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Sunday Conversation: Dan Carpenter reflects on career as NFL kicker

Posted: 6:00 PM, Mar 31, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-03 15:36:10-04

BILLINGS — Most people don’t realize Dan Carpenter’s football career started at wide receiver. Actually, it started on the soccer field before he parlayed it into a nine-year placekicking career in the NFL.

As an all-state receiver at Helena High, Carpenter set school records with 931 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.

He also showcased a strong soccer leg but had no idea at the time he’d use it to make a football living. His senior season with the Bengals, Carpenter converted 26 of 29 point-after attempts and hit five field goals, including a 53-yarder. He earned all-state honors as both kicker and punter at Helena High.

Later, while attending a University of Montana football camp for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, Carpenter’s high school coach, Tony Arntson, mentioned to Griz coach Bobby Hauck that Carpenter could also kick. On the spot for an impromptu tryout, Carpenter nailed nine of 10 field goal attempts. He went on to become an all-conference and all-American selection for UM at kicker, while also earning notoriety as a Griz punter.

Shortly after, he met his soon-to-be-agent Ken Staninger who convinced Carpenter he had a true shot at the NFL. Undrafted in the 2008 NFL Draft, Carpenter and Staninger lined up a tryout with the Miami Dolphins where Carpenter impressed Executive Vice President of Football Operations Bill Parcells and head coach Tony Sparano. Shortly after, Carpenter replaced Pro Bowl kicker Jay Feely and signed a two-year contract with the Dolphins on April 29, 2008. He, too, would reach the Pro Bowl and went on to a nine-year NFL career with Miami and Buffalo.

Last weekend, the late Staninger was inducted to the Montana Football Hall of Fame in Billings. Carpenter attended in support of Staninger and his family and spent more than a half hour visiting with MTN Sports.

MTN Sports: Let’s first talk about what got you into kicking?

Dan Carpenter: “Soccer. I played a lot of soccer when I was young, and somebody told me once that I should try to kick a football, too. I played football, as a receiver, but when I first started in eighth grade I was the holder. So, I’d held for our quarterback at the time, he was the kicker, and halfway through the year we ended up switching. I kicked and he held for me, and I guess the rest is history.”

MTN Sports: Did it feel natural for you at the time? Were you nervous?

Carpenter: “I wasn’t nervous. I was too young to be nervous. It was somewhat natural. I guess I was sort of known as the guy in soccer who would take all the long free kicks.”

MTN Sports: How did Montana contact you?

Carpenter: “Tony Arntson was my high school football coach at Helena High, a Missoula guy. They had a small camp they would always do — quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, kind of like a 7-on-7 thing they would do up there. Tony talked me into going up and doing it as a receiver, so we went up, and I’m sure he probably set it up looking back, but we were out on the field and Bobby Hauck was out there and a couple of other players.  They were doing some drills and Tony said, ‘This guy can kick.’ I met Bobby for the first time and I ended up kicking 10 field goals, and I think there were linemen doing drills or workouts, and they were doing anything they could to harass me. They had mom jokes and girlfriend jokes, anything you could think of, and I ended up kicking nine for 10.”

MTN Sports: From how far?

Carpenter: “Honestly, I have no idea. I couldn’t remember it. Maybe they were extra points, I don’t know. So, Bobby said we’d be in touch. I’m sure Tony was facilitating that, making sure everyone was around at the right time. It was great. I really didn’t have too many options. I had options to walk on places, bigger schools wanted me to walk on, but it’s hard to turn down free schooling and play football at the same time.”

MTN Sports: Did Bozeman chase you at all?

Carpenter: “Yeah, they did a little bit. They kind of set the deadline a little earlier than Missoula did, and I really wasn’t comfortable making the decision. My sister went into pharmacy school in Missoula. I actually started in pharmacy school and then ended in chemistry, but that was kind of the reason I went there. At the time, the Griz had the turf field and, being a kicker, I like the constant field. I don’t like the grass. You know, I’m picky. When it gets cold and snowy, I like to have that footing.”

