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The secret identity of the NFL's last barefoot kicker

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The secret identity of the NFL's last barefoot kicker

Jeff Wilkins has gone down in history as the NFL's last barefoot kicker. He has something to say about that. Dustin Franz for ESPNnone

TWENTY YEARS AGO this week, with about six minutes to go in a St. Louis Rams' blowout win over the Seattle Seahawks, Jeff Wilkins kicked what was, by nearly any measure, an irrelevant extra point.

But here's the thing: Wilkins kicked this meaningless extra point wearing only one shoe. His kicking foot in that moment was unsheathed, his toes wiggling freely, gloriously naked beneath the hot Sunday lights of the Edward Jones Dome. Wilkins was kicking barefoot, and that extra point -- on Oct. 20, 2002 -- actually was significant: It represented the final time in NFL history that a kicker scored points while his little piggies were fully capable of going to the market.

Now, I have always enjoyed learning (and writing) about kickers and their endearing quirkiness, so this niche slice of nostalgia stayed with me over the years. A few months ago, it led me to track down Wilkins. Two decades on, with nary a glimpse of anyone else kicking au natural in the NFL ever since, I wanted to talk to Wilkins about his place in history, to revel in the beauty of a man who was the last of a breed that seems to be extinct.

There was only one problem. "I've actually been waiting a while to tell this to someone," Wilkins said on the phone. He paused.

"I wasn't barefoot."

I scoffed. Everyone knew he was the last barefoot kicker. I told him there were references to it all over the internet. It was on his Wikipedia page, for god's sake. Of course he was the last barefoot kicker.

His voice was resolute.

"I know how it looks," he said. "But this is the truth: I wasn't barefoot."

A FEW WEEKS LATER, I arrived in Youngstown, Ohio, where Wilkins grew up and where he settled with his family after retiring in 2008. Wilkins, who is now 50, lives a quiet existence; he's in occasional touch with some of his teammates, tutors kickers at the local high school or Youngstown State and plays golf as much as he can. His house is set back at least half a mile from the road and is surrounded by acres of woods where he can hunt. "I don't usually have that many visitors," he told me in the driveway.

Inside, sitting in Wilkins' home office (which features a replica of the Lombardi Trophy he won with the Rams in 2000), we chatted about Kurt Warner ("nicest man you'll ever know") and that Super Bowl season. Then the conversation turned -- as it had to -- to feet.

"I see toes there," I said delicately, as I handed him an iPad that showed a photo of him kicking. He pinched the picture with his fingers to zoom in. "You do see toes," he conceded, before adding, "But look at all that tape."

I looked closer. The crux of Wilkins' argument, the root of his belief that he has been miscast in football history, is that while his toes were nude as a baby in 2002, the vast majority of his foot was wrapped heavily -- very, very heavily -- in athletic tape.

The tape, Wilkins said, was so thick that it was as if he was wearing a shoe. It might have even been thicker than the leather of his cleats.

"I would like to know the true definition of a barefoot kicker, because in my opinion, it's a guy whose foot is totally barefoot," he said at one point, calmly laying out the particulars like a professor leading a seminar on podiatry in sports. "Rich Karlis, Mike Lansford, Paul McFadden, Tony Franklin -- they never had anything on their foot. You saw more than their toes. You saw their whole foot."

He cleared his throat. "So therefore," he concluded, "I am saying it was not barefoot."

Our eyes met. For a moment, I felt he wanted me to be some kind of validator, some type of biped appeals court who could lift this burden from him. After 20 years, maybe I was.

"OK," I said. "Tell me about the tape."

The tape, he explained, was a fix-it. A Band-Aid. A prayer. For almost all of his career, Wilkins kicked with two shoes, including in Super Bowl XXXIV, when he kicked three field goals and two extra points as the Rams won a championship.

According to Wilkins, he merely dipped his -- ahem -- toes into barefoot kicking. He only did it for seven games in 2002. Peter Brouillet/USA TODAY NETWORKnone

But heading into the 2002 season, Wilkins fell into a slump. Suddenly there was a "mechanical flaw," as he put it, a glitch rooted in the feeling that the spikes on the bottom of his cleats were getting snagged on the grass as he swept his foot through during a kick.

