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Wednesday, August 27, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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Norwegian earns internet stardom and an NFL tryout to boot

By David Picker

New York Times

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Havard Rugland does not have the pedigree one might expect for someone who has become an Internet sensation for kicking an American football. He knows next to nothing about the sport. Just ask him to name the quarterback of the New England Patriots or the Denver Broncos.

"I have no idea," said Rugland, a 28-year-old from Norway.

When asked how many yards an offense is penalized for a false start, Rugland paused. "I'd just be guessing," he finally admitted.

"Look, I don't know much about football," Rugland said by telephone from his home in Aalgaard, a small town near the southwestern coast of Norway. "But I'm fascinated by it. There's great athletes and speed and big hits. I thought it was interesting. So I wondered, What can I do?"

Using tools not typically associated with athletic prowess — YouTube, Facebook, Skype and Gmail — Rugland parlayed a homemade video that went viral into a tryout as a placekicker with the New York Jets last week. He might be the first professional prospect to replace college football experience with social media savvy.

In the four-minute video, posted in mid-September under the title "Kickalicious," the left-footed Rugland pulls off some of the most amusing tricks with a football since Lucy began duping Charlie Brown. And sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it was viewed for the millionth time.

In one clip Rugland kicks the ball from a dock to someone in a canoe floating about 25 yards away. Twice. In another, he kicks the ball into the arms of someone standing through a car's sunroof. That might not seem so spectacular, except the car is cruising along a country road. The most eye-popping trick is saved for last. Rugland punts one ball high into the air and then quickly kicks a second ball off a tee. The balls collide in midair.

"That last kick, it took about eight tries," said Rugland, who added that coming up with creative ideas for kicks and punts was often tougher than executing them. "The basketball kick, I wanted it to go straight in, but it kept hitting the rim. That actually took a while. That could have been like 40 tries."

Rugland is so accurate on so many difficult kicks that his video almost seems too good to be true. It brings to mind doctored videos featuring other athletes, like one of the Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant leaping over a speeding Aston Martin (Bryant never would have risked his knees). But Rugland insists his video is real. (The could not independently verify this, though Rugland said that NRK, Norway's public broadcasting network, reviewed the raw videos and concluded they were legitimate.)

"I actually used Windows Movie Maker to edit the film," Rugland said. "The program isn't very good, so it actually crashed a few times. So it's kind of funny hearing people accusing me of things like, ‘Oh, this is fake and it's easy to see.' I don't know how I would be able to try and do that."

Regardless of the video's legitimacy, Rugland ended up at the Jets' doorstep, quite an accomplishment for anyone, let alone a Norwegian who had never played football at any level. His journey to New York provides a blueprint of sorts for anyone looking to turn a homemade video into a global hit.

It all started when Rugland's club soccer team disbanded a year and a half ago. He began looking for another hobby to go along with his interest in video cameras. He got the bug for football after watching a live feed of the Super Bowl in the middle of the night. Rugland said he always had a booming leg in soccer and wondered if his talent would transfer to this new, obscure sport.

So Rugland went on the Internet and studied videos of placekickers. He also read up on kicking statistics. Asked to identify the longest field goal in NFL history, Rugland quickly answered: "Sixty-three yards by Janikowski, and Tom Dempsey in 1970. Didn't Akers do it this year when it hit the post and went over?"

Actually, David Akers' kick bounced off the crossbar, and Jason Elam also tied the record. But still.

With the assistance of two of his brothers and a friend, Rugland made the video in about five days in September. He said they did it for fun, bringing along a video camera whenever they went to the beach or took a drive. In the weeks after Rugland put the video online, it reached 5,000 hits, thanks mostly to friends of the four who reposted it on Facebook. That was 4,950 more hits than Rugland had expected. One of those viewers was Michael Husted, who kicked in the NFL for nine seasons. Husted, a kicking teacher, connected with Rugland on Facebook.

"I was just enamored by his size and his stature," Husted said of Rugland, who is 6 feet 2 inches and 242 pounds. "I thought there was some potential there. NFL teams like these big kickers."

Soon, Husted and Rugland began discussing the art of the trade over Skype.

In mid-October, NRK, the Norwegian television station, did a story on Rugland's minor celebrity. Within a week after the broadcast, Rugland said, the video reached 500,000 views. Soon his Gmail account was flooded with interest from small colleges like Henderson State University in Arkansas and Lincoln University in Missouri. In late November, Rugland received an email message from someone with more clout: Scott Cohen, assistant general manager of the Jets.

"Of course, my first thought was, ‘Who of my friends have sent me this email?"' Rugland said. "I thought it was a joke."

After being assured by Rugland that he was serious about pursuing a career as a placekicker, Cohen suggested that he train for a few weeks with a kicking coach in the United States. Cohen even suggested a few names, including Husted.

"He had never seen a snap or a hold," Cohen said. "I told him, ‘If you pay your way over here and work hard, I'll fly you to New York before you fly back to Norway."'

It was a significant cost for Rugland, who works as a counselor in a state-run facility for at-risk youths. But he had some vacation stored up and did not want to regret missing the next chapter of this surreal voyage. So he bought a ticket to San Diego, where Husted is based.

Husted is well connected in the fraternity of current and former NFL kickers. In addition to giving Rugland his first formal lesson on kicking in late November, he arranged to have Nate Kaeding, who signed with the Miami Dolphins recently, evaluate Rugland's technique.

"Put him out on the field with all of us NFL kickers, he's going to kick it as high and as far as the rest of us," said Kaeding, the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history. "The way that he flights the ball and how he hits it, the pop he puts in it, is like a professional caliber. He can hit from 55, 60 yards."

Cohen was reluctant to give details about last week's workout but said the Jets also saw enough to conclude that Rugland had a chance to play in the NFL. Rugland said the Jets wanted him to return for a workout in March. He added that he planned to spend the next few months in Norway practicing field goals and kickoffs (he is leaving the trick shots behind).

Rugland has also hired an agent, Jill McBride Baxter, who represents a few kickers. She hopes Rugland can sign with an NFL team in the offseason and vie for a spot on a 53-man roster next season.

"After the Jets workout, I got a call from the Raiders," Baxter said. "And then Michael got a call from Green Bay and he got a call from Philadelphia," she said, referring to Husted. "So yeah, there's interest."

Still, Rugland remains an untested commodity. Kaeding said there was little room for creativity in kicking and noted that Rugland's lack of game experience was a glaring obstacle.

"There's a lot of emotion and psychological hurdles you have to navigate," Kaeding said. "In high school and college, you learn how to deal with the nuances of the position. He's fighting against time because he hasn't had that experience."

Rugland would not be the first Norwegian kicker to play in the NFL. Jan Stenerud, a Hall of Famer who played for the Chiefs, the Packers and the Vikings over 19 seasons, is also from Norway.

But even if the Jets tryout turns out to be Rugland's only taste of the NFL, he has broken new ground. He has managed to make kicking look sexy while bringing it to the masses in the 21st century.

"It's almost like the world has gotten a little bit smaller," Rugland said. "I have no background in American football. You couldn't be more green than me. I made a video and it's possible for America to watch it. And it ends up with a tryout with the Jets. And let's hope a lot more."






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