The route that NFL players take to get from the college game to a career that will be remembered is often a circuitous one. A player like Gilbert Brown never worked out for the Vikings, but once he got to Green Bay, he became a prototype for beefy nose tackles that have become the rage throughout the NFL.
The history books are full of players that had great NFL careers that started out by being viewed as not talented enough by the team that first got their hands on them. Jimmy Smith is a borderline Hall of Famer after a decade as one of the top wide receivers in the league when he played for Jacksonville, but Dallas had him for three years and never saw the explosive receiver he would become.
As the Vikings head to San Francisco, it will be a homecoming of sorts for the kicker. In something that borders on Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Ryan Longwell's journey from college to the NFL has ties to 49ers and the Vikings.
To set the scene, the year was 1997. Longwell wasn't viewed as a top-10 kicker in the draft by the draft gurus of the day. As expected, he went undrafted. However, he did have an "in," his chance to make it in the NFL. His college coach, Steve Mariucci, had just been hired as the head coach of the 49ers and Longwell had been his kicker at the University of California.
The combination of Mooch and the fact that in the first week of free agency during the 1997 off-season, the division rival Rams had swooped in and stolen away Niners kicker Jeff Wilkins, left motive and opportunity for Longwell. When he got the call from Mariucci, his dreams of the playing in the NFL were off and running.
"It was an ideal place for me to sign," Longwell said. "First off, they didn't have a kicker. Second, I knew the coach real well and figured that might work to my advantage going there than being brought in somewhere that didn't have that sort of familiarity."
While there were two other kickers on the roster, Longwell was the primary kicker in all of the minicamps. But, just days before the start of training camp, he was cut because the 49ers signed veteran Gary Anderson and essentially handed him the job. (Historical footnote: the 49ers signed Anderson to a one-year deal and, following the season, he signed with the Vikings and set a record for kicker points in a single season with 164 – turning the kicking duties over to Wade Richey.) Mariucci gave Longwell his release so he could try to hook on with another team before the preseason and compete for a job.
Longwell waited by the phone. And waited. And waited.
That was, until a call from the most unlikely source of all – the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay had been the only team to use a draft pick on a kicker – Brett Conway of Penn State. Not only did the Packers use a draft pick on him, they used their third-rounder – the 90th overall. (Historical Bacon: the second pick of the Packers in that draft was Vikings safety Darren Sharper.) It was the only call coming and, while Longwell felt his chances of making the team were almost non-existent, he figured getting a chance to go through training camp with the defending champions might get him noticed, since the Packers were deep and many positions and teams were likely to be watching their preseason games to perhaps sign some of the players they would cut.
"They really just brought me in to make sure they didn't wear out their draft pick," Longwell said. "Then he ended up continually getting hurt and I got my shot and ended up staying there."
As luck would have it for Longwell, Conway was beset with injuries and Longwell got the job by near default. He not only exceeded expectations, he was good enough that when Conway returned in 1998, Longwell beat him out for the job, the Packers cut their losses and released Conway.
But the sweet irony for Longwell was that he got a chance in his rookie season to show Mariucci and special teams coach George Stewart (Bacon Bit: Stewart is now the wide receivers coach for the Vikings) that they made the wrong choice in letting him slide out San Fran. The Packers and 49ers would meet that season – with more than just a little at stake.
"My rookie year, we ended up playing at San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game," Longwell said. "I kicked three field goals against them that day and we beat them to go the Super Bowl. I saw that as a good chance to show him that I could have done it for (the 49ers)."
So as Longwell and the Vikings head into San Francisco for their game Sunday, had Anderson, Mariucci and Stewart not been brought together, Longwell could be in the other locker room looking to beat the Vikings. Instead, he's coming out the tunnel by the visitors locker room in hopes of breaking the hearts of San Francisco fans.
It's been a strange trip indeed and an improbable one. But, in the Six Degrees of Ryan Longwell, his career path blossomed better than even he could have envisioned.
"Looking back, I thought I was a perfect fit (in San Francisco)," Longwell said. "The last place I wanted to go after I was cut was to Green Bay because my chances of sticking there were almost none. I guess it goes to show that there might be a higher power at work on my behalf. That was 10 years ago and I'm still here. Obviously it worked out for the best."
Six Degrees of Ryan Longwell
Viking Update Top Stories
Preview: Vikings facing aggressive EaglesThe Minnesota Vikings’ continued success on Sunday will be predicated on their ability to handle and exploit the aggressiveness of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Viking Update7:26 PM
Key matchup: Former teammates face offOnly time will tell who got the better of the Sam Bradford trade to the Minnesota Vikings, but he and Carson Wentz will face each other Sunday after the trade that surprised them…
Viking Update7:06 AM
Vikings podcast: Spielman, Bradford and moreThe Minnesota Vikings are showing the fruits of some solid roster building and coaching. Their record, their stats and their depth prove it, as a talk with Rick Spielman showed.
Viking Update6:17 AM
Vikings rush offense needs to improveThe Minnesota Vikings are the lone unbeaten team in the NFL, yet they are failing at one of the typical telltale signs of a winning team - being able to control the clock with a…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 8:23 PM