MTN Sports: Favorite memory at Montana?

Carpenter: “Oh, boy. I think just running out of that tunnel. I played against guys in the NFL that had come to Montana and played there, whether they were older or younger than me and didn’t play against us. People say there’s no better place. It truly is one of the top five places to play in the country. It truly is a special atmosphere.”

MTN Sports: Do you have a favorite game-winning kick?

Carpenter: “I’m such a pessimist. I never remember the ones you make, it’s always the ones that you miss that stick out, and I don’t know if that makes somebody a better player or not.”

MTN Sports: Maybe it drives you?

Carpenter: “It keeps me up at night, that’s for sure.”

MTN Sports: Did you ever have any successful onside kicks?

Carpenter: “The only one I remember specifically was at Montana. It was a pooch kick out to the right and the guy would run the sideline, and basically I was just supposed to kick it to him at 12 yards and he catches it on the sideline. Well, I kicked it and it went right above his head and through his hands out of bounds, and I was like, ‘Ah, man.’ They’re so hard to get. The percentages are so low. Now in the NFL, they’re talking about getting rid of it and making it a fourth-down play and if you convert it, you just keep going. Honestly, that probably increases the odds 10-fold. I think the chances of getting an onside kick are like four percent, if they know it’s coming. Coaches get paid, too, you know, to put people in the right positions to defend that.”

MTN Sports: Talk about your first shot at the NFL. Who did you have to impress?

Carpenter: “I guess I kind of thought I had a chance, and never really did. Guys like (my agent) Ken Staninger — the reason I’m here (at the Montana Football Hall of Fame ceremony) — he came and talked to me and said, ‘You have a legit opportunity to do it.’ I was fortunate enough to end up in Miami in a situation where they were looking to make a change.”

MTN Sports: From who?

Carpenter: “The guy who was there was Jay Feely.”

MTN Sports: Who is on TV now as a sidelines guy.

Carpenter: “Yeah. He’s made a good career of it. Jay had a career year the year before — he kicked, like, 92 percent, which I think was a Dolphins record at the time. So, I was definitely skeptical when they were like, ‘This is your opportunity.’ But they were looking to make a change, and they said, ‘As long as you come in and take care of business and do what you are able to and capable of doing, you have a legit chance of making the team.'”

MTN Sports: So you were invited to a tryout.

Carpenter: “Yes, I was an undrafted free agent, so I signed a two-year deal, which is basically the generic, minimum deal.”

MTN Sports: You being the pessimist, you’re skeptical about it: ‘OK, I’ll come down and check it out.’

Carpenter: “At that point, you have nothing to do but just trust people that you know or got to know. I got to know Ken — he’s my agent and he’s supposed to take care of me — and he did nothing but the best for me and picking what I should do, where I should go. Other teams are interested, and once the draft gets over and you don’t get drafted, that’s when all the business starts happening. Phones are ringing, and all the business side of it comes out.”

MTN Sports: What was your reaction when the Dolphins said, ‘Hey, we want you to come down’?

Carpenter: “Oh, I was just excited, because I got a signing bonus of $7,500. And when I got that check in the mail and it was right around $5,000, I thought I was the richest kid alive. I was so happy. And, actually, it was truly a good deal. They could have given me $0, which was normal. They’re like, ‘No, you’re coming here. If you want a chance to play, you’re showing up and signing your contract.’ That’s what it is.”

MTN Sports: What happened when you got down there?

Carpenter: “I start sweating a lot. No, one of my favorite memories: Bill Parcells was basically running the show.  That’s the Big Tuna, he’s a big deal. We go down for a minicamp before any of the veterans show up — strictly rookies — and they gave me No. 1. I didn’t care, they could have given me No. 512 and I’d have worn that jersey. I didn’t care what it was, I just put it on. So I’m sitting there and Bill Parcells comes up to me, first day. We have two-a-days practice, so practice in the morning and afterwards, he comes up to me and says, ‘You have a great opportunity here.’ I said, ‘Thanks, I’ll work the hardest I can.’ I give the speech, you know? And then he asks, ‘Did you choose No. 1?’ I said, ‘No, that’s just the jersey they gave me.’ He’s a huge ‘There’s no I in team,’ so we had a short conversation and he got back in his golf cart and drove off, and I thought that was weird. But anyways, we go in after practice, get changed, showered up, head off to lunch. I come back from lunch after and I am now No. 5, and my whole locker has changed. He did not want a No. 1 on his team. He thought it was very selfish and ‘Look at me, I’m No. 1.’ I think it might have been the second day, because there are a few limited edition Dan Carpenter No. 1 signatures out there.”

