WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Connor Barth has kicked thousands of footballs during his high school, college and professional careers. Like the arcs on those kicks, Barth's fortunes have risen and fallen at different times. But the 31-year-old's confidence in his own abilities has never wavered.
At Hoggard High School in Wilmington, Barth kicked himself into the national spotlight. As a senior in 2003, USA Today named Barth first-team All-America. He set a North Carolina High School Athletic Association record for most field goals in a season with 20, including four of longer than 50 yards. Barth began looking at colleges, and ultimately signed a scholarship offer from Coach John Bunting and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. But, Barth did have other schools on his radar. He talks about the recruiting process at 3:30 of the podcast.
"Honestly, I was a Notre Dame guy all the way because my Dad went to Notre Dame, and that's where I started watching football," Barth said. "Notre Dame was high on my list, but they weren't recruiting a guy in my class, which was unfortunate. A lot of people don't know this, but it was between (University of North) Carolina and Ohio State. Ohio State had Mike Nugent, who was one of the best college kickers of all time. I would have had to redshirt behind him, and I was hearing things that I could start as a freshman at Carolina."
It did not take very long for Barth to make his mark on the UNC football program. Just four games into his freshman season, playing on national television, Barth kicked a game-winning 42-yard field goal as time ran out to give UNC a 31-28 upset win over the fourth-ranked University of Miami Hurricanes. He talks more about that game at 7:50 of the podcast.
Barth says that's the moment he began thinking about possibly making a living with his right leg, and kicking in the National Football League. "I think after that kick, things changed for me a little bit," he says. "It put me on the map I guess you could say. After my freshman year, I started looking around the colleges to see who else was kicking and I thought 'maybe I have a shot to do this in the NFL'.
Like the life of a kicker, there were ups and downs for Barth during the rest of his career at UNC. He struggled during his sophomore season, making 11 of 21 field goal attempts. Barth turned things around as a junior, going a perfect 11 for 11, and followed up with a strong senior season, making 19 of 22 field goal tries. By the end of his Tar Heels' career, Barth held the school records for most field goals with 54, and the longest streak of made field goals with 19.
"I think I missed three (field goal attempts) from the middle of my sophomore year till I finished my senior year," Barth recollects. "When I finished that season, that may have been my highlight. One kick is great, national television and all. But, I could have gone in the tank (during the sophomore season). Coach (John) Bunting believed in me, and when I finished that last game against Georgia tech, and had hit my last 31 of 34, I thought 'you know what, I just may have set myself up to play in the NFL'."
None of the NFL teams selected Barth in the league's 2008 college draft. But Barth had prepared himself for that possibility. "Being brought up in such a good family, and having such great support from Dan Orner and a lot of my kicking coaches who had said the chances of getting drafted are pretty slim," he remembers. "But the key is getting into a camp somewhere. Kansas City obviously gave me that opportunity. Hey, I got a five thousand dollar signing bonus in 2008. I was like 'you're a college kid! This is the best thing that's ever happened to me!'. It's kind of a cool thing to look back and think you're one of those undrafted guys that's made it."
But signing with Kansas City introduced Barth to the business side of professional football. The Chiefs cut Barth during the team's training camp. All of a sudden he was 22-years old, without a place to play football.
"It was kind of an eye-opening experience and now it's like "whoa, I need to get a real job'," Barth remembers thinking at the time. "It's not like college where you're still enjoying the experience, and Mom and Dad are helping you out. it's like "I don't know if I'm going to play again in the NFL'. You think you did well, but you realize just how good the competition is and how hard it is to really make that jump and be one of the elite guys who make it in the NFL. I called my Dad and said, "what do I do now?"
Barth got a part-time job at the Findley Golf Course in Chapel Hill while he continued to train, looking for another chance to prove himself as an NFL-caliber kicker. It came weeks later, when the Chiefs re-signed him. Barth made it count, hitting his first nine field goal tries, and 10 out of 12 for the rest of the Chiefs' 2008 season. It wasn't good enough, and Kansas City cut Barth following that season. Once again, he was looking for a job. In 2009, the Miami Dolphins signed Barth before training camp. He would compete against the team's returning kicker, Dan Carpenter, for the starting job. By Barth's own admission, he had an outstanding camp. For a second time in two years, though, Barth was cut prior to the start of the season. One positive came out of that experience, in the form of a comment from legendary coach Bill Parcells. Barth talks about that at 30:10 of the podcast.
