Rookie miss was blessing in disguise for Ryan Longwell
GREEN BAY -- The conversation, at 30,000 feet with two future Pro Football Hall of Famers after the lowest point of his just-begun NFL career, turned out to be life-changing.
Even now, as he gets ready to enter the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday night, Ryan Longwell looks back with gratitude. For had Brett Favre and Reggie White not sought their still-unknown rookie kicker to deliver a high-altitude pep talk and an early lesson in mental toughness, Longwell might not have had the 15-year NFL career he did.
“That was the turning point of my career,” Longwell said. “I say it time and time again.”
Longwell had been the feel-good story of training camp during the summer of 1997, a waiver-wire pick-up by general manager Ron Wolf even though the defending Super Bowl champions had drafted Penn State’s Brett Conway in the third round a few months earlier. He’d made 12 straight field goals dating to the preseason, including three on that rainy Sunday in Philadelphia at Veterans Stadium as he lined up for what would have been a game-winning 28-yarder with 11 seconds left and the Packers trailing 10-9.
Longwell’s kick sailed wide right, and the Packers lost.
“I’m coming home on the plane -- it’s in Philly, the fans were brutal -- and I’m the 23-year-old rookie who just missed the game-winning kick. And both Brett Favre and Reggie White came up to me on the plane ride back and said, ‘You are so lucky,’” Longwell recalled. “And I’m thinking, ‘How am I so lucky? I just missed a game-winning kick -- and a short one at that.’ And they said, ‘You’re lucky that in Week 2 in your career, you get to go through this. This is a turning point. If you come back next week and struggle again, it’s probably not going to work out for you. But if you come back from this, make all your kicks and show that you can come back from a miss like this, you will never face anything the rest of your career as tough as this.’
“Those guys were obviously veterans at that time, and lo and behold, the were so right.”
The next week, Longwell made 26-, 24- and 39-yard field goals in a 23-18 win over Miami. That 1997 team would reach Super Bowl XXXII, and Longwell would spend eight more seasons in Green Bay, leaving with franchise records for most field goals (226), best field-goal percentage (81.6, 226 of 277), extra points (376), 100-point seasons (eight) and consecutive games scoring (144). The team opted not to re-sign him after the 2005 season, and he spent the next six years with the rival Minnesota Vikings.
“I was never more nervous than that first kick against the Dolphins the week after (the Philadelphia game). Once that went through, I felt like I could conquer anything,” Longwell said. “There was no pressure of any kick that I faced the rest of my career that matched that one, where you’re fighting for your career and fighting for your livelihood.”
The way he responded certainly made a believer of Favre.
“I really thought a lot of Ryan,” said Favre, who played the 2009 and 2010 seasons with Longwell in Minnesota and remains close friends with him. “That (conversation) does stand out for me. I do remember it well. I just felt like, as a veteran player and the leader of the team, those are the moments you capitalize on with your team with your teammates, building these bonds and chemistry.
“We needed (Longwell), we absolutely needed him. Maybe it wasn’t to be that day, but next week, who knows? Ryan and I have a great relationship that hasn’t wavered one bit and we were able to play together again, which was a great time, him and I, to be together for our last hurrah, if you will.”
For his part, Longwell said he would have loved to have spent his entire career in Green Bay the way his fellow Hall of Fame inductee, right tackle Mark Tauscher, did from 2000 through 2010.
And while Longwell is just fine with the homegrown Tauscher, who grew up in the north central part of the state and played at the University of Wisconsin, being the star of this year’s Hall class -- “We’re fully aware we’re second fiddle,” Longwell said with a laugh, “and that it’s ‘Tausch’s World’” -- he also knows his own story is compelling.
After being cut by the San Francisco 49ers before the start of training camp in 1997, Longwell wasn’t claimed by the 30 other teams ahead of the Packers in the waiver priority system. That the defending champs claimed him -- as a favor to Longwell’s longtime agent, Frank Bauer, to hear Longwell tell it -- meant no one else in the league wanted him. And with a third-round pick invested in Conway, Longwell figured to be little more than a camp leg.
Instead, when Conway struggled and then injured his quadriceps while over-kicking in an attempt to rectify his problems, Longwell was there to win the job. He beat Conway out again in 1998 and never looked back.
For Wolf, who was enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, picking up Longwell for the league’s $100 waiver claim fee ranks with some of his most brilliant personnel moves, alongside trading for Favre, signing White, hiring Mike Holmgren as coach and drafting Tauscher and Donald Driver in the seventh round.
“The Green Bay Packers are without question the best franchise in the National Football League. To get a guy like that for $100, and he ends up being the leading scorer in that franchise’s history, I’d say that’s one of your better moves, wouldn’t you?” Wolf said. “I always believed in protecting one’s rear end, and here was a guy that I personally saw as protection (after drafting Conway). And it turned out to be that he was.”
And then some.
“I never, ever cashed a training-camp check, which was $800. Because for those six weeks, I knew it had to last me until I found a real job,” Longwell said. “I remember cut day, and I never got a call. And I didn’t realize that if you didn’t get a call, you’d made the team. The first calls I got were from reporters asking if I’d heard anything. And I hadn’t.
“I’m just so blessed.”