MTN Sports: Do you have one?

Carpenter: “No, I do not have one. And I don’t know who has one, but there are a couple of them out there.  That’s how the business side works. It’s that quick. The equipment staff are out there, jerseys are gone, everything that had ‘1’ on it is changed. Every shirt has a tag on it, because everyone’s shirts, undershirts, shorts, socks, everything’s the same, so they all have numbers on them to say who they belong to. So everything No. 1 is gone, all No. 5 in a half hour. So I come back, I’m No. 5, play a couple preseason games. Jay got hurt, had a hamstring issue before the first preseason game, so I got the whole first preseason game to do.”

MTN Sports: How’d you do?

Carpenter: “I went 6 for 7 in the preseason for field goals, and the last one – pessimist – the last one was a miss from 49 yards in New Orleans.”

MTN Sports: Were you sweating it then?

Carpenter: “At that point, I had ‘made’ the team. After the first preseason game, they released (Feely), because they wanted me to get the bulk of the work from then on to see what I could do.”

MTN Sports: What were your thoughts then? This guy is a veteran in the NFL — he’s been kicking forever — and they just released him so you could stay on board?

Carpenter: “Smart enough to know that it could change tomorrow. Just because someone’s not competing with you at that camp, doesn’t mean you’re not competing with 30 guys constantly. They make a phone call and get somebody there the next day no matter what.”

MTN Sports: Then you’re a Pro Bowler just like that. Think back to the season and then the announcement when you made the Pro Bowl in the NFL.

Carpenter: “Well, pessimist, I was an alternate. It was Nate Kaeding. He was the original pick for the Pro Bowl — it was actually in Miami that year. He came and got hurt right before it, or during the beginning of it, and they gave me a call. I was out doing this Biking Everglades tour — you ride these bikes, ride this path around and there’s alligators all over and you’re riding right by them. No service, so I get back and have a phone call: ‘The kicker got hurt. You’re supposed to go to the Pro Bowl.’ It’s two days into the week they’re already there. Fortunately and unfortunately, it was in Miami, so I didn’t get to go anywhere, but it was nice because part of the package is you get flight for you and your other, so my wife and I would have been able to fly first-class to Hawaii, but they let you turn it into four coach tickets. So I invited my best buddy from back home, and Kayla’s dad, brother, and brother-in-law. They stayed at our house. I stayed at my own house, so it was fun. For them, it was more important than it was for me. They got to meet Adrian Peterson and shake his hand. They got to meet Wade Phillips. So they loved it. They’d call and ask, ‘Can we do this?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, go ahead.'”

MTN Sports: How did you do in the game?

Carpenter: “I missed the first one, thanks for asking. The issue was, I went too fast. We’re drilled to go and go, and the Pro Bowl game is slowed down. They snapped the ball and I’m there. It was Shane Lechler holding, and he’s been holding for a lefty his whole career, and so now he’s switched around holding for a right-footed kicker. It was fine, but I was there way too early, and at the Pro Bowl you’re not really practicing. I think I went 2 for 3 in the game.”

MTN Sports: Let’s talk about going to Buffalo. What a polar opposite. Granted, you kicked at Montana, but after living in Miami, let’s talk about that transition.

