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Life of a Saint: John Carney

Carney speaks about the lowest point in his career, his Super Bowl appearances and the origins of “Ambush”.

New Orleans Saints v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

World-renowned entrepreneur and motivator Tony Robbins preaches, “If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do.”

23-year NFL veteran John Carney must have agreed with this concept as he made a career out of being a student to those who paved the way before him. The result of his studies was a career that had him retire at third on the NFL’s all-time scoring list, a Super Bowl Champion and the recipient of countless awards along the way.

Life of a Saint: John Carney

For John Carney as a youth, soccer was his game of choice of the fields of Hartford, Connecticut. Around the age of 13, Carney and his family moved to Florida to follow the career of his father, Jack Carney. With the change came a new home, new friends and a new school.

Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida had a heavy focus on football and the program caught Carney’s eye. Carney would find his way onto the football field as a sophomore and tried his hand at a position one may not expect. “I went out as a sophomore thinking I was a wide receiver. After sitting on the bench for a long enough period of time, I figured I should plan on doing something else to get on the field.” Carney continued, “The guys who were kicking and punting at the time were football guys, without a soccer background. I decided that if I could learn to kick a football like a soccer ball, I could get myself off the bench and onto the field. So, I started working on that craft and ended up kicking and punting for the JV team my sophomore year and then varsity my junior and senior years.

Carney would end up loving the position and decided to double down on his talent to better learn his craft. “The first camp I went to, to show you how old I am, was a Garo Yepremian Soccer and Kicking Camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That was my first real instruction on how to kick a football.”

Kicking for the Fighting Irish

One does not get to Notre Dame without performing well in high school. But Carney actually points to two individuals that helped him secure his spot at the prestigious school. He explained, ” Back in high school, we had an All-American running back by the name of Alonzo Jefferson who attracted every scout across the country, from UCLA to USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, you name it. He ended up choosing Notre Dame. They were very excited to get him obviously. Our head coach, Sam Budnick, kind of pointed in my direction when the coaches were coming in to see Alonzo. He’d say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this kicker and you might want to take a look at him too. So, I ended up going to Notre Dame on Alonzo Jefferson’s coattails as a referred walk-on.”

It didn’t take long for Carney to realize he had made the right choice in schools. “It’s just a very special place. Obviously, the education is top-notch. We had seen that spirituality in everyday life on campus is very important to many of us. The tradition of the football program is arguably one of the best in the country. All those things wrapped up into one.” Carney also spoke about the relationships he made while at Notre Dame, many of which he still maintains today.

“When I was at Notre Dame, someone said, ‘This kid may have a chance to play on Sundays.’ That kind of stuck in my mind. When I graduated, I thought, ‘Let’s give this a shot.’ Carney finished his stellar college career with 51 field goals, a mark that still stands in the top-3 in Notre Dame history.

Persistence Overcomes Resistance

Carney got his first opportunity in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals. “The kicker from Penn State and I were there just as an insurance policy for Jim Breech who was kicking fine, and they weren’t ready to make a change at that point. It was my first taste of the NFL. I was there for a cup of coffee. They released me before preseason began, so it was really just an off-season and a training camp with them.”

But the experience was eye-opening for Carney. Aside from getting his first experience on an NFL field, he saw the business of the NFL as well as the consistency needed to play at the next level. “So, it was a very educational experience for me. I had to go back to the lab and get to work and improve my game mentally and physically if I was going to make it in this game and in this league.”

John Carney would end up playing very limited roles for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams over the course of the next three years but couldn’t stick as a starter for either of those clubs. Carney shared, “I didn’t realize it would take over three years to get that opportunity to stick around for an entire season as the starting kicker for an NFL team. The journey became a challenge to me. Personally, I wanted to prove to myself that I could hang with the big boys. Certainly, the long road attracted some critics. The critics were very motivational for me to prove them wrong. That was good fuel for my fire to keep pushing forward and keep my eyes on the prize. Eventually, San Diego gave me the shot to stick around during a regular season and see if I could pull it off.”

John Carney

Carney continued to watch what the veterans were doing, copy their routines and get better over the course of those years. But he shared that he couldn’t just concentrate on football. “It gets uncomfortable spending a lot of time unemployed or working part-time jobs because you need time to train. Most smart employers aren’t going to hire a free agent player who’s trying to make it in the NFL and is going to take off once he gets his chance. You work part-time jobs and you’re in and out of training camps and workouts.” But the self-proclaimed “Stubborn Irishman” would not be discouraged.

“My father taught me a lot. One thing was work ethic and perseverance. I felt that I had put a lot of work and effort toward this goal and I was going to push it as far as I could push it. I was going to make it or someone in the NFL was going to say, ‘Son, you should really start looking at another career. You don’t have what it takes to be an NFL kicker.’ Until someone told me that, I was going to do my best to push it.”