Kickers have forever been concerned with staying low enough on the ball to be able to boot it high into the air, but Wilkins couldn't shake the hiccup. He toyed with his shoes, at one point even grinding one of the front spikes off and replacing it with the metal snap from his helmet because the tiny, circular snap had a much lower profile. But nothing worked.

Until Wilkins took off his shoe entirely.

Notably, Wilkins recalls consciously thinking back in 2002 that he didn't want to be completely barefoot. "I'd fooled around with that as a practice drill," he said, "but I never felt comfortable with it. I just didn't like it."

Hence, the tape. By covering his instep with layers upon layers of pre-wrap and tape, "it was literally like having a shoe without the spikes on the bottom," Wilkins said. He tried it in practice first, wrapping the foot himself because he was too embarrassed to go to the trainer. But after having some success -- suddenly the bottom of his foot was just brushing the ground, instead of sticking -- he used it in a game, more than willing to endure good-natured jokes from his teammates once they noticed their kicker's self-mummified foot.

"They think kickers are crazy anyway," Wilkins said. "It was desperation. I was worried about losing my job and I was trying anything." He wore the tape for the first seven games of the season, going 9 of 12 on field goals and 16 for 16 on extra points. Then, he said, "I figured out what I was doing and fixed it. We had a bye week after the Seattle game, and I put the shoe back on."

Statistically speaking, Wilkins actually had his best season the following year, when -- while wearing shoes -- he was an All-Pro and led the league in scoring. That's part of why he has always felt uncomfortable with the focus on his short shoeless stint. "I feel like it's a little disrespectful to those guys who actually did kick barefoot and wanted to kick barefoot their whole career," he said, "because I had tape on it. I could see why they would like it. But it just never fit me the way it fit them."

He held up one of his NFL cleats. "I always wanted the shoe on," he said.

By heavily taping his foot, Wilkins created a sort of makeshift shoe that helped him fix a "mechanical flaw" in his kicking. Dustin Franz for ESPNnone

THE 1980s WERE a deeply weird time. In the NFL, this oddness manifested itself in any number of fads, including rampant mullets, unironic mustaches, Christmas sweaters as gameday clothing for coaches and an abiding affection for garish (but largely useless) neckrolls. The presence of barefoot kickers -- men willingly choosing to take off their shoes and kick in everything from mud to frozen turf or ice because they saw it as a strategic advantage -- was just another part of a very strange show.

The trend began with Tony Franklin, who scored the league's first barefoot points as a rookie with the Eagles in 1979. Franklin had been kicking barefoot since he was a kid. He grew up in Texas and said he rarely wore shoes -- like, for anything -- during the hot summers. He felt he had more control of his kicks that way and, in 1976 while kicking barefoot at Texas A&M, he famously booted two field goals longer than 60 yards in a single game. (For what it's worth, this video,produced by A&M, also includes a clip of Franklin successfully kicking field goals barefoot while wearing a pair of remarkably tiny jean shorts.)

Barefoot kicking, like permed hair or Zubaz pants, took hold after Franklin's entree, at least for a time. Through the '80s, there were a half-dozen barefoot kickers in the NFL, including a few punters. If that sounds absurd now, well, it pretty much was: There was no scientific basis for barefoot kicking, nor any sort of demonstrable study indicating it offered greater power or control. But, as is often the case in sports, the mental side trumps all, and provable or not, several kickers believed it helped them.

Tony Franklin kicked off the barefoot trend as a rookie with the Eagles in 1979. Bettmann via Getty Imagesnone

Mike Lansford, who kicked for the Rams from 1982-90, theorized he and other kickers of that era were affected by a small kicking block in use in high school and college football back then. The block was designed to prop up the ball for young players on field goals, so when kickers reached the pros and the block wasn't allowed, it could be jarring. Lansford said he struggled to feel like he could get under the ball as it sank down into the turf.