Carpenter: “The story to get there is a ridiculous one. I get cut from Miami. My wife and I are expecting our first-born boy, and he’s late, of course. So, I get released from Miami on August 15th, and my boy was born on the 19th. At that time I had a new agent after Ken had passed, and I told him I’m not going to make a decision on where I’m going to go because I’m going to be here when my kid is born. So I’m like, ‘Come on, buddy, get out of there, let’s go. I got decisions to make and places to go.’ Finally, he’s born in the afternoon on the 19th, and the next morning I’m on a plane at 6 a.m. to fly to Arizona. We picked Arizona, went out there, they were super interested. Played in a preseason game there, I think it was the third preseason game. I had one field goal that was blocked. The next day, they said they had way too many issues to deal with to worry about the kicker position, so they released me. After three days, I get on a plane and fly home. I’m back home for less than 24 hours, and the Jets call. I hop on a plane and am there for three or four days, play in the fourth preseason game.  I have one kick there, make that one. The next day, it’s dragging on — it’s final cut day — and it’s dragging on and dragging on. It’s getting later in the day. Finally, they say, ‘We’re going to stick what we have, thanks for coming.’  I’m like, ‘OK, thanks for having me.’ But it’s too late, so they can’t get me on a flight home. So I have to stay in New York an extra night at a hotel at the airport to catch a flight the next morning to get home, so I’m already a little annoyed with that. It’s the fourth preseason game, everyone’s pretty much made their final cuts, so I’m just going to go home and enjoy my family — I have my wife and my brand-new kid. My agent said it’ll be three to four weeks: ‘Even if somebody struggles, they’re going to give them a chance, so you have some time to relax.’ I get home, and then that night, I get a phone call and my agent calls me and says, ‘Cleveland just cut both of their kickers, and they don’t have a kicker on the roster, so I just wanted to let you know they might be calling.’ So, they want to do a tryout. I say yes, and it was a tryout between Billy Cundiff and I. So I get on a plane the next morning to fly up there — I had a stop in Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta, Atlanta to Cleveland. So I get off the plane in Atlanta on my layover, turn my phone on and I have a voicemail from my agent. Buffalo’s kicker got hurt, so they’re wondering where I am, touching base. Their guy got hurt, they don’t know how bad it is. So I had an hour and a half, waiting by my plane to go to Cleveland. My agent’s talking to Cleveland, telling them what’s going on. He’s talking to Buffalo, telling them what’s going on, and finally Buffalo says, ‘Nope, we’ll sign him. We think it’s going to be a four-week deal, so we’ll just bring him up.'”

MTN Sports: So you never made it to the Cleveland tryout?

Carpenter: “No, I did. I’m in Atlanta, and (my agent) says, ‘Perfect. I’ll call them and they’ll get you a flight from Atlanta to Buffalo.’ But I checked a bag through. I’m not a complete pessimist — I packed a bag like I was going to stay in Cleveland, like I was going to win the job. He says, ‘OK, just go to Cleveland and when you land, I’ll have info on where they put you up.’ So they put me up at the airport hotel in Cleveland. I spend the night in Cleveland, wake up the next morning to take a little prop plane from Cleveland to Buffalo and sign the deal there. I’m supposed to be there for four weeks, and the guy, it was a young kid, I told him I wouldn’t be there the whole time: ‘Get healthy, they picked you for a reason.’ But he tried to come back too soon, he re-aggravated it, they put him on (injured reserve), and I think that was my best year in the NFL.”

MTN Sports: We ran a story on you shoveling your neighbor’s driveway.

Carpenter: “Yeah, we lived in a tiny duplex, and our neighbors were a really sweet, elderly couple. We had a huge snow storm where we got six feet of snow. I have pictures of me standing in front of their door, the drifts are as high as their shingles. It was crazy.”

MTN Sports: So you just went out and shoveled?

Carpenter: “We shoveled just to get over there. There was no shoveling. It’s six feet of snow, there’s not much you can do. We just made a path to their door, knocked and asked if they needed anything, anything we have. Because if we don’t have it, we can’t really get anywhere.”

MTN Sports: Did you know them?

