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Kicking on the edge: For Rush's Joe Houston, there's little margin for error

June 07, 2012|By Matt Lindner | For RedEye

He's been on the job for only a few weeks, but Chicago Rush kicker Joe Houston seems to grasp that the task at hand is unlike any he's tackled.

"I'm not used to having to dodge scoreboards when I kick off," Houston said with a laugh.

It's one of many nuances the former USC kicker has had to embrace as part of his new gig for the Arena Football League team as he prepares for his third game with the Rush (7-4) on Saturday against Utah in Salt Lake City.

An AFL field is only 50 yards long and the goal posts are 9 feet wide by 15 feet high, as opposed to 18½ by 10 feet outdoors, meaning kickers have much less margin for error. Houston said he prepared for this the past two years by aiming at something even smaller in practice.

"I just aim at a light pole in the outfield of the baseball field [at USC]," he said. "I figure if I can hit a light pole, I can get better results when I'm kicking at the uprights. If you aim small, you miss small."

There's also the issue of space—or more specifically, the lack thereof. While he could practice kicks into a net on the sidelines in the outdoor game, he doesn't have that kind of luxury indoors because there's simply no room.

"You really have to be focused because unless it's pregame or halftime, every time you strike a ball, it's for points," Houston said.

That includes on kickoffs. In those instances, Houston becomes sort of a pinball wizard, hoping to play just the right angle to put his team on the board. Unlike in the outdoor game, there are rebound nets framed with iron on either side of the goal posts in the AFL. Balls that bounce off the nets or the iron are live and can be recovered by either squad.

"If I kick off and I hit the upright, the ball bounces in funny ways and we can essentially steal seven points just by kicking off," Houston said.

He's also well aware of the fact that he's on a short leash. The man he replaced, Orland Park's Mike Salerno, was released after having a rough game last month against Arizona and remains unemployed despite still ranking among the league leaders in every kicking category.

"All I've got to think about is my next attempt," Houston said. "I've gotta go 1-for-1."

He's off to a great start. In his first game for the Rush, an 84-77 loss to San Jose on May 26, Houston tied a team record by hitting all 11 extra points he attempted. In his second game, on Sunday against Spokane, he hit all 10 extra points he tried as well as 31-yard field goal.

"[The game against San Jose] was my first taste at a game and I can't ever remember trading touchdowns like that at USC," he said. "Although it's football, it's a different game. I don't think I could ever kick 11 PATs [points after touchdown] in the [Los Angeles] Coliseum."

Houston, a California native who has been in Chicago for only a few weeks, said the team's practice facility isn't exactly designed with a kicker in mind.

"It's kind of difficult because the roof is extremely low at our practice facility," Houston said. "I can't practice kickoffs there. Either I have to drive to a local high school to practice kickoffs or I have to do it in the field behind my apartment."

Of course, there's the issue of finding a way to make ends meet.

You probably won't see see Bears kicker Robbie Gould looking for a job to supplement his income. But at a salary of only $400 a game, AFL players aren't exactly in the upper tax bracket.

"I'm actually on the look for jobs because while we don't have a lot of downtime, our afternoons are free," he said. "The game pay isn't what you come here to play for. You come here to compete and win a championship."

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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