Super Bowl LVI: How the Cincinnati Bengals' Evan McPherson became 'Money Mac'

JUST BEFORE THE Cincinnati Bengals began their postseason march to Super Bowl LVI, rookie kicker Evan McPherson saw a photo of a football on Pat McAfee's desk.

On it was a list of records broken by former Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri. McPherson grinned when he saw it and made a mental note of the last line on the football, one that honored Vinatieri's NFL record 14 postseason field goals in the Colts' 2006 Super Bowl run.

Wouldn't it be cool, McPherson thought, if he could break Vinatieri's postseason field goal record in his first year?

Weeks later, the Bengals are one win away from their first Super Bowl victory, and McPherson is three field goals away from breaking Vinatieri's record after going 12-for-12 with two game-winners in his first three playoff games.

"Just to be here now, I couldn't have imagined having four field goals in every game," McPherson said. "I know our team, if we can't score, we'll definitely kick a field goal from anywhere on the field."

On a team of young hot shots, the 22-year-old McPherson is a wunderkind. The second-youngest player on the roster, McPherson brims with the kind of youthful confidence that endears him to his teammates. If the biggest game in franchise history comes down to a field goal, the Bengals have absolute faith in their rookie kicker, a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder who celebrates big wins with video games, sweet tea and promises to hit the Griddy dance if the Bengals beat the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday (6:30 p.m., ET, NBC).

"That guy is unbelievable," quarterback Joe Burrow said recently. "... We knew exactly what we had as soon as he walked into the building in camp and we just saw how he carried himself."

To describe McPherson's confidence, Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah, who nicknamed McPherson "the king of chicken fingers," compared the kicker and his equally self-assured quarterback to kids on the playground.

"[Evan's] a 7-year-old stud who is just a menace to society," Uzomah said with a laugh. "Who's just like, he's the best and he's just running around out there, making people miss, making the older kids miss, like smiling at their face as he does it. Just laughing, playful banter. Just giving you smug looks. And you want to give him a wedgie, but you can't because you can't catch him.

"That's Evan. That's his confidence. Joe is the big kid who comes in and is like, 'No sir. You're great. You're a great little 7-year-old, but high school kids come out to play.' ... Joe is the stern, 'I'm that guy,' and Evan is the little 7-year-old who doesn't know any better and is running around, kicking game-winners."

But make no mistake: McPherson isn't cocky; he's confident. Not with a manufactured, over-the-top bravado meant to convince himself as much as others that he's great. It's a self-belief that can only come from years of preparation and thousands of hours in front of the uprights. It paid dividends in his rookie season with 12 field goals of at least 50 yards -- an NFL record -- and five game-winning field goals.

McPherson penned his name in Bengals lore when he told backup quarterback Brandon Allen they were going to the AFC Championship Game before he kicked the game-winning 52-yard field goal in the divisional round against the Tennessee Titans. He underlined it when he kicked the Bengals to a Super Bowl a week later on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"That just blew my mind, like he's never been in that situation before but he already had so much confidence to go out there and get it done, which it's not cocky at all," Bengals wide receiver Trent Taylor said. "Evan's a great dude, and he just has confidence in himself, which is great. We obviously love having him around."

LaDON AND AMBER McPherson never planned to raise a family of placekickers.

Their three boys were obsessed with soccer, and Evan, their middle son, started playing when he was 4 years old. By the time Evan was 8, the McPhersons were traveling all around the southeast for Evan's travel league.

But the tide started to turn when Logan, four years older than Evan, tried out for the varsity football team in Fort Payne, Alabama, as a ninth-grader. Fort Payne's kicker was set to graduate, and the team didn't have an heir apparent. So the oldest McPherson auditioned and got the job.

Like little brothers are apt to do, Evan soon followed suit.

"The moment Logan started kicking, Evan put PVC pipes on the side of his soccer goal and started kicking just to try to catch up with his brother," Amber said.

Evan still made time for soccer, winning the MVP of the state tournament his freshman season when he scored the lone goals with two headers in Fort Payne's semifinal and state championship victories.

But his football potential soon overshadowed his skill on the soccer pitch.

He took over for Logan as the starting kicker for the varsity team as an eighth-grader, kicking 30- to 35-yard field goals his first season. By his freshman year, he was the punter, too.

"When he hits it, it sounds like thunder," said Paul Ellis, Evan's high school coach. "It really does. It's got a distinct sound. Even then at a young age, you could tell, he had a very live foot, by the sound of it."

Logan was a stellar kicker, once kicking a 58-yarder at an away stadium that caused the opposing fans to give him a standing ovation, but Evan was even better. When he kicked a state-record 60-yard field goal as a senior, a couple opposing fans clapped for the middle McPherson, too.

The same year, Evan kicked a 54-yard field goal, an 84-yard punt and two onside kicks that were recovered by Fort Payne -- all in one game.

"Etowah ended up beating us 27-24, but I've never seen a kicker affect a high school game like he did," Ellis said. "That's a lot happening throughout a season, much less one ball game."

