Picture a basketball player perfecting his jumper by shooting at an imaginary rim, or a bowler rolling balls down an empty alley.
Now you know how Ian Howfield, the Arena Football League’s best kicker, practices his art. Run-down high school fields have goal posts, so do some junior high and elementary school fields.
The Piranhas’ training facility has two white cones. Howfield places them on the ground nine feet apart to simulate the width of AFL goal posts.
“I just try to kick it down the middle and see the ball going through the posts,” Howfield said.
His method for practicing drop-kicks, which are worth up to four points in the AFL, is even more bizarre. From the Piranhas’ practice field, Howfield drop-kicks footballs into a foam-padded scoreboard of the Bullfrogs’ roller hockey rink.
“If they knew I was using their scoreboard for that, they probably wouldn’t be too happy about it,” Howfield said.
Whatever he’s using, it’s working.
Howfield’s accurate place kicking and penetrating kickoffs are a major reason the Piranhas are 7-0. He leads all AFL kickers in points with 74 and he has connected on 14 of 22 field goals for an unheard of accuracy percentage of 66%. Because AFL dimensions are 9 feet wide by 15 feet high--NFL dimensions are 18 1/2 feet by 10 feet--the AFL average for successful field goals is about 33%. A 50% conversion rate is considered excellent.
Howfield’s long, floating kickoffs off the end zone rebound nets have consistently pinned opponents inside the five-yard line, Arena Football’s equivalent of holding a team inside the 20.
“No one has ever put a premium on getting a good kicker, but we felt it was a very important part of the game,” said Ian Welsh, the Piranhas’ director of player personnel. “Without punting in this league, the kicker does everything. If you don’t have a good kicker, you’re in trouble. We feel a kicker is as important as a quarterback.”
So why doesn’t one of the more important members of the Piranhas have practice goal posts?
“We don’t want to screw him up and give him all the good things,” Piranha Coach Babe Parilli said with a chuckle.
Actually, Welsh said plans are underway for Howfield to receive some new goal posts next year. The organization thought the team would have more access to the Pond this season, but a heavy schedule has only allowed the Piranhas to use the facility on game days.
“With the practice facility we have, it makes what he’s doing that much more remarkable,” Welsh said.
Howfield is not complaining, he’s been through worse in four years of the AFL. His first three teams--Dallas, Fort Worth and Las Vegas--folded. With Dallas, Howfield watched from the locker room as the team vans were being repossessed. There was a time when he got $5 a day per diem.
“This is actually pretty nice,” Howfield said as he sat in the Piranhas’ practice facility locker room. “We have our own training facility. They treat us pretty well. This is as close to the NFL as it’ll get in this league.”
Howfield would know. He spent a season in the NFL, where the minimum salary of $131,000 is five times higher than the AFL average and more than three times higher than the AFL’s highest salary.
But Howfield has not seen an NFL paycheck since he missed a game-winning 33-yard field goal for the Houston Oilers in 1991.
“If I [multiply] what [NFL kicker] Al Del Greco has made since then, it’d be about $2 million I’ve lost because of that one kick,” he said.
No matter where he goes or how well he’s going, Howfield cannot escape the memory of that kick.
“Prime Sports was doing a feature on me last week,” he said. “I’m leading the league and having this great year, but here they are showing a clip of that kick. I can’t get away from it.”
To this day, Howfield can’t understand why that one kick ruined his NFL career.
Before he missed his game-winning kick, Howfield was 13 for 17 on field goals and sixth in the NFL in scoring. But when he found out he had been cut, Howfield was an emotional wreck.
He hugged one of his coaches and then began to cry. As he was interviewed by local television stations, Howfield sobbed throughout the interview. Later that night, Howfield watched himself on CNN, ESPN and every local station.
“As a man, you don’t want to see another man cry,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be done. But I’ve seen Mike Ditka cry. I’ve seen Charles Mann cry. Hell, I’ve seen Dick Butkus cry on TV. They didn’t make as big a deal out of that as they did of me. You’d cry too if you’d have lost $2 million.” Howfield, who recently turned 30, said his experience in Houston almost drove him out of football. His father, Bobby, a former NFL kicker with the Broncos, helped him change his mind.
“He said, ‘If you give up now, you’ve let them win,’ ” he said.
So Howfield came back and had brief training camp stints with Philadelphia in 1992 and Tampa Bay in 1993. He still gets occasional phone calls from NFL teams, but he said the situation always heavily favors the incumbent kicker.
So until the right situation comes along, Howfield will continue to work his magic with two white cones and a padded scoreboard.
“I don’t have anything to prove to anybody else but I do have a lot to prove to myself, and that’s what drives me,” he said. “I’m here to get all that out of my system.”