ON A BREEZY, cool Saturday in New York 20 years ago, the best NFL prospects gather for the NFL draft, the biggest day of their football lives. LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels mug for the cameras together at Madison Square Garden. Courtney Brown wears an impeccable cream suit. Peter Warrick's smile threatens to rip his cheeks.
Sebastian Janikowski is nowhere near New York. He is at Tomoka Oaks Golf & Country Club in Ormond Beach, Florida. A star kicker from Florida State, Janikowski figures he will be picked at some point -- he and his agent, Paul Healy, think Chicago in the second round is possible. The draft starts at noon, though, and with 10 minutes between every pick, everyone knows there is a marathon ahead. Janikowski's party is organized for late afternoon, so when Healy's phone rings in the middle of the first round, only a handful of people are in the room.
"Paul? It's Bruce Allen." Healy is stunned to hear the Oakland Raiders executive on the line. "I want to talk to you a little bit about Sebastian," Allen says.
Healy and Janikowski perk up -- the Raiders have the next pick! -- but they're leery. It seems way too early, and even more, the Raiders aren't anywhere on their radar. Healy had heard from the Rams, the Chiefs and definitely the Bears about interest in Janikowski leading up to the draft but never from Oakland. No calls, no questions, no meetings, nothing. But now Allen is suddenly asking Healy about Janikowski's background and his maturity and whether he could handle playing in the NFL after some run-ins with the police at Florida State.
Healy talks about Janikowski's loyalty and passion. Janikowski gets on the phone and delivers a few lines about understanding the importance of doing the right thing. The call ends, and Allen does not commit one way or another about the team's choice.
Janikowski and Healy stand side by side in front of a TV in this golf course clubhouse and watch as the clock winds down on the Raiders' pick. Healy expects that Allen will call back if the Raiders want to take Janikowski, so he feels a sensation of dread as the seconds tick by and his phone stays quiet. Shoulders slump. It would have been nice, he thinks. Oh well.
Then Paul Tagliabue steps to the microphone.
"With the 17th pick of the 2000 NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders select Sebastian Janikowski, kicker, Florida State."
Janikowski shrieks and runs outside, shouting as he races around a tennis court. Healy reels at what has happened: A kid from Poland who started playing football just four years ago is suddenly the only pure place-kicker to be a first-round draft pick in the history of the modern NFL.
Healy trots outside, and Janikowski turns to him.
"Hey!" he says, his face suddenly thoughtful. "Where is Oakland, anyway?"
IT SHOULD BE said, right off the top, that there certainly have been plenty of other controversial draft picks over the years that generated more attention than Janikowski's. But the great thing about Janikowski's reaction ("It's, uh, near San Francisco," a surprised Healy finally told him) is that it remains a perfect coda: a bizarre, quirky ending to a pick that was, and will forever be, flat-out weird.
Understand: This stuff never happens. Throw a dart at a list of the 1,472 players selected in the first round since 1970 and there is a 22% chance that you hit a defensive lineman, a 17% chance you land on an offensive lineman and a 16% percent chance you tag a defensive back.
Kickers? Well, according to ESPN Stats & Information, over the past 50 years, Janikowski joins three punters in making up the one-quarter of 1% of first-round picks who were specialists. So for those of us who like to revel in sports' eccentricities, the Raiders' taking Janikowski first in 2000 is basically our Halley's comet.
Better still, for as bizarre as it was and for as many eye rolls as it caused (and has caused since), there is also this inescapable reality: They might have nailed it. Seriously, you can make a not-altogether-crazy argument that picking Janikowski was one of the best selections the Raiders have ever made.
If nothing else, the murkiness of the pick's relative worth only burnishes it as an endearing curiosity, even two decades later. Was it a hit or a miss? A success or a total whiff? It is easy to say, for example, that Cleveland's choice of Courtney Brown with the No. 1 pick that same year was a clear miss -- he had just 17 sacks in five seasons and couldn't stay on the field. But pinning a label on Janikowski as a first-rounder is more difficult, and not because Janikowski wasn't a good player -- he was -- but because even the absolute greatest at his position just don't get drafted when he did.