It took three months for Barth to get another chance, and he made the most of it. Tampa Bay signed Barth in November of 2009, after releasing Shane Andrus. Two weeks later, Barth tied an NFL record by kicking three field goals of 50-yards or longer in one game. He flourished with the Buccaneers, keeping the job for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons. The 2011 season was Barth's best. He made 26 of 28 field goals, an almost 93 percent success rate, a team record. He did not miss any game-winning field goal tries. In May 2012, Barth signed a new contract with the Bucs, worth $13.2 million over four years (according to reports at the time). Once again, Barth's career was on the upward arc like one of his field goals headed toward the uprights.
On July 12, 2013, Barth's fortunes changed. Trying to give back to the community, Barth took part in a charity basketball game at New Hanover High School organized by Jay Ross, another NFL player from Wilmington. During the game Barth tore the Achilles Tendon in his right leg. His kicking leg. The leg he used to make it to the NFL. He talks about what happened at 31:20 of the podcast.
"As soon as it happened, I thought I just twisted my ankle," Barth says. "But then it was like 'something's not right'. It felt like my shoe was completely loose off my foot, but obviously it's completely tied and your Achilles is completely detached. I had no movement in my foot. As soon as I felt that, I sat down and thought 'I think I did something pretty bad'. I felt like I had to be a rock for my family. My mom and dad were pretty upset, because they'd seen how hard I worked to get the deal that I got, and had only played one year of it and this happens."
Barth had surgery a few days after the injury, and started his physical therapy. But wanting to be with his teammates as training camp started, Barth flew to Tampa a few weeks later.
"I sat down in the training room," Barth says, recounting his trip to the Bucs' training complex. "(Tampa Bay General Manager) Mark Dominik, great guy, he believed in me and is the one who signed me to a big deal, said to me "you're going to come back better than ever'. Straight to my face he said, "nothing is going to happen, you're going to be fine, you're going to get through this'. I remember, word for word. A week later, he calls my agent 'we want to restructure your contract. We're going to knock you down from so-and-so to pretty much half my contract. The next year we're going to do the same thing'. I'm like 'are you kidding me? You just told me to my face that I'm going to be back the same guy that I was before, and now you go and do this?' I broke down. I was in Tampa. My mom and dad had never seen me like that."
Barth missed the entire 2013 season. He worked his way back and went to camp with Tampa Bay in 2014. But the team had also signed another kicker, Patrick Murray, a free agent. The Bucs cut Barth on August 29th, a little more than a week before the first game of the season.
"The NFL is a ruthless business," Barth said strongly. "The owners and GMs have all the power. The players have no power in the NFL. Our collective bargaining agreement is not what baseball and other sports are. We have so much limited coverage from a non-football injury standpoint, you can't even live your life outside of football, outside the confines of the facility. I learned that first-hand."
"I was expensive, I had a very high price tag and I was coming off an injury," Barth said. "They had all the excuses not to keep me." A blessing in disguise? Maybe. Three months later, Barth got a call to kick for the Denver Broncos, and play with future Hall of Fame Quarterback Peyton Manning.
Barth impressed during that short time in Denver, twice kicking five field goals in a game. He was cut before the 2015 season, and ended up kicking in Tampa Bay once again, going 23 for 28 in field goals. Barth thought he'd earned the Bucs' starting job for 2016, until he was blindsided by the team selecting a kicker in college draft. Barth talks about that at 45:00 of the podcast.
2014 was John Fox's last in Denver as the Broncos' Head Coach. When he needed a kicker in Chicago in September of 2016, Barth got the call. He started slowly, but made 13 of his last field goals with the Bears during the season, enough to earn another contract for 2017.
Barth hopes to play several more seasons in the NFL. He has started dabbling in some real estate development, but that may be for after he hangs up the kicking cleats. Barth and his younger brother Casey are planning to once again host their free kicking camp at Hoggard High School on July 13, from 5:30pm to 7:00pm. Casey is four years younger than Connor, and ended up breaking his brother's school record for career field goals. Casey finished with 66 three-pointers in his Tar Heels' career, and co-holds the record for most field goals in a single season, with 21.
"I've kind of had the spotlight a lot, but people don't realize how good a kicker he was," Connor says. "He (Casey) was sensational at Carolina. He's like the same guy, cool, collected, doesn't like the spotlight, just does his thing. I've never been a guy about records. It's cool to know you've got some here and there. But to have my younger brother do it. We were on our bye week the week he broke my record, and I was actually able to go to the game. That was pretty cool, to be able to go on the field and shake his hand."
You can listen to the entire interview with Connor Barth on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:
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