Carney Lands in San Diego

“Fuad Reveiz, who had just come out of the Miami Dolphins and had been there for I think three years, was very much a quality kicker but had some injury issues down in Miami. He was my competitor in San Diego. I battled him, and I had learned from him since he had been in the league for several years. We had a great competition. They actually went with him when the season began. But he just never seemed to get on track. They swapped me in for him in week five of the regular season and Fuad ended up in Minnesota.”

Realizing that there are only 32 of these NFL kicking positions in the world, Carney understood what a prized role he had earned. He continued his preparation and routines relentlessly and would end up spending 11 years in San Diego. Individually, he was making a name for himself as one of the premier kickers in the league. As a team, the Chargers would put together a dream season in 1994, playing their way into their first Super Bowl appearance.

Carney recalled, “It was a Cinderella story. We had a great mix of veterans, young talent and our coaching staff. Bobby Ross and his staff along with a great general manager, Bobby Beathard. We stayed healthy, which is a big component in making a run for the season and into the playoffs. It was just a real special time for the team, the franchise and the city.”

While the trip to Miami for Super Bowl XXIX didn’t go how Carney had hoped, he shared that of all the time he spent in San Diego, “That would have been the pinnacle.”

Carney Ends Up in New Orleans

After 11 seasons in San Diego, a change in general manager turned what Carney thought was going to be a contract negotiation into a parting of ways with him and the Chargers. That general manager was former Buffalo Bills GM, John Butler. Carney offered, “The first time I met John Butler in the hallways of the facility, I said, ‘Nice to meet you Mr. Butler. Welcome to the Chargers.’ He said, “I’ve met you before. I met you a couple years ago here in San Diego when you kicked the game winner against my Bills.’ I said, ‘I hope you don’t hold that against me.’ Of course, he did.”

After receiving an offer from Butler and the Chargers that Carney said was, “just putting stuff down on paper that no player would sign”, Carney missed the window of free agency. Although it wasn’t ideal for Carney, the Saints capitalized on the scenario. “New Orleans called up during training camp and said to get down here and play for the Saints. I said, ‘That sounds pretty good to me. Let’s go.’”

“The lowest point of my playing career”

On December 21, 2003, the Saints were clinging to hopes of making the playoffs on week 16. For a franchise that had just one playoff win at that point, it was a big deal. The Saints, down by seven with seven seconds to go, pulled off a lateral play now known as the “River City Relay” to bring the game within a point as time expired. Carney then missed the would-be tying extra point.

He reflected on that moment. “That was the lowest point of my playing career; certainly emotionally. Athletes take pride in your preparation, in your focus and in your contribution to the team. I really felt like I let my teammates down and my city down.” He then continued, “. It was very frustrating on many levels. It was an educational moment for myself as well because I had a choice. I could hang up the cleats, disappear and go live my life in some obscure town and not talk about football and not be reminded of that, or strap it up, go back to work, work harder and rededicate myself with my preparation, my focus and my conditioning. I wasn’t going to let that play define my career. I spent the off-season being a negative name and a negative memory when that season ended. I knew that was part of the gig, part of the game. That’s the territory we live in as specialists. It ended up being a lot of motivation for me. In the long run, it made me a stronger player mentally and better prepared player for the balance of my career, and that balance included another Pro Bowl and a ride with a Super Bowl winning team.”

Playing Through Katrina

It comes as no surprise that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Carney and the Saints were consumed by the devastation of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast that they called home. But while the region mourned and began the process of rebuilding, the Saints still had a job to do. From Carney’s perspective, the 2005 season seemed like insult on top of injury. Carney explained, “We found ourselves relocated to San Antonio. The NFL did an extremely poor job of setting us up for success. We were basically set up for failure. We practiced at a high school field half the time. Our meeting rooms and locker rooms were changed over three times during the course of the season. When we first got to San Antonio, we were in a hotel for two weeks and then told that that ride was over. We had to go find housing with no help or assistance from the NFL. The commissioner did not pay us a visit until week 14!”

Despite the failures by the NFL, Carney believed they learned from their pitfalls during the painful process. “When the commissioner finally did come, he got the message that it was handled very poorly. If that ever happens to a team in the future, I think the NFL will handle it much better. Everybody learned something from that.”

While Carney has optimism about how things may be handled in the future, he can’t help but wonder what might have been if his 2005 squad was given that chance. “Unfortunately, we had a very talented team a lot of those careers were changed after that year. Our coaching staff got fired. A lot of careers changed because they didn’t perform at the level they would have liked to or should have. But, again, we were at a disadvantage”, Carney offered.

