THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Los Angeles Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel called his punter, Johnny Hekker, on Tuesday night. He wanted to congratulate him on his fourth Pro Bowl invite, but really, he wanted him to clear his schedule Wednesday morning. Greg Zuerlein, the NFL's most productive kicker this season, suddenly needed surgery to repair a herniated disk, and the Rams were scrambling to find a replacement with a little more than two weeks left before the playoffs.
Hekker made his way to the team facility as instructed, ready to hold, and he saw six kickers preparing for a tryout.
"Man," he thought, "that's a lot of kickers."
"Oh," someone said, "that's only the first group."
The Rams held two workouts for 12 kickers Wednesday, one at 8 a.m. and the other at 9:15. They each got 12 field goal attempts and five kickoffs, with Hekker holding every snap from a couple of experienced reinforcements. Fassel called it "more like a gong show than a workout."
There was a 2016 second-round pick in Roberto Aguayo, a nine-year veteran in Dan Carpenter, a couple of recent Los Angeles Chargers in Travis Coons and Younghoe Koo, and others with NFL experience like Andrew Franks, Garrett Hartley and Jason Myers. Ultimately, the first-place Rams went with Sam Ficken, a former Penn State kicker who went undrafted in 2015, has never kicked in a regular-season game and was working as a broker-dealer in Greenwich, Connecticut.
"I just wanted myself to not go in with any bias based on anybody's history, successes or failures and just say, 'You know what, there's 12 guys who are coming in, so let's just go clean slate for everyone and pick who we think had the best workout,'" Fassel said. "You could argue a lot of ways that other guys did this or that, but we thought that Sam did the best job."
Ficken was a finance major in college and was employed at a brokerage called Weeden & Co. He worked out up to six times a week and kicked up to three times a week just in case a professional team needed his services. On Monday, he passed the Series 57 exam to make him a more qualified trader. On Tuesday, he got a call from the Rams asking him to fly to Southern California for an important tryout.
The higher-ups at his company told Ficken that they hoped to never see him again.
"They're super-thrilled for me," Ficken, 25, said underneath a yellow Rams beanie. "They're more than excited for me about the opportunity."
It's the type Ficken had spent years waiting on.
Ficken was Penn State's full-time kicker from 2012-14 and improved his accuracy as a senior, making 24 of 29 field goal attempts and all 28 extra points. But every team passed on him in the draft. He attended minicamps but never signed. He spent the summer of 2016 in training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars but was cut before the season began. He did the same in the summer of 2017, this time with the Kansas City Chiefs. Then he went back home, returned to his real job and waited again, still believing the dream was within reach.
"He's had a bunch of preseasons," Ficken said. "He's always kicked well in them but just was never given the chance to kind of step foot on a real field. Hopefully, I can do a similar thing. I believe in myself. I believe in the work that I've put in. It was just a matter of time to be given a chance."
Ficken went 6-for-7 in field goals and 8-for-9 in extra points during his two preseason stints. He had worked out for the Chargers a couple of weeks earlier, and Fassel said he outperformed his competitors in "everything" earlier this week.
"I thought he hit a really good ball," Fassel said. "A lot of guys did, but there was something about him where you see a really true flight of the football, good enough distance where if you needed a low-50 or a mid-50 in a critical situation, he could probably give you that shot. And his kickoff ability was good."
There was another reason he chose Ficken.
"He doesn't have any bad mental scars," Fassel said. "... He seemed like a kid who hasn't been bothered by any misses."
Zuerlein underwent successful surgery Thursday morning, two days after being named to his first Pro Bowl. Through his first 13 games, he made 36 of 38 field goals -- including 6 of 7 from 50 or more yards -- and 40 of his 41 extra points. His 148 points led the NFL and put him on pace to surpass the 166 compiled by David Akers in 2011 for the most by a kicker.
But Zuerlein woke up on game day with his back barking. It had been sore throughout the season but never to the point where it caused him to miss practice or even come close to missing a game. While grabbing breakfast in Seattle on Sunday morning, Zuerlein could barely sit. He told Fassel that he couldn't walk, and Fassel sheepishly asked if he could kick.
"It wasn't surprising," Rams long snapper Jake McQuaide said. "But it was inspiring."
Zuerlein led the NFL in touchbacks by a wide margin, but most of his kickoffs Sunday traveled short. He missed one of his five extra-point attempts but made two field goals, from 36 and 31 yards out. By the second half, it got so bad that the Rams were considering their emergency plan, which involved Hekker kicking and rookie receiver Cooper Kupp holding. The Rams had to go for it on two fourth downs while in field goal range in the fourth quarter, even though they led big in an eventual 42-7 rout of the Seattle Seahawks.
Fassel drove Zuerlein home after they reached Los Angeles International Airport later that night. He pushed the seats down in his car and Zuerlein sprawled on his stomach. When they reached his house, Zuerlein had to wrap his arms around Fassel and his wife to get through his front door.
"Gosh," Fassel said, "that was as gritty an effort as I've ever seen in an NFL football game."
The Rams will go on without him. First-year head coach Sean McVay said Zuerlein's absence will affect his playcalling "just a little bit," mostly with regard to the regularity of his 50-plus-yard attempts. The Rams won't go for it on fourth down more often, McVay added. They believe in Ficken, who will have two games to get the rust off before the playoffs, a strong likelihood for the 10-4 Rams.
"It's not something that I haven't done before," Ficken said. "I've kicked in games; I've kicked in preseason games. Everyone, I think, puts [an emphasis] on the fact that I haven't kicked in a regular-season game, but again, day-to-day job stays the exact same -- put it through the uprights and take care of business."