The twists of fate in the NFL can turn careers on a dime. If not for an injury to Drew Bledsoe in 2001, a sixth-round rookie from the previous season named Tom Brady may never have been given his chance to be the starter. He was, and the Patriots won the first of their three Super Bowl titles – cementing Brady as the starter and making the rest of the story NFL history.
In a few ways at least, the career of Chris Kluwe has mirrored that of Brady's. It was mere coincidence that Kluwe ended up with the Vikings in the first place, but thanks to consistent play, the Vikings locked up him with a six-year contract extension worth $8.3 million recently.
Kluwe's road to financial security wasn't an easy one. He was signed by the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted rookie in 2005, primarily just to provide competition for veteran Tom Rouen, who had the job all but locked up before training camp began. As luck would have it, the Vikings were playing Seattle in the third preseason game that year and Vikings punter Darren Bennett was nothing short of awful. Once known for his high, long, booming punts, Bennett's consistency was all but gone and the distance on his kicks were brutal. It was clear the Vikings needed a change and they only need look across the field that day to find their answer.
Kluwe nailed several long punts during warm-ups and had a couple of boomers during the game, which was enough to convince the Vikings to take a chance on him. A little more than two years later, Kluwe has financial security and a paycheck worthy of one of the game's top punters.
"It feels great to have that feeling of stability – knowing that I'm set for at least a couple of years," Kluwe said. "I can't allow that to let me slack off at all, because I still have to do my job and prove myself. You have to keep showing everyone that there was a good reason that they gave you the contract."
For a guy who spent the first two months of his pro career living in a hotel because he wasn't sure if he should buy a house in Minnesota, the turnaround has been quite stunning. He has led the league for most of the 2007 season in pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line – a critical statistic considering the low-scoring games the Vikings have been playing the last couple of seasons.
Kluwe's career was never firmly cemented with the Vikings, especially after a torn ACL in the 2005 season led to offseason surgery and his punting average dropping almost two yards a kick in 2006. But he worked out hard in the offseason to get his leg strength back and the Vikings rewarded him with the contract extension. For Kluwe, it was a weight lifted off his shoulders because, while he believed the team was sincere about wanting to keep him long term, in the NFL you just never know.
"There's always that little twinge in the back of your head that something might go wrong because there isn't always a lot of stability and job security for kickers or punters," Kluwe said. "You're always one injury away from potentially being replaced or a couple of bad kicks. There isn't a lot of leeway in this position – if you're ineffective, it can come back to bite you in a hurry."
Kluwe is the latest in a list of Vikings specialists that has been locked down to long-term contracts. Kicker Ryan Longwell is signed through the 2010 season, long snapper Cullen Loeffler is signed through 2011 and, with his extension, Kluwe is signed through 2013.
Having made the Vikings waiver-wire gamble in 2005 pay off, Kluwe is prepared to be the Vikings; punter for the foreseeable future. But, even with a fat contract in his hip pocket, he isn't going to take his role on the team for granted. If anything, it has provided additional motivation to stay on the top of his game.
"If you have a couple of bad games in a row, there is always someone waiting in the wings that a team can look at to take over," Kluwe said. "It's gratifying to know that the organization thought enough of me to give me a long-term contract. But I have to be consistent because I know it doesn't last forever and I have to earn my pay.
If you don't believe him, just ask Darren Bennett. He'll tell you.
Kluwe Keeps Proving It
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