Grey Cup kickers take different paths to the CFL championship game
TORONTO - Swayze Waters' football career took a turn in eighth grade in Mississippi when he broke his wrist. A bored Waters started kicking the ball while he watched practice.
Rene Paredes was always a soccer player. But he changed sports after his high school football coach asked his soccer counterpart at the Miami school who had the strongest leg.
Both have taken different paths to Sunday's Grey Cup at the Rogers Centre, where Waters' Toronto Argonauts face Paredes' Calgary Stampeders.
Waters, a 25-year-old native of Jackson, Miss., is in his first year in the CFL after assorted NFL tryouts.
Paredes, a 27-year-old non-import whose Peruvian parents moved him from his birthplace of Venezuela to first Miami and then Montreal, is in his second CFL season.
Being a kicker is a lot like being an actor. There's a lot of competition and you can't take it personally when you don't get a job. You just have to build your portfolio and hope for another audition.
Waters won a scholarship as a kicker to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His first collegiate play for the Blazers was the opening kickoff before more than 100,000 at the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.
His pro odyssey started in 2009 with the Detroit Lions. The next year it was the Oakland Raiders and then, in 2011, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The New York Jets signed him earlier this year, cutting him days later after picking up former Rams kicker Josh Brown (who himself was later released).
Waters signed with the Edmonton Eskimos on June 24, only to be cut July 10.
Then Noel Prefontaine went down for the Argos and GM Jim Barker was on the phone to Waters.
"He said 'Do you want to come up here and be the kicker? We're having the Grey Cup in Toronto this year and we're going to be there. We'd love you to be part of it,'" Waters recalled.
He signed with the Argos on July 15.
Prefontaine eventually returned to the roster but Waters continues to handle field goals and kickoffs while Prefontaine punts.
"It's kind of been a winding road but I'm happy to be where I'm at," said Waters.
Injury also opened the door to Paredes, a former star kicker for Concordia who came to Calgary after a couple of stints in Winnipeg's camp.
Rob Maver went down in the first game of the 2011 season and Stamps GM-coach John Hufnagel brought in Paredes and three others as possible replacements.
"I knew I was the best one there," Paredes said.
Paredes won the kicking derby and found himself facing a 50-yarder in his first field-goal attempt against the Lions in B.C. on July 8.
He made that kick in a 34-32 win, scoring 10 points and earning special teams player of the week honours after his first game.
"To this day I still think about it every day and I'm grateful it happened," he said of his debut kick.
After making 35-of-45 attempts last season, Paredes converted 40-of-43 field goals in 2012. His longest over the two seasons was a 50-yarder.
"He's very consistent. ... He's having a great year," Waters said of the Calgary kicker.
Paredes credits feeling more comfortable this year, with a season under his belt, as well as the tutelage of former kicker Don Sweet.
"Rene, I can't speak enough about the young man," said Hufnagel. "I knew he had an opportunity to be special in the very first game that he played for us.
Waters has made 32-of-43 field goals this season, including a 51-yarder with no time remaining to defeat Hamilton 43-40 on Nov. 1 and eliminate the Tiger-Cats from playoff contention. Waters also hit the goalposts with a kickoff that game.
"He has a very strong leg," Paredes offered. "Very nice guy. He's a very good kicker, first year in the CFL and he did pretty good."
Waters is a little more circumspect about his performance this season.
"I wouldn't call it a great season here but minus a two-game stretch in there I've had a pretty good year," he said.
Both kickers say they are comfortable hitting the ball from 55 yards in. Waters adds he's willing to try anything, noting that he's made kicks from 70 yards with a slight tailwind in practice.
Waters is playing with a cast for a broken bone just below his left thumb and above his wrist, the price he paid for recovering a fumble on a kickoff against Winnipeg.
That aside, he says just kicking takes a physical toll.
The kickers warm up for two hours before the game and have to be constantly ready to perform in a contest that may last 3 1/2 hours.
"They may say 'Well you only kick three kickoffs and three field goals' but you've got remember you've got to stay loose for 5 1/2 hours, kicking in the net, riding the bike, stretching," Waters said. "So it's a lot of strain on your leg.
"And a full-speed kickoff is a violent motion, and so I'm definitely more sore after the games, but the way I try to take care of that is by being smarter during the week."
Both work on the mental side of kicking.
Paredes focuses on the same routine before every kick, from how he breathes to visualizing the ball going over.
"I do the same thing, no matter if it's a winner in the Grey Cup or an extra point," he said.
Waters — his first name is a nod to his great-grandmother's maiden name and not the late actor Patrick Swayze — also pays attention to the mental side of kicking.
"At this level, you wouldn't be here if you couldn't kick,'' he said. "It comes down to when you get that opportunity, what are you going to do with it. And that's all about mental preparation."
That includes pretending each kick in practice could win the Grey Cup.
During his mini-slump during the season, Waters and holder Trevor Harris had a goal to "go one-for-one"
"You can't go for five-for-five if you don't go one-for-one."
Paredes also remembers the ones that got away, although this season there haven't been many failures to ponder.
He blames a rushed warmup for a missed 51-yarder in Toronto. Then there were two flubs against Saskatchewan: he hit Stampeders lineman Kenny Pettway in the face with the ball on one and a 45-yarder went just wide of the posts.
"I think I could have gone perfect (on the year)," he lamented.
Both kickers are going into the option year of their contract.
Paredes is virtually assured of coming back, given his success rate this season.
It may be more problematic for Waters, whose lively leg upside could be cancelled out by his passport. A healthy Prefontaine could open up an import roster spot.
"I take things day to day, week to week, as a kicker," said Waters. "Professional sports you're not even guaranteed tomorrow. But I definitely feel part of the team here, part of the family. ... I would love to be here, to stay here but I don't know. I can't control the future."
Waters was so unsure of his future that his wife has remained at home in the U.S. this season.
Football is a business.
"It is for sure," Waters said. "I learned that over the past four years."
So Waters shares a place in the suburbs with Harris and running back Chad Kackert.
Back home in Jackson, the boyish Waters spends time away from football working for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for whom he spreads the gospel through sports at 30 to 40 high schools in central Mississippi.
"It's really a neat thing because it combines my two passions: God and sports," he said. "To to be able to do that as a job is really a true blessing. Even in the off-season I get to do what I love."
Whatever happens on the job front, Waters will have learned from the experience just as he soaked up time spent around Jason Hanson in Detroit, Sebastian Janikowski in Oakland and Canadian Shaun Suisham in Pittsburgh.
They taught him kicking is a craft rather than just hoofing a ball.
And each stop was a chance to get valuable game film for the portfolio.