In the NFL, the Pro Bowl is one of the honors that players strive to achieve. More times than not, it's a case of name recognition that gets players voted in. At positions like offensive and defensive line, it's not unusual to see the same players named to the Pro Bowl teams year after year after year. To break through takes time and isn't easy.
Just ask former Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell. He was never named to the Pro Bowl in his career with the Packers and Vikings, but was named as an alternate seven times – a testament to his consistency and his longevity. But, in his first season, Vikings rookie Blair Walsh accomplished what few thought was possible – unseating veterans like David Akers and Jason Hanson to make the Pro Bowl in his first try.
While his numbers, which include an NFL record 9-for-9 in field goals of 50 yards and beyond, speak for themselves, Walsh said he is humbled by the honor and believes it is the result of a commitment he made to be an elite kicker from the day the Vikings drafted him in sixth round of last April's draft.
"It means a lot to me," Walsh said. "We worked so hard this season and before the season. To be recognized for what we were able to accomplish on special teams is awesome."
Walsh admitted he came to the NFL with the bar raised high and some lofty goals in front him. He wanted to be a Pro Bowl kicker. He wanted to be recognized as one of the best deep-leg kickers in the league. But even in his wildest dreams he didn't expect he could get the all-time distance field goal record for the franchise (tied at 56 yards) and make the Pro Bowl just 15 games into his NFL career.
"I didn't think anything like this could happen in my first season," Walsh said. "I'd be lying to you if I said I did. I'm confident in what I do, but I've been surrounded by a couple of guys that are the best at what they do. Cullen Loeffler and Chris Kluwe are two of the best professionals out there in my opinion. If I can have half the career those two guys have had, I'll be happy. They made my transition to the NFL so smooth, I can truly say I wouldn't have got this if not for them."
Walsh's entrance to the Vikings came with mixed emotions. Loeffler and Kluwe had forged a strong bond with Longwell and both were surprised that the Vikings not only drafted a kicker, but released Longwell days a couple of weeks after the draft. They had no idea what they were getting in Walsh, but both were pleasantly surprised with his talent and his demeanor.
"He was kind of an unknown quantity because we had been with Ryan so long," Kluwe said. "We were wondering who is the new guy going to be? Can we work with him? When Blair came in, he did it the right way. He was very personable and works really hard. He took his job very seriously. It was easy for Cullen and I to work with him. We formed a pretty solid nucleus right away."
For those who scanned the Pro Bowl rosters, one position that was listed as "TBA" (To Be Announced) was the long snapper position. In many instances, the kicker who is chosen to represent his conference is followed to Hawaii by his long snapper. Loeffler hasn't been contacted by the league as to whether he will be the long snapper for the NFC in the NFL all-star game, but is keeping his fingers crossed.
"It would be great," Loeffler said. "I don't know how exactly the process works, but I've seen it before where they pick the long snapper who was with the kicker that made it. I'm hoping they bring me along too, because it would be a great achievement and a lot of fun for me to play in that game. That's something I think every player wants to do at least once in his career. Hopefully this will be my chance."
Perhaps one of the moments that typified the Pro Bowl selection of Walsh came from an unlikely source to outsiders – Longwell, the guy Walsh replaced last spring. To those who know Longwell, however, his praise of Walsh on Twitter and glowing affirmation of his skills came as no surprise at all.
"That's just Ryan," Kluwe said. "He's totally classy and it didn't surprise me a bit when I saw his tweets about what he said about Blair. This is the guy that replaced him. Not many people would have done that given the circumstances, but that is just who Ryan is. He's class all the way."
"He didn't have to say that," Walsh said. "It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me professionally and I really appreciate it. He's a class act and I appreciate what he said from the bottom of my heart. It meant an awful to me."
While Walsh is looking forward to heading to Hawaii to represent the Vikings and the NFC in the Pro Bowl, he doesn't have much time to bask in the glow of the honor. The Vikings have their biggest game of the year Sunday against Green Bay and individual accolades have to take a back seat to preparation for what he hopes will be team success.
"It's a great honor to get named to the Pro Bowl, but our season isn't done," Walsh said. "We've worked our way back into a position that if we win Sunday, we're in the playoffs. That takes precedence to everything right now. I'm grateful that I was named to the Pro Bowl, but I've got work to do. Now I guess I have to show that I deserve it by earning it Sunday and hopefully the next few weeks after that."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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