That is why Janikowski's case is an internet mainstay, debated over and over. He played 17 years for Oakland but made just one Pro Bowl. He was never a first-team All-Pro but was the league's most powerful kicker for years. He never led the league in make percentage, but according to Football Reference, he delivered more career value to the team that selected him than all but 10 other players picked in that 2000 first round.
He also -- and this is no small thing -- became an absolute Raiders icon, a beloved figure for the NFL's most gloriously eccentric fan base as it endured year after year after year of mediocre football. The coaches (and most of the players) cycled through as the losing continued unabated, so what else could the fans do but root for the burly, brash kicker who was there through it all and became known for both the 70-yard blasts he routinely kicked during warm-ups and the extended evenings out that he enjoyed at local taverns? In more than 10% of the regular-season games Janikowski played for the Raiders -- 29 out of 268 -- the team's offense didn't score a touchdown. In 22 of those, Janikowski scored the Raiders' only points.
"Some games, it was like the Janikowski jerseys were the only ones you would see in the stands," says Jerry McDonald, a longtime reporter covering the Raiders for the Bay Area News Group. "I don't know if he would have had that kind of following for any other team, but he was just right for the Raiders. It was like, 'The team is losing, but at least this guy can kick it a mile.' For a long time, it was basically all the fans had."
Janikowski treasures that connection but is quick to admit that he didn't expect it when he first heard Tagliabue call his name. While he was proud to make history, he says, he was also immediately leery of the expectations that would come with being such an outlier. Perhaps more than any other player who actually lasted in the NFL, Janikowski's draft position is an indelible part of his legacy. And when we connected over video chat recently, he made it very clear that he knows it.
"I had no idea what it would be like once that happened," he tells me.
THE GENESIS OF the Janikowski pick has its roots in the same place as most Raiders tales: Al Davis.
Davis, Oakland's longtime owner who might be described as a genius, a mad scientist or a (mostly benevolent) dictator, depending on who is talking, ran the Raiders for nearly four decades before his death in 2011. Every decision about the team was, ultimately, his.
But one of the great twists of the Janikowski pick is that while it might seem like an obvious instance where Davis made an eccentric, unilateral call -- overruling everyone else in the building who wanted him to pick a linebacker or edge rusher or wide receiver -- the truth is that Davis was hardly alone in wanting to pick Janikowski.
"Look, in 1991, we all wanted Brett Favre and Al wanted Todd Marinovich, so what do you know, we took Todd Marinovich," says Jon Kingdon, who was the Raiders' director of college scouting in 2000. "Janikowski wasn't like that. It was a perfect storm in a lot of ways."
At the time, Kingdon says, everyone connected to the Raiders was legitimately frustrated by the team's kicking and had been for a while. In 1997, Cole Ford made just 59% of his field goals for Oakland; in 1998, Greg Davis made just 63%; in 1999, Michael Husted made just 65% in 13 games and was benched for Joe Nedney, who finished the season.
Even more galling, the Raiders finished 8-8 that year and lost all eight games by seven or fewer points, with four losses coming by just field goal margins. It wasn't simply a reliability issue either; there was also no power in the kicking game. The team attempted just five field goals from 50-plus yards all season, making only one. By the offseason, Davis was boiling.
"I remember talking to [team official] Kent McCloughan as we were getting ready for our draft meetings," Kingdon says, "and I said to him, 'If we could draft a guy in the first round that, if he was on our team the year before, could have won us four more games, would you take this guy?' And Kent just looks at me and goes, 'Is this a trick question?' But that was how we saw Janikowski."
No one could say that Janikowski's story wasn't compelling. Born in Poland, he became a soccer star as a kid and moved to the United States as a teenager because his dad lived in the U.S. after marrying an American woman. He turned down a contract to play pro soccer in South America after discovering football and took off on a fast rise from there. His talent was undeniable.
