Panthers' Medlock makes unique opportunity

jjones@charlotteobserver.comOctober 31, 2012 

Justin Medlock’s No. 7 UCLA jersey hangs in Kevin Lydon’s English classroom at John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, Calif.

Lydon coached Medlock at nearby Mission San Jose in the early 2000s before he went to UCLA on a kicking scholarship.

“Kids will ask whose jersey that is, and I’d say that he’s the first-ever African-American kicker to be drafted in the league,” Lydon said. “And it makes a difference. It really does.”

Medlock, virtually a rookie with the Carolina Panthers at 29 years old after stops with the Kansas City Chiefs and in the Canadian Football League, is one of the few African-American kickers in the 92-year history of the NFL.

He had his best day Sunday in the loss to Chicago, making all five field-goal attempts to stay perfect (7-for-7) for the season. He won the starting job in August over incumbent veteran Olindo Mare and has shown the Panthers he’s a reliable first-year kicker who is also versatile on kickoffs.

He’s establishing himself in the position that has been dominated by white players more so than any other on the field.

“And when I tell them that, my African-American students in class say, ‘Oh, really?’ and they turn their heads a little bit,” Lydon said. “That’s something he should really take pride in.”

Medlock is biracial — his father who is deceased was black, his mother is white. Medlock recognizes the uniqueness of being a kicker of African-American descent in the NFL, but says he’s just a kicker.

“A lot of people stereotype that position, but it’s just a stereotype,” Medlock said. “I get it all the time. Sometimes on the field you can hear them while I’m warming up. You can hear the wide receivers saying ‘Oh! That’s a black kicker.’ ”

Medlock is the only African-American field-goal kicker in a league in which 69 percent of the players are black, according to the University of Central Florida’s Racial and Gender Report Card. The field-goal kicker is the single most historically white position in the five sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, WNBA, MLS) included in the report card, according to Dr. Richard Lapchick, the founder and director of UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

“There is no other sport that we follow that has one position that has historically been this white in terms of the players who have played it throughout history,” said Lapchick, who since 1988 has overseen the report card. “In baseball you have the pitcher and the catcher with very few African-Americans when you look at the position historically, but not this few in the history of the game.”

Though there is no definitive record, Medlock appears to be the third African-American field-goal kicker in the NFL. There have also been a few African field-goal kickers and African-American punters.

Medlock is the first African-American kicker since Cedric Oglesby, who kicked in three games for the Arizona Cardinals in 2001.

Unexpected kicker

Oglesby, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of S.C. State, remembers when he pulled his soccer cleats out of his bag in the Dallas Cowboys locker room in minicamp in 2000. Players, Oglesby said, were not expecting a 5-foot-10, 180-pound black man to be a kicker, and he became the topic of conversation.

In Arizona, he said teammates referred to him as “Gra-black-tica” after long-time kicker Martin Gramatica.

“In training camp in San Diego one time a guy said, ‘Wow, in my whole life of playing football I’ve never seen a black kicker,’ ” Oglesby recalled. “ ‘If you make it, you’re going to be big time!’ ”

Medlock became the first African-American field-goal kicker drafted when Kansas City selected him in the fifth round in 2007. It’s commonly reported that the NFL’s first African-American kicker was Gene Mingo, who kicked for several American Football League and NFL teams from 1960 through 1970. Mingo did not play college football and wasn’t drafted.

Clemson turned out two Nigerian kickers – Obed Ariri and Donald Igwebuike – who combined to kick for eight years in the NFL during the ’80s. Ariri was set to enter training camp as Tampa Bay’s kicker in 1985. The Buccaneers selected his friend Igwebuike in the draft, which set up a preseason competition that Igwebuike ultimately won.

“It wasn’t the best time that I ever had,” Igwebuike said. “... I didn’t have any other choice of going any other place so I couldn’t turn down that opportunity. I was lucky to get the job, but we’ve remained friends ever since.”

