Flesh To Leather: Why There Are No More Barefoot Kickers In The NFL

There’s a generation of sports fans that have no idea some kickers in the NFL once kicked barefoot. Is this a bad thing? Probably not. However, it’s an interesting part of football’s history that’s now like a foot covered by a shoe. That is, out of sight.

A brief survey of the history of barefoot kicking: Tony Franklin, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles, was the first barefoot kicker in the NFL. Drafted in 1979, Franklin kicked barefoot at Texas A&M before doing the same in the League. He kicked his first barefoot field goal September 2, 1979. He kicked for 10 seasons sans shoe and also holds the record for the longest barefoot field goal: 59 yards.

The most recent barefooted field goal came in 2002. Jeff Wilkins of the St. Louis Rams kicked barefoot for the first seven weeks of the season. He made nine of 12 field goals, but he still decided to put a shoe on in week 8. No one has kicked barefoot since.

Chuck Klosterman, ombudsman of sports and culture that he is, wrote this about barefoot kickers for ESPN’s Page 2 (back when there was an ESPN Page 2).

“There were two schools as to why people kicked barefoot. Neither made any sense. The first was that it provided the kicker with a better “feel” for the ball itself and that this gave him greater control of its trajectory; I recall an argument that claimed making a kicker wear a shoe was like making a quarterback wear a mitten.

The second theory was that shoes and socks absorb kinetic energy, so kicking flesh-to-leather created more torque.”

So, it’s fitting to ask, “Why no more barefoot kickers?”

Jim Andrews, who spent 20 years working for the NFL, offered this explanation: Shoe technology and weather.

In days gone by, there were no specific “kicking shoes,” or at least, they were vastly inferior to today’s kicking shoes. Thus, in order to get more feel, some kickers tried booting the ball without them; they liked the results.

Andrews writes:

“With the advent of new materials and technology in cleat design, some of the soccer shoe makers began developing an American football kicking shoe. In the 90s kickers could be seen running onto the field with 2 different cleats. Morton Anderson described his specialty kicking shoe as a cross between a cleat and a ballet shoe. It cost him $5,000.”

Seeing an opportunity, the Nikes and Adidases of the world developed soccer-technology laden kicking shoes. By the early 2000s, all kickers in the league were wearing a kicking shoe of some variety. And clearly, kickers feel wearing the kicking shoe produces better (and less painful) results than kicking barefoot.

The second point of interest: weather.

“Although most of the barefoot kickers played and kicked well in cold weather, the NFL is a league of trends – both innovating and conservative. For years no one thought to play three defensive linemen and four linebackers. The Steelers began winning Super Bowls and every team plays the 3-4. If a barefoot kicker misses a field goal in snowy weather, then all barefoot kickers cannot kick in cold weather. Unfortunately, perception is reality and the truth in the NFL.”

Andrews is right. Given the short leash that kickers are on, could you imagine if anyone outside of the five or so kickers whose jobs are totally secure went out and kicked barefoot in a game? What if he missed three field goals? What if he missed the winner? He’d be destroyed on social media and in the press, which happens today regardless of what the person is wearing on their feet.

Even if barefoot kicking returned marginally better results, why would any kicker take that chance in the NFL in 2017? The era of barefoot kicking can stand alongside the era of single-bar facemasks. That is, gone for good.