Exclusive Interview with Nick Novak, NFL San Diego Chargers Kicker
Perseverance and Faith Propel NFL Kicker Nick Novak
The setting: Standing in Qualcomm Stadium watching San Diego Chargers kicker Nick Novak finish up an intense practice with a few other guys while challenging himself from all different markers – including past the 50-yard line – and like a well-oiled machine, every football falling right between the goalposts. Impressive in an empty arena and mesmerizing in a sold-out stadium with 71,000 fans erupting in cheer as Novak’s kick puts the home team ahead. This soccer-star-turned-football-player holds the best place-kicking regular season record in Chargers history, but it didn’t come easy. Discipline, hard work, capitalizing on opportunities, optimism and shear faith are all threads woven into the fabric of Novak’s background that allows him to be strong and confident today. Risen sat down with the 33-year-old to talk sports, mentors, faith, giving back, and the uniqueness of being a twin.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: You grew up in San Diego before your family moved back east and you have two brothers, a twin and an older brother. What was life like growing up in the Novak household?
Nick Novak: It was sports every day, all the time. My parents were carpooling other kids to soccer tournaments. We were always in the backyard competing, my older brother especially. We would play best of three, and then it became best of ten because he hated losing. That was around age 10 or 11. My parents always tried to get us to go to church on Sunday and us boys always put up a fight. But I remember it was an important part of our life.
For me, having a twin [brother] was special. It was interesting because you always have a best friend. We moved from San Diego to Virginia and that transition was easier for us I think because we were in the same grade. And then with sports you automatically had twelve new friends playing soccer. My older brother set a great example for us when it came to working hard. He went on to play Division 1 soccer in college. He’s now a DA [District Attorney] in Dallas. My parents are both professors and very academic people so they always pushed us to go to college – it was never an option not to go.
Risen Magazine: All three of you boys played sports and were collegiate athletes. Did you always get along; were you super competitive, and what are your dynamics now?
Nick Novak: My twin and I always played on the same team – club soccer and baseball. My other brother is three-and-a-half-years older so we weren’t on the same team. There is something called the Olympic Development Program (ODP) in soccer where they weed guys out into district, regional, and national levels and that is eventually how they pick the national soccer team. Well my twin brother made it a step farther than me and that was when I was like, “Ah, my brother is better than me?! I’m done with soccer.” Right around that sophomore year of high school is when I started kicking for the football team. We all remain close. My twin brother is married, I recently got engaged, and my older brother Andrew got engaged on the same day as I did, July 4th.
Risen Magazine: So it sounds like soccer was your main sport and it wasn’t until high school that you switched to playing football. At that time did you think football would be a career or just something to hopefully pay for college?
Nick Novak: Pro was never a thought until maybe my sophomore year of college. Going to college was the only way to even hope for a pro opportunity. I got kind of burnt out from soccer. I loved it, I still love it; I watched every game of the World Cup. But I started playing football, honestly, because my Earth Science teacher, who was also the head coach in football, convinced me to do it. I knew nothing really about the rules of the game. I put my pads on wrong my first practice, my jersey was on backwards, I was nervous, and it was quite a learning experience from that first day. But I ended up having a pretty good first year. Once I touched a football and learned the technique – from a local family here in San Diego who we grew up playing soccer with – they taught me how to kick and I was obsessed. I have a personality where if I want to get good at something, I go all out. I fell in love with it and trying to be the best. Trying to master kicking and be the most efficient on and off-season.
Risen Magazine: It’s no surprise that to play in the NFL takes a lot of discipline and hard work, but that would be a giant understatement to describe your career. Take us back to your rookie year in 2005, with all the accomplishments and accolades, you still spent time with four teams that year. What was your mindset?
Nick Novak: Thank God when I first got to college I had to compete for my job so I learned right away what it took to earn a position. Once I was chosen for the job [kicker for University of Maryland] and had it for four years, there were still ups and downs. If you had a bad game and you went to class you had people commenting on your performance.
