Getting his kicks

Todd France reported to Giants training camp in July free of preconceived ideas or expectations about what the experience might be like. All he knew was that it likely would be his last run at the NFL before pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering. <BR><BR>

And then things began to get interesting for the kicker.

Matt Bryant, the team's leading scorer the last two seasons, was cut by Tom Coughlin the day before camp began because a hamstring injury prevented him from working. And then Bill Gramatica, a veteran signed to compete with Bryant, injured his back in a special teams drill a few days after kicking two field goals in the team's first exhibition game against the Chiefs.

Suddenly, the Giants had only one healthy kicker.

"I'm very surprised about all this," France said. "I don't believe I would have even been here had Bill and Matt not gotten hurt. I knew I didn't have much of a shot coming in. It's just one of those things that happens."

After making four-of-five field goals, including a 51-yarder in Carolina on his first NFL attempt Aug. 19, France earned a spot on the 53-man roster and expected to kick in the opener against the Eagles in Philadelphia. But the week before the game, the Giants were already working out possible replacements like veteran Steve Christie, cut by the Jaguars.

"Anyone can get released at anytime, so I'm just trying to put together a string of weeks so I can stay here," France said.

After expressing happiness with France for most of the preseason, Coughlin was displeased about a 44-yarder he missed Friday against the Ravens. And Coughlin has made no secret about his intention to continually scan the waiver wire for improvements to the roster.

"Every kicker has the same job, make all their field goals, certainly the ones inside the 45," France admitted. "And make sure your kickoffs are deep. Every team is looking to do the same thing."

The Giants are in great need of a kicker with a strong leg. Morten Andersen in 2001 was the last to kick a 50-yard field goal. Neither Bryant nor Brett Conway even attempted a 50-yard field goal during the last two seasons. And none of the three were strong at kickoffs.

Coughlin believes France could be the answer, although Christie made two-of-three from 50 and beyond with the Chargers in 2003 despite connecting on only six-of-10 from between 30 and 50. France was cut the last two seasons by the Vikings without getting a chance to kick in an exhibition game. But he impressed the Giants with his consistency during off-season kicking camps.

"He is one of those kids who has performed well in the kicking camps, particularly one in Las Vegas where the NFL people go to evaluate," Coughlin said. "We had a real good report on him from Mike Priefer [assistant special teams coach] and we brought him in to compete. From the time he came he's been pretty consistent with his kickoffs and has made improvement in other areas.

"Let's face it, he has staying power. He's been able to grind through things while the others were up and down. I recognize that. He's a pretty solid kid. I don't notice anything real different or unusual about him, except that he's a kicker."

France said his performance this summer was improved because of help he received from the coaching staff.

"I have to give a lot of credit to the special teams coaches," France said. "They've worked with me pretty much every day since I've been with the team and that's something I really haven't had in the past. They may not be kicking specialists, but they know what to look for and I give them a lot of credit for the fact that I'm here."

"The mental part was the important thing for me," France said. "Going out onto the field with the attitude that if I did well then I'll be here the next day and so on."

Until he made the team France, 24, was perfectly willing to ride the bike he took to lunch each day in training camp out of the NFL forever if he didn't make it this season. And he still has no plans to trade in his 13-year-old Cutlass that takes him exactly where he needs to go.

Kickers may be the NFL's most disposable commodity, but France, who still lives at home in Ohio and spent his last offseason doing volunteer work for Habitat For Humanity, doesn't look at his life in such a limiting way.

"I don't want to be one of those guys who one day discovers he's 31 and all he's ever prepared himself for is kicking a football," France said.

Perhaps that attitude steeled his nerves for the debut in Carolina that jump-started his career.

"I've heard a lot of stories about coaches who say, ‘This kid has done well in workouts, but doesn't have any experience.' Well, how do you get experience if no one gives you a chance? The biggest gripe I'd heard about myself was he'd been to two camps [with the Vikings in 2002-03] and still hasn't had an attempt. What's this guy's problem? Well, now I have it."

In the first quarter of the Giants' 27-20 exhibition loss to Carolina, France proved his ability to Coughlin by drilling a 51-yard field goal.

Coughlin responded with a wide smile.

"It's good if I can do that," France said.

France followed by making his only other attempt, a 41-yarder.

Coughlin caught up to France as the team was leaving the field and offered his hand.

Now comes the tough part.

France is aware one bad game might be enough to sway Coughlin, who demands consistency.

"The only question is whether I can do it consistently," France said. "And if I can't, I shouldn't be in this league. There were times in practice [during training camp] when I probably couldn't have made a high school team. Sometimes it was wind conditions or field conditions. And sometimes it was because I just stink."

If making the Giants turns out to be the high point, France, the career scoring leader for kickers in Mid-American Conference history at Toledo, will not look back.

He'll just ride his bike right on to graduate school.

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