Off-the-field issues were the biggest concern. Janikowski had been given a long rope by Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, and the stories weren't hard to find: Missed curfews. Bar fights. A charge for attempting to bribe a police officer who was arresting a friend, which left Janikowski facing the possibility of deportation (he was later cleared).
"Look, was he wild? Yes," Healy says. "There's no question about it."
Davis, frankly, wasn't that concerned. He was all-in on Janikowski, and the scouts were largely on board too. The only ones who weren't convinced were several of the team's coaches, in particular Jon Gruden, who had just finished his second season in charge. He wanted to take Sylvester Morris, a wide receiver out of Jackson State. The coach also had some interest in Shaun Alexander, the Alabama running back.
"It was a point of contention with Jon, absolutely," says Greg Papa, a confidant of Davis' who was the team's play-by-play broadcaster from 1997 to 2017. "He didn't want the kicker, he wanted the receiver. But Al looked at it as: The one area he could upgrade the team the most with one acquisition was kicker. It was in his mind for months. I don't think Jon really had a chance."
It helped that Janikowski just felt like a Davis guy. Despite his relative newness to football, Janikowski's size (6-foot-1, 260 pounds) and strength gave him the look of a kicking giant: He was a two-time All-American at Florida State, won the award as the nation's top kicker in consecutive seasons and had such pop that he became known for putting his kickoffs through the uprights at the back of the opposite end zone.
For Davis, who fancied himself an unorthodox thinker -- he was very proud of having selected a punter, Ray Guy (a future Hall of Famer!), with a first-round pick in 1973 -- Janikowski presented as a panacea.
"Al was a showman, he had a tremendous ego and he was not content hitting singles -- he wanted home runs," Papa says. "And Sebastian was the perfect Raiders kicker: He had those Robert Newhouse thighs, and Al always wanted the biggest, the fastest, the strongest -- he always wanted the most something. And even if he wasn't the best, I think Janikowski will be remembered as the strongest kicker in the history of the league."
By the time draft day came around, even Gruden knew there was no point in arguing. The Raiders executives set up in their conference room at the team facility in Alameda. Davis had his daily piece of chocolate cake and a water pitcher in front of him. Characteristically, Davis was reluctant to tip his hand publicly -- that was why no one from the Raiders had reached out to Janikowski or Healy ahead of time -- but inside the building, the choice felt inevitable.
When the Raiders went on the clock, Kingdon says, Morris and Alexander were still available. The group went around the table once more, but it was only a formality. Gruden was quiet. Allen called Healy at the golf club in Florida. Davis and the men in the conference room watched on TV as Tagliabue made it official.
TWENTY YEARS LATER, Janikowski does not sugarcoat the stress that came bundled with the honor of his first-round selection. Sitting in the living room of his home in Jacksonville, Florida, he gives a little shiver when he recalls meeting Davis for the first time.
"I don't even remember what we talked about," he says, "but I know at one point he said, 'Just don't disappoint me.' It was really nerve-wracking."
Everything about Janikowski's rookie year was tough. He showed up for his first workouts after the draft unable to actually kick because he hurt his ankle playing pickup basketball. ("That was not a great conversation," he says of having to tell Gruden.) Once the season began, he missed 10 of his 32 field goal attempts. He also missed curfew in New Orleans before a game against the Saints, prompting Gruden to quip to Papa on the team bus that "Janikowski is kicking for free today." The coach was fining the kicker his entire game check.
Even getting Janikowski's contract done proved challenging. Healy recalls going to meet Allen for their first negotiation about six weeks after the draft, and the two men sat down to talk at a sports bar near the Dallas airport. Suddenly, there was Janikowski's face on every TV screen in the place.
"He had been arrested the night before for possession when police did a sweep of the bars," Healy says. "Needless to say, we didn't get the deal done that day."
Ultimately, Janikowski was acquitted of those charges, and despite a few more behavior issues, as well as some serious self-doubt -- "There was a point where I wasn't sure I'd make it out of that first season," he says -- he developed into a Raiders mainstay. He made 82% of his kicks in 2001, 79% in 2002 and 88% in 2003, settling in as a league fixture.