Bible studies are probably the best opportunity for players to open up about what is going on in our lives.
Risen Magazine: [Laughter] You got to learn about crazy fans and critics early on!
Nick Novak: Yeah right?! Even at the college level, it’s a business. But as soon as I got to the professional level – the Chicago Bears picked me undrafted – I had to go to training camp against a 15-year veteran who was married and had kids. This wasn’t just a college kid; this was a 36-year-old man providing for his family. I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m just going to do the best I can.” I learned a lot from that camp and it was very close, but I didn’t get the job. So my rookie year, yes, I played for four teams – the Bears, Cowboys, Redskins and Cardinals. And at the end of that season the Cardinals kept me for the off-season and the following camp.
The first experience I had with team Bible Studies was with Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals. It was the first time I started thinking, “it’s not all about me,” and “I don’t have to be perfect.” I could let go a little bit. Having Kurt as a mentor was huge. Then I went back to the Redskins and got connected with another strong Christian guy, Mark Burnell. I was always blessed to go to teams with spiritual leaders. And now, [on the Chargers] I have Darrell Stuckey, who is always speaking and constantly trying to grow, and as hard as it is to be a Christian – especially as a professional athlete – he is genuine and lives out his faith on a daily basis and is not fake about it. I’m lucky to have a lot of people to hold me accountable.
Risen Magazine: The following five years, football would take you all over the country, and even Europe. How did you stay positive and motivated as you were bouncing from team to team?
Nick Novak: I guess it’s cliché, but you have to fail in order to succeed and I‘ve learned from every opportunity and just tried to be as coachable as possible. As hard as it is to get fired, to get cut, you realize it is your dream and you are not going to give up. I always figured out how to get better. I sought out coaching and I surrounded myself with people that really cared about me and wanted me to succeed – my parents, family, and friends. I’ve just never had the mindset to give up and get on to my next career. I always knew I was going to give football at least 10-12 years to try to make it. And I was lucky enough to get to do that because I had so much support I didn’t just have to jump into a career right away. For kickers, especially in this league, you have to go through some tough years. For me it came down to timing here in San Diego. I was filling in for a great kicker, Nate Kaeding, and doing the best I could and the job just happened to open up. I was in the right place at the right time making the most of the opportunity. You never know how many opportunities you are going to get, and fortunately I’ve had quite a few. I know plenty of kickers who are talented enough that should’ve gotten an opportunity and never did. Playing in San Diego now, having grown up here, with a team that has always had great kickers – I never thought there would be an opportunity here. So four years ago when they did call, it was a dream come true.
Risen Magazine: Once you signed a multi-year deal with the Chargers, what was going through your mind?
Nick Novak: Yea, that was unchartered territory for me. I had never been in that position where I got to sign a contract for 4-5 years or what not. So I kind of played tricks on myself last year in practice because I wasn’t in competition [Novak already had earned the top spot] and I would tell myself, “Okay, you are in competition and you are the second guy up kicking after the incumbent and trying to match his kick.” So I would play those tricks in my head convincing myself I was still trying to win the job. The other thing is you can never relax or get comfortable in this business because teams are always looking for better. In San Diego, I think the coaches do a really good job at showing the guys they pick that they trust them, and have confidence in them as players. Don’t get me wrong, it is all about winning, but if you do your job, it is a very enjoyable experience.
Risen Magazine: Well you definitely did your job last season . Statistically, you had the best place-kicking regular season record in Chargers history. What do you attribute the success to?
