It's probably good that Taylor Mehlhaff's mother had to get up early Sunday morning to go to work.
That kept her from staying up late Saturday night to watch Mehlhaff's Hartford Colonials play at Sacramento. Chances are good that even if she had been awake, she would have been hiding her eyes as her son lined up a chip-shot, game-winning field goal on the final play of the United Football League game.
"No one gets more upset than I do when I miss a kick,'' Mehlhaff said. "Well, maybe my mom.
"She always tells me that her heart is racing when I'm getting ready to kick and that she can't imagine how I feel.''The 25-year-old Mehlhaff had already missed three kicks before he nailed the 23-yarder that gave the Colonials a 27-26 victory on the final play of the game. What led up to Mehlhaff's winning field goal makes one wonder why anyone would want to try to make a living kicking a football.
"You need a kind of weird mentality to be a kicker,'' Mehlhaff said.
A short memory and thick skin also helps. Mehlhaff's third miss of the night had come just 22 seconds earlier when he left a 42-yard attempt wide right.
Fortunately for Mehlhaff, Sacramento defensive back Terrelle Maze ran into him after the kick, resulting in a drive-extending penalty.
After two running plays, Hartford coach Chris Palmer sent Mehlhaff back into the game to attempt the game-winner with three seconds to play.
"Whatever a kicker does, it's always magnified,'' Palmer said. "It's the nature of the position. So many times, it's do or die.''
Mehlhaff is well aware of the pratfalls that go with his position. An All-America kicker at Wisconsin, he was selected in the sixth round of the 2008 draft by the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints cut him out of training camp, then brought him back midway through the season when starter Martin Gramatica was injured. Even though Mehlhaff converted 3-of-4 field-goal attempts, including a long of 44 yards, and 9-of-10 extra-points, he was released after three games.
He unsuccessfully tried to hook on with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009, then signed this season with the Colonials. He missed an extra-point in the season opener against Omaha that ultimately decided the game but had converted his first eight field-goal attempts.
"He's done a great job with his kickoffs,'' Palmer said. "Overall, he's done OK.''
Mehlhaff missed a 38-yard kick into a tricky wind that would have given the Colonials an overtime win over Las Vegas on Oct. 24. The Locomotives ended up winning 24-21 when Steve Hauschka nailed a 53-yarder with 17 seconds to play.
Mehlhaff then missed his first two kicks, from 34 and 22 yards, against Sacramento.
"Everyone on the sideline is trying to encourage me, telling me to keep my head up and how they were going to need me before this one was over,'' Mehlhaff said. "But then we had an opportunity to go for it on fourth down or kick a field goal, and coach opted to go for it.
"I think that showed that he didn't have a lot of confidence in me at the time.''
That came late in the third period, with the Colonials trailing 20-14 and facing a fourth-and-eight play at the Mountain Lions' 19-yard line.
"You're playing the percentages,'' Palmer said. "I had a kicker that had missed a couple. It's fourth-and-eighth, and I just felt we had to take our chances.''
Quarterback Josh McCown threw incomplete, allowing Sacramento to maintain its lead. The Colonials eventually took a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter before Sacramento regained it midway through the period.
Mehlhaff got the Colonials within 26-24 with a 33-yard field goal with 3:08 to play. Hartford held on downs and after a Sacramento punt, the Colonials took over on the Mountain Lions' 42-yard line with two minutes to play.
Given his kicker had missed three of his previous four attempts dating to the Las Vegas game, Palmer was asked if was hoping for a sure thing when his team took possession.
"You're always hoping that you score a touchdown,'' he said. "It wasn't like I didn't want to put my kicker in that situation, but you eliminate the chance you might lose if you score a touchdown.''
Mehlhaff had other things on his mind.
"As a kicker, you're have to hope for that opportunity,'' he said. "Sure, it would have been better to score a touchdown and the game's over. But I have to have confidence in myself.
"You want to get out there and redeem yourself. It's funny how football works. The guys on offense and defense are out there battling their butts off for the entire game. Then I come out there with three seconds to play, and it's either the difference between us winning or losing.''
The Colonials would have lost had Maze not barreled into Mehlhaff on the 42-yard attempt with 25 seconds to play.
"It all happened so fast,'' Mehlhaff said. "He got me pretty good. I saw the kick go up and then I went down. I didn't even get a chance to follow the flight of the ball.''
The penalty moved the ball to the Sacramento 12, and Mehlhaff was ready to take another shot. But Palmer elected to run two plays, sending Lorenzo Booker into the middle for gains of 5 and 2 yards. That left Mehlhaff facing the 23-yard kick to decide things.
"I had missed one the week before to win the game,'' Mehlhaff said. "It wasn't an easy kick but I have to make those. Then I missed a couple that should have been automatic.
"From a mental standpoint, it was tough. But I'm a competitor. I wanted to get out there and help my team.''
A sense of relief overcame Mehlhaff as the final kick sailed through the uprights.
"I finally got the job done,'' he said. "I was disappointed that I had missed those kicks but I knew I had to keep going. All these games are so close. The difference is a few points here or there.''
Three of Hartford's losses in a 2-4 season have come by margins of 1, 5 and 3 points. The win kept the Colonials mathematically alive in the race for the second spot in the UFL title game.
Did making the final kick save Mehlhaff's job?
"I wouldn't answer that,'' Palmer said a couple of days after the game. "Just as I wouldn't tell you if I were looking for another kicker as we speak.''
Regardless, Mehlhaff could at least look his teammates in the eye and know he had come through, even if it took a penalty to give him a second chance.
"All I know it would have been a long flight back to Hartford had I missed that one,'' he said. "It wouldn't have been fair to the guys if I couldn't do my job.''
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