Neil Rackers graduated from Illinois in 2000. A product of Aquinas-Mercy High School in Florissant, Missouri, Rackers walked on as a placekicker at Illinois and earned a scholarship. His long snapper was Nathan Hodel, also a walkon, who came to the Illini from Belleville East and graduated in 2001. They are now plying their trade as teammates after long NFL careers.
The Arizona Cardinals have been the surprise of the NFL this season.
"It's been pretty cool out here," Hodel explains. "The city of Phoenix is going crazy for us. It's a very improbable run, but I think we've relished the underdog role and have taken that and run with it. The up-against-the-world mentality has worked out well for us.
"Atlanta was supposed to come in and beat up on us. We were able to get by that very quality team. We went out to Carolina and were able to stop their game. And we were able to get by Philadelphia, who was right up there with the Steelers. It's really exciting, especially since it's a place that's not had a lot of success. This wasn't on everybody's radar, which makes it that much more sweet."
Rackers has experienced the same joy.
"It's been a lot of fun. No one gave us a chance when the playoffs started, saying we were the worst playoff team in NFL history. It's been a lot of fun to prove people wrong. For me, it's fun to see guys like Adrian Wilson, Larry Fitzgerald, guys who said they wanted to resign here to make it work instead of leaving for a more established program. Hard work pays off."
It is hard work that got Hodel and Rackers to this point in the first place. Hodel credits his experience at Illinois for preparing him for the next level.
"Neil Rackers and I played together for the bulk of our time at Illinois. Playing in the Big Ten, you've got athletes every week who are gonna be playing on Sundays. The speed of the game is obviously a big transition, but the pressure and atmosphere is extremely comparable to the NFL. Just playing in that type of atmosphere is good.
"I wouldn't trade my time at Illinois, on the field or off the field, for anything. Probably more than anything, it prepared me to be a good individual. That helps immensely when you try to translate that to the football field."
Hodel has appreciated having Rackers share his experiences.
"Neil and I have been on the same team for ten years now. It's definitely an asset because you don't have to worry about that guy, what his quirks are, what he needs on game day. It makes it that much easier because we have had to bring in some new punters the last two years. Familiarity is sometimes the most important thing in the NFL.
"We've seen each other mature and go from college where you're away from home the first time, you're running around, you don't know what's going on. Now, we have wives and children. It's really a complete maturing process. It's kind of neat to see his perspective and mine."
Rackers credits Hodel for helping him get the job in Phoenix.
"Nathan has been an integral part of me getting here. When they needed a kicker and I was unemployed, he was upstairs saying this guy can do the job. He and Fred Wakefield kind of got my foot in the door. I've had a working relationship with Nathan for 10 years now, and it makes you comfortable."
Nathan offers Neil high praise as a kicker.
"I think he's got as strong a leg as anybody that's out there. It comes down to executing. He may have struggled a little bit last year, but he's back on the beam. I think everyone remembers his Pro Bowl season a couple years back.
"When Neil's kicking with confidence like he is now, you can put him up with any kicker in the league. He's got the leg, he's got the accuracy. On kickoffs, he can kick touchbacks, he can onside kick it, he can place the ball anywhere he wants. He is a complete kicker."
Rackers is somewhat an exception as a professional athlete. He chose to stay in Arizona when he could have tested the free agent market and secured a more substantial paycheck.
"I've signed two contracts here. They picked me up in 2003 for the last three games and resigned me. And then in 2005, when things were going very well for me personally, I had the option of becoming a free agent and going someplace else.
"I have a grandfather who's a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan, and he hates when people take more money to leave after a team gives them a shot. So sticking with my family beliefs, I felt a lot of loyalty to the Cardinals. I wanted to stay here and make it work. It's a great locker room to be a part of, so I feel more comfortable here, and I wanted to stay here."
Sticking around has definitely paid off for both former Illini. The ultimate dream for a long snapper and kicker is to secure a game winning field goal or extra point in a Super Bowl. The game against Pittsburgh may be their date with destiny.