the household. Until a visit last week, Cundiff said he’d seen his wife and children for seven days in the previous two months.
But don’t feel sorry for them.
“We signed up for this,” he said. “It’s been a long trip. A lot of sacrifice. The good times have been really good, and sometimes the bad times have been really bad. But we always knew we had each other. And we’re going to ride this roller coaster until they kick us off.”