As the Cardinals prepare for their Sunday Night Football pre-season game versus the Cowboys, their undrafted rookie kicker, Matthrew McCrane, is no stranger to Texas Stadium.
In fact, Matthew’s high school team, Brownwood High School, coached by Bob Shipley (father of former Cardinals’ WR Jaxon Shipley) played an exhibition game there on October 1, 2010 versus Fort Worth All-Saints.
At that time Matthew was a sophomore backup QB who had yet to ever kick in a high school game. During Brownwood’s 59-13 victory, Matthew took some snaps at QB and could be seen on the JumboTron by his family and friends, thanks to the rumor that a father from Fort Worth All-Saints paid Jerry Jones $50,000 to have the JumboTron turned on.
Fast forward to the 2018 NFL Draft, which took place at Texas Stadium. Matthew and his family sat eagerly in the stadium, hoping and praying to hear his name called. Matthew had met with a number of NFL teams during his week at the East-West Shrine game and then during Kansas St.’s pro day.
Furthermore, in the weeks before the draft four teams came to Manhattan, Kansas to meet with the 2017 1st Team All-Big 12 kicker and Lou Groza Award semi-finalist. They were the Cardinals, Dolphins, Patriots and Saints.
The Cardinals’ new special team’s coordinator, Jeff Rodgers, who very early in his career had a brief coaching stint at Kansas St., made a positive impression on McCrane.
McCrane gives a great deal of credit for his collegiate success to Sean Snyder, the Wildcats’ Special Teams’ Coordinator and Direct of Football Operations. It was thanks to Sean Snyder that Matthew received a full scholarship to play at Kansas St. When McCrane visited the university, Snyder worked him out from all distances and angles and then summoned McCrane into the field house where a taping of the workout was already cued up and ready to roll.
Right then and there Snyder lauded McCrane for the rare consistency of his kicking plane and follow through. Snyder then offered several mechanical tips while breaking down the film, for Snyder is one of the rare big-time college football coordinators who was actually a kicker, as he was an All-American punter in 1992 for Kansas St.
Naturally, McCrane wanted to play for a coach who was so well versed in the kicking game---thus, Snyder was the main reason why McCrane chose Kansas St. over the Air Force Academy.
McCrane formed a strong bond with Jeff Rodgers as well. Rodgers has an impressive track record of working with kickers. During his time as special team’s coordinator in Denver, K Matt Prater made the 2013 Pro Bowl, by virtue of setting the Broncos’ franchise record for field goal percentage (25/26 FGs, 96.2%), and then a year later Rodgers helped K Connor Barth set the Broncos’ second highest field goal percentage record when he converted 15 of his 16 attempts.
Accuracy is something that Rodgers covets---and, in the young Wildcat, he found a dandy in that McCrane broke a number of Martin Gramatica’s kicking records at Kansas St. (all-time FGs made with 57, career FG % of 86.4 and extra point % of 993%). At Kansas St. McCrane made 95% of his kicks from 40 yards or under. In fact, he never missed two field goals in a row, regardless of the distance.
Lance Zierlein, the draft analyst at NFL.com wrote of McCrane: “He’s a very consistent ball striker with good accuracy whose missed field goals are never shanks.” Zierlein concluded, “McCrane’s ability on kickoffs combined with his consistent ball striking give him a shot to hear his name called (in the draft).”
During the draft, McCrane had a feeling that he was going to be taken by the Cardinals or the Dolphins. However, when he saw that the Cardinals traded three of their draft picks to move up to draft QB Josh Rosen, he knew the chances of getting drafted by the Cardinals were dwindling.
During the 5th round---a round where the Cardinals no longer had a pick----Jeff Rodgers called McCrane to reiterate the Cardinals’ interest in him and to say that if they weren’t able to draft him and if he goes undrafted, the Cardinals were hoping to sign him on the spot.
Matt McCrane didn’t experience the joy of hearing his name called at Texas Stadium. As Jeff Rodgers vowed, the second the draft was over the Cardinals swooped over to Texas and scooped him up.
McCrane has played well this pre-season. He has connected on both of his field goal attempts, one of them from 53 yards (last week in the Super Dome). And, as Lance Zierlein forecasted, McCrane’s kickoffs have been impressive, in distance, hang-time and direction.
As Cardinals’ fans know, McCrane faces the difficult challenge of unseating a kicking icon in Phil Dawson, who is in the final year of a two-year contract that would pay him $3.5M this season. This is tough decision for the Cardinals. Do they keep the venerable veteran in the final year of his contract (all of his $3.5M contract becomes guaranteed if Dawson is on the week one roster) or do they go with the young, record-breaking Wildcat, whom they could have under contract for the next four years and possibly beyond?
This Sunday’s game will be a homecoming of sorts for McCrane. Roughly thirty of his family and friends will be in attendance. They will see him on the JunboTron, this time in an NFL uniform.
But there will be one stellar person in particular watching this game from the sky boxes…he is Matthew’s great grandfather Lt. Joseph C. Harper, a former World War II B17 pilot from the “Bloody Hundredth” group.
Matthew was only eight years old when his great grandfather passed away. But the kinship he forged with his great “papaw” was one that would ignite Matthew’s keen interest in war history---a passion that inspired Matthew in May of 2017 to organize a trip for him, his mother Lori (granddaughter of Joe Harper), his father Steven and his sister Lizzie to travel to Thorpe Abbotts Royal Air Force station outside of London.
When Matthew and his family visited the air base, Matthew was given the opportunity to put on his great grandfather’s old bomber jacket (with the Lt. Joseph Harper name on it) that hangs in a display case at the museum. Then, Matthew was encouraged to go stand on the old runway where, with the help of old radio recordings, he could imagine the takeoffs and the landings of the B17s, knowing and sensing the joy for the families of those courageous pilots who returned and the utter devastation for the families of those who were lost.
While standing there perhaps Matthew thought about Pat Tillman, because for years one of Pat Tillman’s old Cardinals’ jerseys has been on display in the McCrane’s hometown of Brownwood at Steve’s Market and Deli. In fact, today at Steve’s one can still order a Pat Tillman club sandwich for $500---every cent of which is donated to the Pat Tillman Foundation.
Standing on the Thorpe Abbotts tarmac In May of 2017, little did Matthew McCrane know that after all those years of admiring Pat Tillman’s jersey, that he would be kicking for the Arizona Cardinals in 2018.
And certainly Joe Harper, a long-time, avid fan and season ticket holder of the Cowboys, would never have imagined that he would have a reason to root for the Cardinals.
But...time...and fate...and family...and runways...have a unique way of shaping journeys——and-—one’s landing spots.