Nick Novak: That was important to me, to be able to sign a contract and have a solid year. I wanted to prove that I deserved it. I had a lot of years of practice and I felt very confident with the group I was working with since they were with me through the entire off-season, training camp, and preseason all the way to the start of the season. That was huge. As a kicker, it’s very common to be signed mid-season or late in the season. You would have a one-day tryout on Tuesday, then you’re signed, you practice Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and play the next game. Kickers have to be very adaptable. So that was a really big thing – my comfort with those guys, with the organization, and with the city. I don’t want to say that I got “comfortable” here; it’s just really nice to be practicing with the same guys on a daily basis. I know the level of success they’ve had here with kickers, so that heightens the intensity. People say, “What’s it like to fill Kaeding’s shoes?” I’ve always just tried to be myself and kick the best that I can. And playing with a powerful offense, like the one Phillip Rivers runs, you know you’re going to be in the red zone and you’re going to be either scoring touchdowns or in field goal range. So I’ll practice with skinnier poles with the philosophy of “Aim small, miss small.”
This is a very unique locker room in San Diego. I’m so close with the teammates I have, and everyone’s almost like family. We spend a lot of time together off the field, which I think is so important. The teams that make it to playoffs and win the Super Bowl are the teams that hang out off the field. They don’t just disappear and see each other at work. It’s not just a business. The other great thing is that Coach Mike McCoy creates a very family-oriented environment.
You have to have integrity when you’re in this position because you can’t just put on a mask – you actually have to be a good person when nobody’s watching!
Risen Magazine: What is the biggest misconception about pro-football players?
Nick Novak: At least in my experience, there aren’t a ton of drugs; there aren’t a ton of crazy parties where cars are being sawed in half by the offensive linemen. [Laughs] These are men trying to provide for their families.
Risen Magazine: Let’s talk about your faith and how that shaped your character and helped you to weather whatever was coming your way. Where are you now in regards to your faith?
Nick Novak: I remember in high school I went to Young Life events. Going to church was hit or miss based on soccer tournaments and things like that. I didn’t really go to my first Bible study until college at the University of Maryland. I met a strong group of believers there through the FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes]. And then I got saved when I was a Redskin. But I eventually realized that being saved is not a one-time thing. Being a Christian can be very difficult, and I just recently got saved again through The Rock Church in San Diego. It was amazing. It was up on a mountaintop with a bunch of professional athletes, and there was so much energy and a ton of great speakers. I actually just spoke at a big breakfast with some other athletes where dads and their sons came and listened to us sharing our stories.
Risen Magazine: Seems like there are quite a few men of faith in the NFL – high profile guys like Kurt Warner, Drew Brees or Tim Tebow, and even on your own team with Phillip Rivers, Darrell Stuckey, Vincent Brown… and those are just guys I know about. What kind of role does faith have amongst teammates and players? What is the relationship between men of faith within football?
Nick Novak: Vincent Brown and I were actually saved together on that same day of the event put on through The Rock. He’s become a great friend since I’ve been a Charger. He’s a guy I can really talk to. But Bible studies are probably the best opportunity for players to open up about what is going on in our lives. I have a great mentor, Paul Woodside, who I’ve known for about fifteen years, and he’s a kicking coach, and everything he teaches is faith-based. He relates the Bible to everything, and he has always mentored me through my whole career.
But with the players, if you know you’re like-minded, it’s just a matter of sitting down and talking. You can tell if a guy is a believer though, just in the way he carries himself and runs his household. A Christian man is a leader. It’s easy to see those characteristics in Stuckey or Rivers, for example. They lead in everything they do. But they come last in their households. They build everybody up; their kids, their wife. Instead of having the mindset of me-me-me-me, you don’t worry about yourself; you take care of your family.
Risen Magazine: Speaking of taking care of others, whether you’re slipping into Rady Children’s Hospital unannounced, or checking in on kids that need a positive male leader in their lives, you have spent a lot of time when you could have easily been doing something else, by blessing others. What about that brings you joy?
