The phrase ‘speed kills’ has become a staple in Southeastern Conference football, but rarely does it concern a kicker.
Former Bulldog Blair Walsh learned what that saying meant the hard way during his senior season at Georgia.
He missed 14 field goals in his final season donning the red and black — one more miss than his first three years combined.
“[I was] just too fast to the ball which was causing me to be a little bit erratic,” he said. “I wasn’t being able to see the ball as long as I should’ve while it was in place.”
His accuracy began to dip because he unknowingly began to rush his approach on each kick. It got to the point where coaches at the NFL combine were clocking him at “outrageously fast times.”
“I was going as soon as I saw the ball move, and now I sort of go when it hits our holder’s hands,” Walsh said. “I have such a quick approach anyway, that I was combining my quick approach with leaving early and that was leading to disastrous results. Once we just scaled back, everything was more under control. I felt more under control, and I knew what was going to come off my foot more times than not.”
The Minnesota Vikings took a chance on Walsh, selecting him in the sixth round as the 175th overall pick. He was the first kicker the Vikings organization drafted since 1978.
A few weeks later, the organization released longtime veteran Ryan Longwell, which sent a clear message to their rookie kicker that he was the guy.
“To know that they were willing to see what I was like in person, see what I was going to do that weekend that they brought me in, and they decided to let him go after that — it’s a nice vote of confidence, but it’s also a lot of pressure,” Walsh said. “My whole goal of the season was to prove to them they were right by taking a chance on me and selecting me and sort of taking me as their project.”
But Walsh did more than prove that he was worth one of the 32 jobs as an NFL kicker. He hit 35 of his 38 field goal attempts (92.1 percent), and went a perfect 10-for-10 from field goals ranging 50 yards or more — an NFL record. He tied his career long, at any level, with a 56-yarder on the road against the Houston Texans on week 16.
His biggest field goal came in week 17 with division rival Green Bay in town. Walsh hit a 29-yarder as time expired to secure a 37-34 win, and propel the Vikings into the playoffs.
“That kick meant so much to our organization because it just really capped off our season and put us into the playoffs,” Walsh said. “We had been up-and-down all year, and that was the way to finish it on a high note. To win our last four games and knock out a division opponent from the playoffs in Chicago – it was fun. It’s an awesome experience to be in situations like that, and anytime you’re successful at it too, it’s a good feeling.”
Even though the Vikings lost in the Wild Card round to the team they had just defeated, his stellar rookie campaign did not go unnoticed. Walsh was voted to the annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii, and got selected first team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
“Now that I’ve had some time to reflect back on it, it’s been crazy,” he said. “The fact that I went to the Pro Bowl and was All-Pro, and all that stuff — it’s just an added bonus. I was just so happy and thrilled to be in the NFL, and to actually cement myself at the starting position.”
Minnesota’s early exit from the playoffs allowed Walsh to return to Athens for one more semester so that he could work towards completing his degree in speech communications. After this session, he will only need to take two more online classes before fulfilling his degree’s requirements.
“That’s one of the reasons I came here,” Walsh said. “I know it would make my family proud, and my mom proud because I’m sure there was times when I was kid that she doubted that day would come. I love the University of Georgia, and it would mean everything to me to have a degree from here.”
He’s had to adjust to the student life without football, and said it’s been different not having the strict routine he kept his first three years in Athens.
“It’s weird not having to go to football, and not having to come [to Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall] every day,” Walsh said. “The only time I come here is when I want to work out and train. It’s different not having that structured part of your life with Georgia football because this is our offseason. It’s fun though, it’s been a blast.”
Despite his success at the professional level, he’s managed to avoid the celebrity status. Being a kicker allows Walsh to keep a low profile since he doesn’t necessarily stand out when he’s walking around campus.
“The nice thing is I kind of blend in, I don’t really stand out at all,” he said. “Occasionally you’ll get somebody that will say something to you, but it’s always nice and it makes me feel good. The nice thing is I kind of go unnoticed wherever I want.”
Considering the manner in which he ended his playing days at Georgia, Walsh has used some of his free time to think back on what he was able to accomplish in his rookie year.
“It’s been a crazy 365 days; you can put it that way,” he said. “You went from some lows to some extreme highs, and everything in-between. It’s been a fun ride, and I’m looking forward to the years to come.”