July 25, 2014

Campbell: Maher looking to shed typical kicker conventions


As much as kickers are too often unfairly judged solely by their last kick, Brett Maher sure has a knack for making favourable and lasting first impressions.

Back in 2001, as a junior with the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the now CFL rookie replaced Alex Henery, who folks around Lincoln, Nebraska, remember as the most accurate place-kicker in NCAA history.

Maher merely went out in his debut and went 4-of-4 on field goals (including ones of 50 and 48 yards) and had Cornhuskers faithful jokingly saying “Alex who?”

Fast forward to the Ottawa REDBLACKS home opener and if anyone was checking their program before the game to see who was wearing No. 5, 60 minutes of football later Maher was virtually a household name on the banks of the Rideau Canal.

The rookie Maher did the unthinkable by kicking six field goals (two short of the all-time CFL record in a game) and accounted for all 18 points as the touchdown-less REDBLACKS some how managed to earn the franchise’s first ever win over the Toronto Argonauts.

Maher capped the win with a 23-yarder with 28 seconds to play to become the first hero at TD Place, with a sellout crowd that included among it a couple of pretty good former Ottawa kickers in Moe Racine and Gerry Organ.

On a personal level, the 6-of-6 performance even surpassed the 5-of-5 day Henery had last October for the Philadelphia Eagles in beating the NY Giants.

Bigger still was the fact that wife Jenna and five-week-old daughter Maela made their way to Ottawa and saw it live. Maela may have to re-visit the highlights when she’s a little older.

If that isn’t just about a dream come true for a young player, no-one should dare to dream.

And the CFL further rewarded Maher with player-of-the-week on special teams.

“It’s been a wild ride to get here and I feel like this is a great spot to be,” said Maher, as he held up the team bus for interview after interview, a sure-fire no-no for kickers. “The week leading up was very exciting. It was a busy week . . . the whole process was busy. But the people who will be successful are the ones who can handle that.

“I had kicked a ton of game-winners in my head, so I just went out there and tried to remember and go through the same routine and put it through.

“It sounds very cliché but getting the win was the most important thing. It was a great atmosphere: the city was great, the fans were great . . . and I can’t wait for another one.”

Brett Maher was all smiles last week after kicking a game-winning field goal with 28 seconds on the clock. 
Even more special was the fact that his family was in attendance to witness it.

Short of quarterback Henry Burris, in one home game, M-a-h-e-r might have become the name most recognizable among the new REDBLACKS fans.

Three weeks in Maher is also averaging 44 yds/punt and stands tied for fourth in CFL scoring with onetime Rough Rider (1993) hopeful Paul Mccallum, now not only the last active Rough Rider still playing in the league, but oldest active player in the CFL period at age 44.

From three-point range, Maher is 9-for-11 with a longest of 48 yards.

Just how Maher became a REDBLACK involves a few doors closing before another door would open.

It began at a camp last year in Phoenix when the eyes of pro personnel directors and scouts were watching every move, hoping to unearth a player or two who may have been overlooked.

The pressure was every bit as intense as Saturday afternoons in front of 87,091 in the stands and all in red at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The camp was really a make-or-break first step in a process to find employment.

The REDBLACKS, for one, liked Maher, and it had nothing to do with his long jump abilities though he is a former Nebraska State champion as a high school senior.

“Not only his kicking, his punting was good too,” said REDBLACKS head coach Rick Campbell. “He’s a steady guy. Even when trying out, you never saw him get to high or too low.”

But Maher also caught the eye of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and as Winnipeg already had him on their negotiation list, the ‘Peg became stop one on a training camp odyssey.

In his time in Winnipeg, Maher could not have done more. He was four-for-four on field goals in two pre-season games and still Winnipeg decided to go with rookie Lirim Hajrullahu, a Canadian out of the University of Western Ontario.

The REDBLACKS didn’t waste a second claiming him, though they did leave him in limbo for a couple of days in June, while auditioning almost a chorus line of kickers before settling on Maher. It now appears he may be a REDBLACK for some time — if the NFL does not come into play down the road.

Heading into the 2013 NFL draft, many had Maher rated as the fifth-best kicker available.

The former Cornhusker out of Kearney High, was the Big 10 Conference kicker of the year in his senior year in 2012 and third-team conference punter. The year previous, Maher was a honourable mention All America selection as kicker and first-team Big 10 punter. He also had a career-longest field of 54 yards against the UCLA Bruins, which ranks as the longest road field goal by a Nebraska place-kicker and the 5th-longest on school history.

This was all after spending two years never getting on the field except to hold for Henery and seeing as the two roomed together, they were rarely apart.

But the kicking profession is one tough place in the work force to break into. The turnover on kickers is hardly the same as it is for runningbacks or defensive backs so kickers usually have to wait their turn.

And when NFL draft day came, nothing.

So the 2013 season was something of a loss around stints in the camps of both the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, who released him prior to the start of the season.

“As a kicker, you never know when your chance will come,” said Maher. “But when it does come, you have to take advantage of it.”

One thing you will never hear is a kicker complaining of practices being too hard.

And with Maher handling both duties, the only friend he can find on the field is often long-snapper Kevin Scott, while he waits his turn.

“I feel like I am at my best when I am in my own little world,” said Maher, referring to just about every kicker. “We’re not even aware of what is going on in the outside world.

“And I got there last week.”