"Mr. Davis believed in me," Janikowski says, and it is clearly true. In a profession marked by often-irrational change (the Titans used four kickers last season alone), it wouldn't have been startling had Janikowski simply flamed out. Davis, though -- perhaps because of vanity, perhaps because of the financial commitment he'd made to Janikowski -- stuck with his guy. Janikowski played 17 seasons with the Raiders and, not coincidentally, had the same holder, Shane Lechler, in 13 of them.
He wasn't the most reliable kicker in the game, but his appearances were memorable. He made a 63-yard field goal in 2011, tying the NFL record at the time. He hit a 61-yard field goal in 34-degree weather in Cleveland, a kick that many say was even more impressive than the 63-yarder. He had just two missed kicks in eight postseason games for the Raiders, compared with 14 made ones -- including one in the Super Bowl in January 2003 (a loss, he says, "I still think about today"). He holds the league record for kicks made from 50 yards or longer, and in the game played the day after Davis died, he kicked four field goals and scored 13 of the team's 25 points in a victory. It felt fitting.
Never much of a locker room chatterbox, Janikowski was nonetheless revered. When Marquette King replaced Lechler as Janikowski's holder in 2013, he immediately felt it was important to get on Janikowski's good side. To try to ingratiate himself with the kicker, King showed up one day after Janikowski had made an important kick carrying a bunch of giant balloons that he gave to Janikowski as a celebratory gift.
"I think Sebastian just kind of rolled his eyes," McDonald says.
For most of Janikowski's 17 years with the Raiders, the team flopped and flailed its way through seasons of absolute misery. But Janikowski was the constant. He played under 10 different coaches in Oakland, and his arc with the team was total: At the start, he was known for epic nights out with teammates, famously needing stitches in 2001 after passing out and cutting his face at a nightclub.
By the finish, after a couple of wake-up calls that included a DUI charge and the maturity that comes with marriage and children, he was both a kicker and a living, breathing piece of the Raiders' institutional memory.
"I thought it was going to be easy. I thought it was going to be every year, 'Oh, we're going to the Super Bowl,'" Janikowski says. "And then it was 13 years in a row we didn't even make the playoffs."
He sighs. "A lot changed from when I got there to when I left," he says.
SO WHAT, IN the end, do we make of Janikowski, who played one season with Seattle in 2018 before retiring? In some ways, the argument about Janikowski isn't really about him at all; it is about how you feel about the notion that any kicker could ever be considered a first-round success. After all, however amazing a kicker is, he might be on the field for 150 or so of a team's snaps during any given season; an offensive lineman, by comparison, could participate in eight times that many plays, increasing his value simply by sheer use.
Neil Rackers was another kicker taken in that 2000 draft -- he went in the sixth round, which is about average for kickers -- and he had a very solid career while making far less than the $53 million that Oakland paid its first-round kicker over 17 years.
Yes, Janikowski was statistically better than Rackers overall, but was he five rounds better? Was he worth passing on Shaun Alexander, who won an MVP? Or Chad Pennington, who went to the Jets right after him? Or -- and this is definitely unfair -- Tom Brady, who famously lasted until the sixth round himself? What if the Raiders had just stuck with Nedney, who went on to kick (quite well) in the NFL for 10 more seasons?
These are the debates that never end, and in many ways, it couldn't matter less. Davis was happy with the pick, and Amy Trask, who was Oakland's chief executive from 1997 to 2013, says there is no doubt that the Raiders, writ large, were more than satisfied.
"You know what's funny?" she says. "My very vivid memory is that as the years went on, all of those coaches or anyone around the team who didn't like the pick when we made it were suddenly saying, 'What a great pick we made!' And I would always tell them, 'Hmm, I don't remember you saying we back in 2000.'"
Janikowski, for his part, has little interest in considering the issue. Two decades on, with a wife and three girls and an aching back that will probably need surgery someday, he just doesn't see the point in worrying about whether he was blessed or cursed when the Raiders took him in the first round.
"What's the difference?" he says now, with a wide grin. "It sure felt great that day."