BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott discovered what would become a world-class talent by sheer dumb luck.
The man whose right leg the Eagles have levied their full trust in heading into Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots didn’t start kicking until he was a junior in high school. But it was the way in which he was discovered that’s truly amazing.
“My freshman year it was the homecoming pep rally before the football game and I got called up to do a homecoming contest,” Elliott told Pro Football Weekly. “A field-goal kicking contest.”
Elliott was skinny (he wouldn’t hit the 160-pound mark until his senior year) and considered himself more of a tennis player than anything else. He stopped playing soccer a few years prior. Elliott had never attempted a field goal in his life.
“But I ended up hitting a few through and the coach said, ‘Hey, you should really think about playing,’” he said on Wednesday. “I just brushed it off and went with all the other sports I was playing.”
The coach was Kurt Weinberg, and the high school was Lyons Township in La Grange, Ill. By Elliott’s junior season, Weinberg had some issues at kicker a few weeks before the season and wasn’t sure how he was going to fix them in time. No one currently on the team was impressing in tryouts. Then someone reminded Weinberg of the contest at homecoming a few years before.
“Coach came over and grabbed me … someone had told him, ‘Hey, that kid from the homecoming contest is right over there if you need him,’” Elliott said. “I went with him, kicked a few [field goals] and he said, ‘Come back tomorrow if you want to play.’ I ended up doing it, and everything just rolled from there.”
Knowing what he knows now about kicking mechanics, Elliott admits that his junior-year form was suboptimal.
“If you go back and watch my junior year tape, it looked really bad,” he said, laughing. “I did really well, though. I was an underclassman all-American. It didn’t look pretty, but it went through.”
Elliott got even better and hoped to parlay his performance into a college scholarship, but after attending several kicking camps and standing out for his high school, there were still crickets coming from recruiters. He decided to attend one final camp to get his shot at kicking in college.
“One more shot in the dark, just one more hope at a scholarship,” Elliott said. “I had a really good camp, ended up basically winning it.”
The next day he received two calls: one from North Dakota, which eventually offered a partial scholarship, and the other from Memphis. He chose the Tigers.
Four years later, he’d break some of the all-time records held by the school’s most accomplished kicker, Stephen Gostkowski — the man against whom Elliott will be competing on Super Bowl Sunday. The two first met during Elliott’s freshman year at Memphis and have maintained a relationship ever since.
Elliott was a fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals last spring and appeared in a great position to unseat Randy Bullock in training camp. But in a close battle, the Bengals went with the veteran after Elliott missed two of his three attempts in the final preseason game. He was released and quickly re-signed to the practice squad in Cincinnati.
But that didn’t last long. The Eagles quickly pounced and signed Elliott to their 53-man roster after Caleb Sturgis had suffered a hip injury and was placed on injured reserve. Elliott made 2-of-3 field-goal tries in each of his first two games with the Eagles, and he became a folk hero when he hit a late-second 61-yarder — the longest in team history — to complete a 21-point comeback against the New York Giants in Week 3.
Elliott grew up a Chicago Bears fan, and specifically a Robbie Gould fan, and he got to meet Gould when the Eagles and San Francisco 49ers played earlier in the season. They swapped jerseys after the game and have stayed in touch.
“Really cool meeting him,” Elliott said.
Elliott would go on to miss only three field-goal tries the rest of the year. He missed three regular-season extra-point attempts, plus one more in the playoffs, but Elliott has been a huge part of the team’s success this season. He turned 23 years old on the day the Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, making every kick he attempted.
“Just unreal,” Elliott said. “It’s all just been a blur.”
And now back home, they’ve suddenly become Eagles fans. Lyons High School is selling T-shirts with “Fly Eagles Fly” on the front and “Go Jake” on the back, and all the proceeds will be going to the charity of Elliott’s choice — Kelli Joy O’Laughlin Memorial Foundation.
“Everyone back home has been just so supportive of me, it’s just amazing,” Elliott said.
Many of them know Elliott’s story well by now. They know how special and rare it is, and they’re just happy to have known him before football even was a thought in his mind.
For Elliott, he’s fully at peace with understanding how fortunate he was just to get that shot in a homecoming kicking contest as a scrawny freshman with little clue about what he was getting himself into. From that to the Super Bowl in less than a decade — what a wild ride.
“Pretty much total luck that this all happened, just insane how it started,” Elliott said. “Sometimes when I think about it, I can’t believe how it happened.”