From soccer to NFL

Medlock excelled at soccer at Mission San Jose, where he was all-league twice.

When Lydon got the football coaching job during Medlock’s sophomore year, he asked Medlock, whom he referred to as a “phenomenal high school athlete,” if he wanted to join.

Medlock did - and soon started going online to find clinics to perfect his kicking technique. By the end of his senior year, his longest field goal was 48 yards and he was a four-star recruit by Scout.com.

“By the time I became a sophomore in high school I was like, ‘What’s a good way to get me into college?’ So I started kicking,” Medlock said. “That’s one of the things I told (Panthers punter) Brad (Nortman). When we first started kicking it wasn’t like, ‘Oh we’re going to play for the Panthers,’ it was more like, ‘I just want to kick and oh, now I want to go to college, and now I have a chance to play in the NFL.’ ”

Soccer to football is the normal progression for most NFL kickers. Soccer also is an international sport that has not been traditionally played by African-American youths, although that is changing.

Igwebuike came to Clemson from Nigeria on a soccer scholarship, and after practicing holding for Ariri in the offseason, he began tinkering with the notion of kicking for the football team.

Oglesby became a kicker by chance when, during gym class in high school, he caught a touchdown pass, placed the tip of the ball in the grass and as a joke booted the ball deep through the uprights.

“In most African-American communities, soccer is not the most dominant sport. It’s usually dominated by football, basketball and track,” Oglesby said. “... When they turn the TV on they don’t see anybody they want to emulate, so that’s not attractive. There’s nobody on a commercial kicking a ball. They think that’s easy or say why should I do that when I can catch touchdowns?”

Oglesby now puts on kicking camps and clinics. He trains kickers from 10 years of age through college, and he’s in the process of putting together a non-profit to help the greater Atlanta area, where he lives. He says being a black kicker himself helps attracts other African-Americans.

He tells young blacks that if they want to get to college, and they’re at least above average at kicking, he can almost guarantee them a spot at a historically black college. He’s working with an after-school program for middle-schoolers.

“If I can catch them early enough, once they learn the techniques, then I can get them to have the desire to want to (kick), then I know I can get them going through high school,” he said. “We have to find that kid who shows interest in it and then feed it so they can realize, oh hey, this is an avenue I can take to possibly get me into college.”

Change in quarterbacks

When Lapchick started the Racial and Gender Report Card, there were also few black quarterbacks.

Historically, blacks who played quarterback in high school were often converted to running back or wide receiver in moves that often carried racial stereotyping. But that’s changed. Currently, five black quarterbacks start in the NFL.

Lapchick expects more black kickers to enter the NFL and believes all teams are looking for the best available talent.

“If you’re a young black football player and you look at where the positions being played by other African-Americans are, you’re going to see the position kicker as virtually a white position and always has been. So you’re going to think your best chance is at another position.

“But I think the introduction of soccer players into playing American football has changed how people look at those positions, and I think you’ll see in the future, just as we saw with quarterbacks, more African-American kickers in the game.”

Medlock entered the NFL in 2007 after a successful career at UCLA, where he made six field goals of 50 yards or more and was named All-American as a senior. With the Kansas City Chiefs, he made one of two field-goal attempts his first week and was cut two days later. Besides several NFL tryouts, Medlock played in the Canadian Football League, where he carved out a successful career that included a 57-yard field goal last season.

He got his second chance with the Panthers this preseason, and he’s making the most of it. When coach Ron Rivera picked Medlock over Mare, he said the Panthers were looking toward a long future with the younger Medlock.

Being the only black kicker in the NFL is something Medlock downplays, and so do his teammates.

“I don’t see it as an odd thing,” long snapper J.J. Jansen said. “It’s certainly rare. I’ve never played with – other than Justin – or played against a black kicker. I think it’s awesome.

“At the end of the day, the only odd thing I notice is that he’s left-footed and that’s it.”

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