Rebirth and Beyond

For obvious reasons, the Steve Gleason blocked punt in week 3 against the rival Atlanta Falcons was the symbol of the rebirth of the New Orleans Saints and the surrounding region. But 2006 was as much a metamorphosis as it was a rebirth. The coaching staff had changed, the players had changed and, most importantly, the expectations had changed. “That trilogy of ownership with Mr. Benson, Mickey Loomis the GM and Sean Payton really worked really well, obviously. The results spoke for themselves and are still amazing, still going. Much credit to them working on the same page for the common goal of success of a franchise and making a winning environment”, Carney said. And while Carney had a good year, statistically, in 2006 (23/25), the Saints appeared to be going in a different direction after that season.

“I received a phone call from Sean Payton. I think it was around March. I love Sean Payton. But he just gave me a call and said, ‘Hey John. I’m glad I caught you. I just wanted to let you know we just traded for Olindo Mare.’ He said, ‘You can stay and compete with him. You can go. What’s on your mind? Don’t’ tell me. Call me tomorrow.’ I called him the next day and I said, ‘Sean, I like Olindo Mare. I think you have a really talented kicker that you’re going to be bringing onto the team. If I’m going to be released for somebody, I think you’re picking the right guy. He’s young, he’s strong and talented. I think you’re going to be really happy with Olindo Mare. Don’t worry about me. I will land on my feet and keep going. Best of luck this season.’ Sean and I have kept our relationship very realistic and very honest.”

Carney would end up in Jacksonville to start the 2007 season filling in for an injured Josh Scobee. When Scobee returned, Carney found himself headed to Kansas City to finish the season. In 2008, a then 44-year old Carney played a full season with the New York Giants, a season that resulted in a Pro Bowl appearance. Carney would then end up back in New Orleans in 2009.

XLIV and the Origin of “Ambush”

At the start of the 2009 season, expectation were that a young Garrett Hartley would take over starting kicking duties. But after testing positive for Adderall, Hartley was suspended for the first four games of the season. Carney would end up starting the season for the Saints and continued to hold the position long after Hartley’s suspension had expired. It wasn’t until week 12 against the Washington Redskins that Hartley would end up taking the starting job. But Carney’s influence on the eventual Super Bowl winning team was far from over.

Carney’s impact on the onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, known as “Ambush”, has been well chronicled. Thomas Morstead stated, “Before the play, when we ran it in practice, John Carney would always tell me to kick it at 10% because it’s just such a short kick. In the game, right before I went on the field, he grabbed me and said, ‘You need to kick this at 1%’, because I was so amped.“

Not only was Carney there to act as a mental coach, but Carney was also the one who taught Morstead the play. Carney was first introduced to the play years earlier in an ironic way. During Carney’s 2007 season, a few months removed from being the Saints kicker, he would end up playing against the Saints and Olindo Mare. The Saints went out to a quick 3-0 lead just over a minute into the game. Then, it happened. Carney shared, “, I ended up playing against the Saints in week five in the Superdome that year, which was really bizarre. And if you really want to put a crazy twist to it, that game, which the Saints won (although we had a great team that year), that’s when Olindo Mare kicked the onside kick that the Saints recovered which became our Ambush kick in 2009. I remember seeing Olindo do that and I taught myself the kick and I taught it to Morstead in 2009, which became our big Super Bowl onside kick. That whole thing has crazy strings.”

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Carney would be the first one to tell you that he is still learning his craft. But he has now decided to offer everything he was taught to the next generation of specialists. Organic in its roots, the Carney Training Facility has impacted many of the best active specialists in the world. Carney explained how it all got started. “I was playing in New Orleans and spending my off seasons in San Diego. I started building a gym in my garage for effective and efficient training. Then guys started joining me. After the 2006 season, I got with my good friend, Steve Weatherford, who enjoyed a good tenure and helped in his Super Bowl with the New York Giants. Steve decided he wanted to start training with me in the off season and then other guys like Nick Folk and Nick Novak started training with us. Then there was a lockout around 2009 or 2010 and other guys needed a spot to train. So, we collected a few more specialists that off season like Josh Brown. All the sudden, we had all these guys training in my garage and running and kicking with us in San Diego.”

Carney continued, “When I started to slide into retirement, I moved everything out to save my wife and family the hassle and moved it all into a warehouse and started Carney Training Facility. I wanted to open up our coaching, teaching and mentoring to high school kids, college kids and NFL free agents. So, that’s what we do.”

It appears that the next generation of specialists is also practicing the advice taught by Tony Robbins, only now, John Carney is not the copier. He is the copied.