Before his powerful right leg secured the 49ers’ victory Sunday in frigid Green Bay, Texas-raised Phil Dawson was shivering – emotionally speaking – in his boots.
The seasons change. The calendar tacks on another year. But every time he walks onto the field for a potential game-winning kick, the sensation scares the wits out of him.
“I’ll go out there and my mind’s a wreck,” Dawson said Wednesday after practice. “The thoughts are bad. I would not sell many self-help books given what’s going on in my head. I’m either going to make it or I’m not. But your body goes into autopilot and your muscles do what they’re trained to do.”
These NFL kickers are an interesting and unique bunch. The departed David Akers was waiting tables at a steakhouse outside Atlanta when he got his big break. His successor, Dawson, is someone who speaks fondly of Cleveland after 14 mostly frustrating seasons, who ranked the challenging winds at Candlestick Park on the plus side of the ledger when evaluating future employers during his recent free agency, and who has more cleats in his closet than sneakers at Foot Locker.
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Then there is the personal life. Dawson, who turns 39 on Jan. 23, married one of Wayne Newton’s former backup singers.
“She just released her first solo album this year,” said Dawson, “and I’m really thrilled. Shannon kind of put everything on hold when we got married and had the kids (Dru, Beau, Sophiann). Now that her opportunity came back around, I couldn’t be happier.”
Dawson is pretty pleased with own new professional gig, too. It’s not every day that he experiences two playoff games in the same season; in his 14 seasons in Cleveland, the Browns reached the postseason once (2002). The 49ers’ recent success and Super Bowl prospects, he acknowledged, were major factors in his decision to relocate to the Bay Area. Additionally, he previously had worked with special-teams coach Brad Seely and was intrigued by the challenging and relatively familiar weather conditions at Candlestick.
Dawson, who started kicking a ball around at age 4, characterizes his profession as a combination of art and science. He appreciates style – he is no fan of the era when soccer players became NFL kicking converts – and is meticulous and precise about his conditioning and his preparation.
The routine doesn’t waver. He monitors weather reports throughout the week and arrives at the stadium, home or away, four or five hours before kickoff. Green Bay was no exception. Long before converting field goals of 22, 25 and 33 yards against the Packers, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Dawson was on the field, a solitary figure bundled in heavy clothing, examining the turf and experimenting with cleats.
“I don’t have an opponent across the line of scrimmage, so to speak, but those are the things I need to study to do my job. Assess the conditions and figure out which left shoe would work, looking at different (cleat) lengths and configurations. And I can’t overstate the tremendous job Andy does,” Dawson said, referring to longtime punter and holder Andy Lee. “You have to trust your kicker. To catch the ball in that cold, to spin it around the way he did Sunday, while wearing gloves, was amazing.”
So about Green Bay and that game-winning, last-second 33-yarder: Yes, Dawson was a nervous wreck. Yes, he was freezing, as was Lee, who wore gloves for the first time in his 10 NFL seasons. But Dawson’s angst was eased at least somewhat by his preparation, by his holder, by his history of success (made 32 of 36 attempts with the 49ers), and by his sort of homespun philosophy.
“I don’t waste time and effort trying not to be nervous,” said Dawson, who was undrafted out of Texas. “I know I’ve put in the work during the week, but there’s no avoiding what’s about to happen. I either make it or I don’t. That’s the way. Just like life.”