Carpenter: “Yeah, we knew them. We moved a block and a half down the road, and the neighbor we moved next to, him and that guy go golfing every Wednesday together. It was a nice community. People would sit on the front porch, we’d B.S. with them. The kids would run around playing in the dirt. It was a new duplex, so we didn’t have a yard, just dirt, which now they love, and maybe that’s why they’re used to it and love where we live now.”

MTN Sports: You had a chance to meet Jan Stenerud. What was that like?

Carpenter: “He’s the one that set the stage. He changed the kicking game, there’s not really much more to say than that. Someone who literally came in and changed how people kick a football. I didn’t have an extended conversation with him about it, but they just drug him off somewhere and said, ‘Hey, come put this jersey on.  Come do this. Can you kick that thing through there? Yeah? OK, good, thank you.'”

MTN Sports: You kicked for Miami, kicked for Buffalo, had a tryout for the Jets. The only other team in the AFC East is the New England Patriots. You’ve seen them up close. What is it about them that continues to be maybe the best dynasty we’ve ever seen in professional sports? Do you love them or hate them?

Carpenter: “Of course you hate them. Why would you love them? It’s like Tom Brady. You talk to any defensive player in the league and they can’t stand him. And then they go play in New England and guess what? They’re best friends. Honestly, I think it’s just a consistency. How long have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick been there? You see it now so many times. Teams get a new coach: ‘That coach is terrible, we got to get a new one. We get a new guy in, you get two years, and you’re gone.’ Nobody gets a chance, you know? All the teams that are good and have been good, they have the same coach, the same quarterback. It’s the same foundation. They always have it and it’s always there. That could be completely nonsense, and obviously there’s a correlation. If they’re really good, they’re going to keep their head coach and quarterback, and at the same time, if somebody’s really bad, they’re going to make a change. But as they say, the poop always flows downhill. They’re going to find the lowest person and start there. And if it doesn’t work, they’re going to move up. Then they’re going to go to the quarterback, and to the coach, and if the coach doesn’t work, to the (general manager), and it’ll go through. Or it might just be that Tom Brady might just be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. There’s very few of his kind around, and most of those teams win.”

MTN Sports: Do you watch much football now?

Carpenter: “We don’t have TV.”

MTN Sports: Do you check scores?

Carpenter: “Yeah, I have a SportsCenter app on my phone. I do a little bit, because I still know people that play and I like to follow people. I don’t really watch much sports. I like watching certain players. Like, I like watching the Warriors play, because I love to see the 3-ball, and I love watching Steph Curry shoot the ball. No other reason. Somebody’s going to call me a front-runner because they’re really good now, but I just like watching him shoot the ball. If he played for someone else, I’d probably watch them.”

MTN Sports: How about your kids? What doors will you open for them? Football, soccer, baseball, dance?

Carpenter: “We’re a little limited on where we live, but whatever they want to try, they’re more than welcome to.  Both of them do wrestling now. I’ve never wrestled a day in my life. I know zero about it, but I help coach now. I know as much as they do, because whatever they get taught, I get taught. So, I just turn around and teach them and keep telling them to do the same thing.”

MTN Sports: Are they asking you to coach the wrestling team?

Carpenter: “No. They don’t want me to coach wrestling. It would be a terrible program if I did that.”

MTN Sports: So you settled down in Plentywood because your wife is from there?

Carpenter: “Yeah, my wife and her family. My wife grew up there, on a little ranch right outside of Plentywood.”

MTN Sports: From Miami and Buffalo to Plentywood, even Missoula or Helena, a different lifestyle. What do you guys do there?

Carpenter: “We just have a little ranch right now. We lease most of our pasture out. It’s enough. We have 20 head of our own, and we’ll slowly build up to it and stock the place.”

MTN Sports: Are you learning that?

Carpenter: “Yeah, I’m learning. It’s a process and we’ll know the full swing here pretty soon once it’s gets going. We’re just starting to calve. That’s why my wife isn’t here, she had to be back because we had a couple that were going to be close and the water is starting to rise. She really wanted to come and support Ken. This is the first time I’ve been here. I’m just soaking it in and trying not to get lost.”