The Bengals have taken an interesting approach toward bringing in competition at the kicker position this offseason.
Meet Jon Brown, a former soccer star who used to go by Jonathan Brown. He deleted all of his social media and started going by Jon as soon as he dropped soccer for football. Once a star for the U.S. Under-17 soccer team, as well as for the University of Kentucky, Brown eventually made his way to Louisville. Brown initially transferred to Louisville as a soccer player, but after speaking with Brett Baer, an unsigned kicker who once spent time with the Rams, Brown turned his attention toward football.
Rather than staying at Louisville, Brown elected to take online classes from his home, which gave him the flexibility to make the 9-hour roundtrip from Clinton, Mississippi to Lafayette, Louisiana every Friday to practice kicking and watch tape with Baer.
Brown paid his way back to Louisville in 2014, earning kickoff duties and kicking off nine times before blowing out his oblique muscle in the third game of the 2015 season. He didn't kick any field goals. That didn't stop Brown from working toward his dream. Unfortunately for Brown, Baer eventually moved to Austin, Texas. Assisted by his parents, Brown occasionally flew to Austin to continue working with Baer, sleeping on the floor each weekend he was in Austin.
Brown aspires to be great, and his transition to football nearly didn't even happen.
When Baer had initially approached Brown with the idea of playing football, it took a lot of convincing. Brown said he prayed about it and asked God for a sign. He eventually looked at the Texas A&M football roster and saw that Josh Lambo also played soccer before making his way to the gridiron. Last year, Lambo beat out incumbent Chargers kicker Nick Novak in training camp and became the team's starter as a rookie.
"I kept fighting it like, 'Nah, I'm not kicking a football,'" Brown admitted to the Cincinnati Enquirer. "But I just felt like God kept getting at me and throwing signs at me. So I was like, 'All right.'"
"With my background I could have played in the MSL," Brown said of pro soccer, per Bengals.com. "But I was thinking more big picture. I feel like I can help open doors and give people hope. The odds are against you. People say you've never kicked in a game. I see how people look at me when I say I'm a kicker. I'd rather risk helping people than looking out for myself. I feel like that today people are afraid of taking chances.
"I feel like I had to go through so much the last five or seven years of my life," Brown said. "They were the only team to contact me. It was weird, too, but I was listening to Joel Osteen. I was listening to one of his messages. The title was, ‘A shift is coming.' I was listening to that. I just felt it deep down. He was saying 'You're one phone call away from your destiny. Your time is coming.' Thirty minutes later, that's when the Bengals called me. I just felt like there's been little signs like that. I just felt like this is the place I'm meant to be."
And perhaps Cincinnati is the place for Brown. Special teams coach Darrin Simmons is intrigued by Brown's raw ability, but he admits that Brown is inexperienced and would need to be developed.
"He's got the leg strength and he has a base understanding of technique. He just doesn't have game experience," says Simmons, who admits it's exciting after 19 years in the league. "Any time you get someone new like that it's like a raw piece of clay you try to mold. We'll see where it goes after a couple of weeks."
"This weekend was a little bit of see how he does. He doesn't know what he doesn't know," Simmons said of Brown who was signed after trying out at rookie mini-camp last weekend. "I thought he did OK. He's got leg strength, but what you're trying to bridge is how far the gap is between ready to play versus a project. Is the project part worthwhile? Will it be meaningful? There is a little bit of something there. That's why he's still here. He's coachable."
At best, Brown is a project. The Bengals don't always hold special teamers on the practice squad, so Brown will have to put up a good fight to secure a spot there. Brown, who says the longest field goal he's kicked in a practice was 70 yards, already impressed the Bengals' current kicker.
"We kicked together (Monday) - very good," Mike Nugent said, per the Enquirer. "He hit the ball very consistently today and you can just tell, by talking to him for a couple minutes, that he's coachable. 'm really big on that. You can talk to a kid for five minutes and be like all right, this kid is not listening to me. He was very coachable."
The idea of being the NFL's first African-American kicker highly appeals to Brown, who strives to overcome the odds ahead of him and play in the NFL. Raiders punter Marquette King, a fellow African-American, has gone through trials of his own as an African-American special teamer. The odds are stacked against any undrafted rookie, especially those who try to latch onto rosters as kickers or punters, because there are only so many spots to be filled in the NFL. Hopefully Brown can overcome those odds and eventually make his way onto the Bengals' roster, whether this year or five years from now. I know I'll be rooting for him.
UPDATE: Brown was injured and cut from the Bengals in 2016 but the team re-signed him on January 20, 2017 to compete for a spot on the roster this offseason.