Nick Novak: As a professional athlete you have the ability to walk up to someone who is, say, a huge Chargers fan, and instantly change their day, or maybe even influence them in some greater way. My mom was a caregiver; she’s a nurse practitioner. My dad is an audiologist. So they’ve definitely taught me the importance of helping others. For instance, when it comes to children with cancer and you see how young and vulnerable they are, it is really moving. Some of those kids won’t be going home. And to be an adult doing what you love, sometimes you take things for granted when all seems to be going well. I think, “I don’t deserve this,” or, “These kids don’t deserve this.” And preventing bullying is something important to me too.
Risen Magazine: Do you view your platform as a responsibility, or just a way to make a difference with a little larger spotlight than others might have?
Nick Novak: It is an exciting challenge. It holds me at a high standard. You have to have integrity when you’re in this position because you can’t just put on a mask – you actually have to be a good person when nobody’s watching! Regardless of whether I was a professional athlete or not, I would have the same responsibility. I would want to be a positive influence in a kid’s life, or a young man’s life, no matter what. Representing the Chargers is a dream come true, but representing them while also being a part of the community is so important. When you see a kid’s face, and you see the impact you have… when you see a kid go from wanting to kill themselves to not wanting to kill themselves, that means something. Or seeing a kid go from not having friends to having a friend who is a professional athlete, as superficial as that is, and as sad as it is that people need to see that to have respect for someone, it matters. Whatever it takes for a kid’s life to get easier is worth my time. I think it would be a disservice if any of us, as professional athletes, didn’t do something. Like I said, you can’t be selfish. It’s not about performing on Sunday and collecting the paycheck. I want to have a legacy after I’m done playing football. We’re all going to be done before we’re forty, late forties if we’re lucky, and we’re going to have so much time after we’re done. You see some pros mismanage their money, or live in excess while they’re playing, so that’s definitely something to watch out for.
Risen Magazine: And one of the legacies you want to leave is the foundation you’re starting so that you can better use your time and resources, and make a bigger impact through the things you are doing. Tell us about your vision for that.
Nick Novak: Yeah, we are in the beginning stages, but I’ve always loved helping other foundations. I haven’t really pinpointed the specifics, but I think I would like to focus on kids with cancer, with the goal being to donate money to cancer research. But I also want to continue helping other foundations like Life Rolls On, which is helping people dealing with paralysis. I went to an event recently where they took paralyzed veterans out in the ocean to surf. All these volunteers come out to help the people out of the wheelchairs and onto the boards – it’s really amazing being able to see these people doing something they thought they never could. They have an incredible resilience with no limitations.
Risen Magazine: And on top of all that, you have your own kicking school. Talk to us about that.
Nick Novak: Yes, I guess you could call it the Nick Novak Kicking Academy. I started it back in 2009 when I was unemployed in Maryland. I practiced a lot, but I had a lot of time on my hands so I took kids for one-on-one lessons, and it kind of turned into mentorship for the kids as well. I love giving back and so whenever I get the opportunity to coach I take it. I don’t know where I see the camp going because I want to keep it pretty small and just work one-on-one since I like personal interaction with the kids.
Risen Magazine: What would you say to a kid who might have dreams of playing in the NFL, especially as a kicker?
Nick Novak: It’s important to have a never-give-up attitude. You have to know that it’s not easy. There are only thirty-two jobs as a kicker in the NFL. Opportunities come when guys get injured or don’t perform well. Also, if you do get the opportunity to participate in a camp and compete, it’s important to make the most of that opportunity, because if something did happen to the starter that season, you’d be the first one they would call. It’s about always having the mindset, “I’m the guy, I’m the guy” and just kicking the best that you can, because you never know what could happen. And then it’s just making that commitment. It’s going to be a ten-year commitment at least, if you are not drafted. There can be success in guys who bounce around to different teams every year, and then there are those rare guys, like Kaeding, who are part of a team for ten years or more. It just comes down to great coaching, and not losing your faith that something will work out. You’ll always have people saying, “You have to move on to a real career. Use your degree for something.” You don’t want to look back and say, “I didn’t give it everything.”
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2014