Like any other kicker who's played in the Grey Cup, Swayze Waters has a pretty vivid imagination of himself putting the ball straight through the uprights to win the game for his team.
In his world, though, it's from a little further back than most kickers can even imagine.
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He didn't tell me how long a 100th Grey Cup-winning kick for the Argos would be in his mind, but it's safe to imagine that it would likely be from a different area code altogether.
After all, there's a reason he earned a reputation for his powerful leg almost as quickly has he’s become famous for having the CFL’s most popular name.
Not long after he replaced Noel Prefontaine, who opted for hip surgery back in Week 4, a YouTube video surfaced among Argos fans that showed Waters drilling field goals from 60, 65, and 70 yards out during a workout in his home town of Jackson, MI.
“I would love the opportunity for a kick like that,” Waters says.
Imagine he gets his chance. With time running out, the Argos offence moves the ball up to midfield. For the Argos, this is the dreaded grey zone - where it's uncertain whether the kicker has enough power to get the ball through the uprights.
With the line of scrimmage at midfield, a game-winning kick in that situation would come from 62 yards out.
A 62-yard field goal with the 100th Grey Cup on the line, to lift the city of Toronto to its first championship for a pro sports team since 2004?
No problem, says the rookie.
“I think the one against Hamilton a few weeks ago was like 51, and I hit it right out of the back of the end zone so that’s like 70-something," Waters recalls. "So I think that would probably be like a game tape that they would take and say ‘alright, we can try from 65 or whatever and know he’s got a shot’."
Re-visit the situation. Argos down two points, seconds remaining. The veteran Ricky Ray was able to move the offence up to the 55-yard-line,
Waters takes a deep breath and a squirt of water, before kicking a few balls into the net. After envisioning the kick sailing through the uprights, he runs onto the field.
“I kind of go through that mental checklist and I tell my holder, ‘let’s do this’, kind of re-instill some positive vibes and I take my steps back, take a deep breath and tell him ‘I’m ready’,” says Waters.
He knows the situation so well that it’s almost like he’s done this before.
The reality is he’s never been there, nor felt anything like it. Heck, even though he played in three high school championships as a kicker and receiver, he admits having no recollection of a single significant kick in those games.
Yet he sees this situation every single day in his mind – kind of like being there, without actually ever having been there.
“I’ve kind of had to go there in my mind and put myself in those situations – game winner, we’re tied, down by two,” admits the 25-year-old. “Ideally we’ll play well and it won’t come down to that, but it’s not my job to play offence or defence.”
For something so big, he makes it sound simple. In reality, simple couldn’t be a less accurate way to describe it. Being a kicker is less like being a football player than a golfer, or a goalie in hockey. The kicker in football truly is a different breed of human being.
“I played receiver in high school and I played baseball in high school, and all of that was reactionary,” explains Waters. “I was just blessed to be athletic, and if someone threw me a pass, I’d run and catch it. You don’t think too much about it, it just kind of happens.”
The complex motion in place-kicking can be likened to the intricacy of the golf swing, where the number of things that can go wrong is infinite. The pressure of a big kick, meanwhile, can be likened to standing over a potential winning putt at the Masters.
“Kicking is all intentional,” continues Waters. “You know exactly what you have to do and you do it the same every time.”
“The mental side of that is you can almost play tricks with yourself and say ‘oh I need to do this right or that’ and you overthink stuff, and I think that’s where guys get in trouble.”
That kind of mental preparation starts long before the kick though, he explains as we sit three rows up from the 55-yard-line on the visitor’s side.
Out in front of me, I imagine the scene of a game-winning field goal attempt. Waters, of course, has already been there, many times.
“It’s something I’ve really had to work on,” says Waters of the mental aspect of his game. “When I first started kicking, people were saying ‘you need to do sports psychology and it’s good for you to do mental, positive thinking’, and I was kind of like ‘yeah whatever’.”
He's since read a few books about it, and while he’s never actually had a sports psychologist, the mental side of the game is something he now stresses more than ever.
“I guess it’s just like anything else in life, when I first started trying to do it I kind of felt stupid, like ‘this isn’t working’,” says Waters. “It’s not like I sit here and watch myself do it. You just kind of close your eyes and envision, and say ‘alright, this is the scenario’, and I’d either envision it through my eyes what it looks like, or watching like I’d be watching a tape.”
“Just seeing yourself doing it and knowing there might be one thing that you have to do, like attack the ball or good leg swing or short steps, and telling yourself that and going over how you’re going to handle that situation while you’re watching it unfold kind of prepares you more for when you get there.”
While there are too many things to name that can go wrong with a kick, Waters focuses on the few things he struggles with more frequently than others. He goes through that list in his head before every kick.
“It can be a thousand things that you have to do right for it to be a good ball, and you can be doing all of them right – but if you just hit barely a little bit to the right or a little high of the sweet spot, which is very small on the football; or you follow through a little more left; you plant a little past the ball; or you
swing a little too hard, you’re going to miss and no one’s going to know you did 999 things right and one thing wrong.”
The fact that he relishes the idea of a game-winning kick from such an absurd distance says everything you need to know about his mental toughness.
With an efficiency of 74.4 per cent on 30-43 kicking, 2012 was an up-and-down season for Waters. Yet what's so attractive to his Head Coach Scott Milanovich, General Manager Jim Barker, and fans alike is his ability to provide points from anywhere on the field, whenever the team might be in a bind.
No matter how the game's gone, it’s his leg that could give the Argos a chance to either tie or win the game on the last play, even if the offence can't move into close range.
Milanovich tends to avoid longer kicks in the middle of the game due to the pending danger of a long return the other way in the event of a miss, but there’s little doubt that with the game on the line, Waters would be given the chance to kick from almost anywhere past the Argos’ own 50-yard-line.
The only question we're all left to ponder is, how far is too far?
It’s not a kick he practices often during the week, since attempts from outside of midfield come maybe once a season, if that. A kick in that situation, to win the 100th Grey Cup for the Argos at home, would be the ultimate test in mental toughness.
It's one he's prepared for not only all of this week, but for most of his life, too.
“I remember being a little kid, you play backyard football and you’d never go out there and just play – you kind of gave yourself a situation and it was like, ‘to win the Super Bowl, fourth-and-10 or whatever’,” he recalls.
“And whether it was catching a pass or throwing a pass as a kid, for us it’s the Super Bowl but up here the Grey Cup, it was kind of like that’s the situation that you dream of as a kid.”
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