For each home game, BaltimoreRavens.com will feature a Ravens' players journey, which will also be featured in the stadium gameday program.
Some may consider Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff a late bloomer into the NFL. In fact, even as a collegiate football player at Drake, he was also a three-year member of the Bulldogs' basketball team, preferring the hard court to the gridiron. Cundiff never played football on a scholarship, as many current professionals did, and he didn't fully realize his gridiron potential until just after his junior season.
As his senior year evolved, Cundiff honed his kicking skills. And after breaking several school and Pioneer Football League records, the Dallas Cowboys gave him a shot as an undrafted rookie in 2002. His efforts in training camp were enough to beat out the incumbent Tim Seder, but would prove just the beginning of a whirlwind decade for Cundiff's NFL career.
Heading into 2011 with the Ravens, Cundiff has worn nine different NFL jerseys. His tour took him through both of the league's conferences and five different divisions. While his career began as somewhat of a revolving door, he actually posted numbers worthy of an NFL kicker in his first three seasons, including a statistically strong campaign with Dallas in 2003.
But in 2005, Cundiff suffered a leg injury in training camp that nearly proved fatal to his career. While he did return to health later that year, his consistency wavered. Cundiff appeared in 11 games over the next two seasons, but by 2007, was without an offer and abruptly out of the league.
"You do have those thoughts where you think it could be over, but it was good for me personally, even though I was out of football," Cundiff explained.
"My mother-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and my wife was six months pregnant at the time, so there were other things that I was heavily involved in. It was to the point where I thought somebody was trying to tell me something."
Cundiff put more focus on his family and began working towards his MBA at Arizona State. He then took an internship with a venture capital firm that would eventually lead to a full-time job. He remained in shape and continued to work on his kicking, but despite many tryouts, struggled to catch on with a team over the next two years.
"At that point, that's where I started to look at that whole, 'Maybe it was good while it lasted' aspect. I was trying not to be too nostalgic about it, because I knew I had life left in my leg, but at the same time, knowing in my mind that maybe my time was up."
Cundiff was given a shot by the Detroit Lions in their 2009 training camp. He would eventually be waived on the final day of roster cuts, but his foot was back in the door. An injury to Cleveland's Phil Dawson got him on the field a few weeks later, and he was thrust onto the AFC North radar.
After being waived again mid-season, he was offered a workout with the Ravens and signed with the team one week later. A solid finish to the campaign earned him an invite back for the 2010 training camp, where he would then square off with veteran Shayne Graham for the job – and win.
"Last year was essentially no different than any other year in my career, that I had to win the kicking job in camp," Cundiff remarked.
"And I think it was more of my mental approach that helped me going into camp, because it was the first year of my career that I didn't just set my goal at making the 53-man roster. I shifted my mental focus from just making a team to trying to have the best season of my career. It was no longer a sprint to September 1. My focus became more big-picture, and I became even more focused on the minute details. So, instead of just getting through the day as I had always tried to do in years past, the mindset was more, 'Did I do enough today that, come December, this is going to pay off?'"
Evidently he did, because Cundiff set career highs in every kicking category last season, while also tying the NFL record (since kickoffs were moved back to the 30-yard line in 1994) with 40 touchbacks.
His performance in 2010 culminated with his first-career Pro Bowl nod, just two short years removed from being out of the league.
Now, Cundiff is fresh off a new five-year contract from the Ravens and is ready to build on his performance from last season. And he couldn't be happier to return to the team that gave him a new lease on life.
"For me, it's a breath of fresh air knowing that I have a team showing its confidence in me to say, 'Here is your job; go out and prove us right.'" said Cundiff.
Cundiff regularly worked out and stayed in shape during the NFL lockout and entered training camp with that familiar, big-picture mentality. He hopes that the continuity with snapper Morgan Cox and his holder, Sam Koch, will carry over into this season. It's a group that he justly gives a great deal of credit for its part in helping him reach the pinnacle of his career.
"This is the first time in my career that I've had a snapper and a holder that truly take their jobs seriously," Cundiff stated. "Our group, we really want to get better every day. A lot of times for other players, there's complacency that sets in with the mindset of, 'Let's just get through the game.' So for us, we're always striving to be perfect, and that is a really hard thing to find in the NFL. I feel very, very lucky to have these guys."
Cundiff felt good entering camp in July and expressed that the majority of his early work would be regaining timing and rhythm with the snap and hold. To date, he has looked very impressive, at one point hitting 23 consecutive field goals at the beginning of training camp.
For Cundiff, he realizes that 2010 was a special season – one that may or may not be duplicated again. But he stresses the importance of consistency for a kicker and has set his goals to strive toward a career similar to that of a household name in Baltimore.
"When I look at where I want to go, I think the consistency needs to be maintained," Cundiff said.
"Consistency needs to be something that's year-in and year-out for people to look at me and say, 'OK, this is the kind of season this guy can have.' I don't want to be a flash in the pan. I want to say, 'OK, look what Matt Stover did here with the Ravens. He set the bar really high. Let's see if we can take that bar and keep it there, or maybe even raise it just a little bit more by adding higher expectations with kickoffs and different things."
For the time being, Cundiff will continue working on his consistency through camp and the preseason. He is always working to improve his tempo, leg swing, and shoulder placement, and he stresses that it's an ongoing process.
Just as the rest of the team, Cundiff knows the importance of being prepared not only for the important opener on
September 11, but as he said, for what he hopes are critical kicks in late-December and beyond.
In a few weeks, Cundiff will begin his first season under a long-term deal, in what could be just the beginning of a special ride in Baltimore. First and foremost, his long-term goal is to play out the duration of his five-year contract. Beyond that, he hopes to one day retire a Raven.
"My family and I love Baltimore," he proclaimed.
"It's a great place, and when it comes to football, I think it's got to be the best football city in the NFL. I'm sure other cities would argue for their team, but it's tough to beat Baltimore at home on a Sunday, especially in a night game when the lights are shining and the fans are going crazy. Those are the things that when I close my eyes and visualize a perfect situation where I'd want to be playing, that's it."