By the time he went to the University of Florida, Evan left a seemingly indelible mark on Alabama high school football. But now, Alex, the youngest McPherson, is one-upping his older brother. Earlier this year, Alex, the nation's No. 1 kicking prospect committed to Auburn, broke Evan's record with a 61-yard field goal.

And, of course, there was a little brotherly trash talking in the aftermath.

"That night," Alex said, "the first thing I said to him when I called him was, 'You suck.'"

EVAN McPHERSON'S CONFIDENCE is rooted in two things: preparation and competitive drive. The two go hand-in-hand, a constant motivation to practice, lest someone else get the slightest edge.

Amber vividly recalled a day she didn't want to drive Evan to the practice field before he got his license.

"Evan, do we have to go today?" Amber remembers asking her son. "And he goes, 'Well Mom, if I don't go today, somebody out there will, and then they're going to be a day ahead of me.'

"You can't argue with that. So I was like, 'OK, I'll get my keys, and we'll go to the field.'"

It's the same drive that all of her boys have, and one Amber and LaDon saw in Evan when he was 5 years old. The McPherson family owned batting cages in Fort Payne, and Evan was playing in a machine-pitch baseball league. While his parents worked, Evan went out to the cages and spent hours perfecting his swing. With all the extra work, Evan ended up with the best batting average in his league, and he was almost always successful at getting on base.

He worked so hard that one day, Evan came in from the cages crying.

"We knew exactly what we had as soon as he walked into the building in camp and we just saw how he carried himself."
Joe Burrow on Evan McPherson

"He said, 'Mom, something's wrong with my hands,'" Amber said. "And he was just crying. And I said, 'Oh baby, those are blisters.'"

As a kicker, Evan learned to avoid injuries in his training, but he pushed himself hard. At local and national kicking camps and showcases, Evan insisted on going first in group drills. Not to get it out of the way, but to set the tone for everyone else.

"He always wanted to be the guy at the front, forcing people to see what he can do and try to compete against him in that way," LaDon said.

At the Kohl's Kicking camp in Atlanta one year, kicking guru Jamie Kohl put all of the top kickers through a grueling course. With the camera running to capture their techniques, each kicker had to attempt five consecutive kicks from 55 yards. Out of 250 high schoolers, only Evan hit all five.

"He hit every single one of those as perfect as perfect could be," Kohl said. "A lot of kids were freaked out. A lot of kids were scared and intimidated that the camera was rolling and was live. You didn't have any redos and you had to do it five times in a row. He was different. I can't coach that."

AS GOOD AS McPherson is in practice, he's even better in a game.

"He gets an extra five to seven yards on field goals," Kohl said. "He's just able to channel a lot of his focus to get better in the bigger moments. That's a gift. That's what the great ones have."

It's what Shayne Graham, a former Bengals kicker, saw in McPherson when he worked with him as Florida's special teams quality control coach.

As a junior at Florida, McPherson lined up to kick a 43-yard field goal to tie Texas A&M early in the fourth quarter. As he kicked it, the official blew his whistle for a delay of game penalty, backing McPherson up five yards. Before the ball was snapped, the Gators were whistled for a false start, pushing the field goal back to a 53-yarder.

McPherson wasn't fazed.

"Can we get another penalty and back it up five more yards?" he asked, grinning and joking with the Florida coaches during a Texas A&M timeout before his final kick.

The next kick got off clean, a no-doubter sailing through the uprights at the top of the net.

"It would've gone another 15, 20 yards," Graham said. "I mean he crushes this kick. And then it was just joking about, 'Well, I wish we would've backed it up five, so it could have been a [58]-yarder.'

"But seeing the look on his face, that just lets you double down on his confidence, because you just know that the kid believes in himself, and he's not afraid of what's going to happen."

Graham supplemented McPherson's physical gifts with lessons of mental fortitude he collected as an NFL kicker, using experiences he gained during a 15-year NFL career to give McPherson a jumpstart on life as a professional. During McPherson's junior season, Graham sent film of the kicker to his mentor and Bengals special team coordinator Darrin Simmons.

"Darrin definitely got first dibs," Graham said.

Thanks in part to Simmons' trust in Graham's evaluation, the Bengals drafted McPherson in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL draft, and in the highest-pressure situations during his rookie season, McPherson delivered again and again.

His very first NFL game came down to a game-winning kick in overtime, and he wound up kicking two more of those in the regular season and two in the playoffs.

His accuracy earned him a handful of nicknames, including Money Mac -- McPherson's soon-to-be trademarked moniker.

Even the game-winner he missed, one of two misses against the Green Bay Packers, aided his success in the final 13 weeks of the season, when he hit 23 of 25 field goal attempts.

"Situations like that, it either makes you better or it buries you," Kohl said. "And obviously you can see what he's done since that point. It's something that's helped him. It's given him a battle scar and now he is a better player because of it."

In a few days, McPherson will take the biggest stage in football at SoFi Stadium with his battle scars and his unwavering confidence.

He likely won't be rattled by the moment. He's been preparing for it his entire life.