"One day I'm working out and I had some old, nasty shoes on," Lansford said. "I developed a blister on my heel. That day I took my shoe off and I realized at the time that Tony Franklin was in the league. He was doing very well. He was a barefoot kicker. And I tried it. It allowed me to strike the ball lower. I had a faster foot.

"It made all the difference in the world," Lansford said.

Others felt similarly. Paul McFadden was NFC rookie of the year in 1984 kicking barefoot for the Eagles, and Franklin led the league in scoring for the Patriots in 1986. But, like Starter jackets or slap bracelets, the fad inevitably ebbed. As shoe technology developed and kickers used lighter, thinner soccer cleats instead of the heavier, traditional football shoes, the appeal of kicking barefoot faded even more. By the end of the decade, only Lansford and Rich Karlis remained.

On Dec. 31, 1990, Lansford kicked a fourth-quarter extra point for the Rams in a final-week loss to the Saints. That offseason, both he and Karlis retired, seemingly putting to rest the entire notion of barefoot kicking in the NFL.

Until Wilkins came along.

IF HE COULD do it all over, Wilkins said, he would have just taped his toes, too. The toes are what made everyone believe he was barefoot, after all. They're the driving force behind the text messages or emails or occasional chirps he gets from football fans, reminding him that everyone thinks he's the NFL's last barefoot kicker.

And it's true: The toes are hard to ignore. But there are a pair of counterarguments about Wilkins' situation worth considering.

The first was raised by Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, whose reaction when I asked him about barefoot kicking was somewhere between genuine bemusement and abject horror. (Would Tucker ever try it? "Absolutely not.")

Tucker, who might be the greatest kicker the NFL has ever seen, suggested looking at Wilkins' claim from a purely etymological standpoint.

"If you're wearing flip-flops, are you technically barefoot?" Tucker said, noting that, in both cases, one's toes are exposed. He continued, "Maybe it would have to be a combination of toes out, heel out and touching ground to be considered fully barefoot. So, I think Jeff may have a point when he's saying that he did not consider himself to be a barefoot kicker."

Tucker is certainly an expert on kicking if ever there was one, but I would submit that there's also a deeper and more intellectual issue with the idea that Wilkins is a barefoot kicker: Wilkins doesn't think he is one.

That matters. As just one (somewhat related) example: simply being naked a lot does not make someone a nudist. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nudist is someone "who does not wear any clothes because they believe this is more natural and healthy." There's a mental component involved, a requirement that the person believes in what they are.

After 20 years, Wilkins is ready to set the record straight. "I was a fake barefoot kicker," he said. Dustin Franz for ESPNnone

Wilkins didn't believe. He still doesn't. Whether or not he was barefoot in 2002, he certainly wasn't a barefoot kicker at heart, wasn't part of that community. He kicked with tape around his foot for a few games then put his shoe back on. It wasn't part of his soul, the way it was with Karlis, who in retirement runs a business named Barefoot Bronco Woodworking. It wasn't embedded within him the way it was with Lansford, who said he probably wouldn't have had a career if he hadn't kicked barefoot.

Wilkins was a man looking for help. An interloper. A passerby.

"I was a fake barefoot kicker, if you want to call it like that," Wilkins said as he leaned back in his desk chair, his voice getting softer. He sighed.

"Those guys were legit," he said, "but I never wanted to be."

I have (obviously) no power in this, and history isn't always written the way any of us hopes. But for what it's worth, I believe we've all got this wrong. I believe the tape matters. I believe Diddlyman2004, the user who edited Wilkins' Wikipedia page years ago to include the information that he was the NFL's last barefoot kicker, should delete it. I believe Mike Lansford's kick, on New Year's Eve in 1990, should stand as the final time the league saw a barefoot kicker at work.

I believe Jeff Wilkins. I do. Twenty years ago this week, when the Rams played the Seahawks and he kicked that extra point? It wasn't epic. It wasn't classic. It wasn't history.

It was just that: an extra point.

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