Thu, 29 Sep 2022

An unexpected path to the NFL

Carolina Panthers
23 Sep 2022, 05:44 GMT+10

CHARLOTTE - Football wasn't always Eddy Piñeiro's dream. But once he chose that path, he knew he had to give it everything he had, because he had already seen what sacrifice looked like.

So his father, Eddy Pineiro Sr., told him they'd take no shortcuts on that journey - even if it meant sleeping in cars along the way.

In 2015, 19-year-old Eddy Jr. began seriously cultivating his craft as a placekicker, and quickly earned the notice of the top college programs. A lifetime soccer player with a natural talent but little football training to speak of, he told his father about an opportunity to kick for Alabama coach Nick Saban at a summer camp in Tuscaloosa, over 12 hours away from their home in Miami.

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The family was in a bind financially. They had recently lost their house, as Eddy Sr. struggled to find carpentry work in a tough economy. But he was determined to find a way to Tuscaloosa.

Eddy Sr. called upon his brother, Joel, for a $700 loan to finance the Alabama trip. That paid for a rental car for the long trip, and they could only afford to sleep in a hotel parking lot before attending the camp that would eventually change his son's life.

In what seemed like a far-reaching bet at the time, Joel Pineiro left a message for his nephew in the check's memo line: "Eddy Jr., pay me back when you're in the NFL."

And when he first read it, Eddy Sr. couldn't help but laugh.

"Oh my God, if this is the way you're going to get paid back, forget it. You're not going to get this money back," he told his brother. "We started laughing, obviously not knowing what the future had held for him."

Eddy Jr. didn't know what would come of his trip either, but he always knew why he wished so deeply to succeed in sports. He wanted to provide for the family who had risked as much as they could for his goals.

Eddy Pineiro Sr. emigrated from Cuba at 9 years old during the 1980 Mariel boatlift to join some of his family members in Florida. He met his wife Grace, who emigrated from Nicaragua, and they raised Eddy Jr. with an older sister, Gicely, and younger brother, Adam, in Miami.

Eddy Sr. played professional soccer for two years with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the American Soccer League. He mainly supported his family through carpentry work, installing floors, kitchens, and bathrooms, while his wife was a homemaker.

"My dad was just supporting all of us," Eddy Jr. said. "I just saw my dad struggle (while I was) growing up, just seeing him not make enough money for all of us and different things like that. So I was like, 'OK, I've got to change this. I've got to change the dynamic of my family.'"

Taking a chance to kick in front of Saban became the first domino to fall in a succession that led to Pineiro's eventual career in the NFL.

But success in football wasn't Pineiro's initial dream. He actually gave up his first passion to pursue it.

Before he embarked on the 12-hour drive to Tuscaloosa with his father, Eddy Jr. gave himself an ultimatum. If Alabama offered a scholarship, he would stick with football. If not, he'd refocus on building a career in the game he loved first.

As the son of a professional soccer player, a young Pineiro spent his childhood with daily 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls to train with his father, who he called his best friend. They practiced two to three times each day, connecting over the game Eddy Jr. says he still loves more than anything.

The two frequented college soccer matches, where Eddy Sr. said his son fell starstruck as veterans Munga Eketebi and Luchi Gonzalez (currently an assistant coach for the United States men's national soccer team) would catch up with him after games.

"Every time I would go somewhere, they would be like, 'Oh, your dad was the best soccer player I've ever played with,'" he said. "So growing up, I'm like, 'Damn, I've got to be better than my dad.'"

Pineiro was named the 2014 Miami Herald Soccer Player of the Year after scoring 38 goals as a senior at Miami Sunset High School, an accolade he'll proudly claim today.

Carolina Panthers

But late in high school, he uncovered another talent - one for kicking a football - by chance, and coaches started to pine for him to consider putting on pads and aiming between the uprights.

Eddy Jr. was a senior at Miami Sunset when football coach Joseph Petisco recruited him for kickoffs and extra points for seven games. He once went after school with Petisco to try field goals, which he'd done in passing but never in an official capacity.

Eddy Sr. can recall the phone call he received from his son's high school coach later that day in detail.

"Your son just kicked a ball from the 40," Petisco told him.

"Yeah, he's kicked it from there before," Eddy Sr. replied.

"Yeah, but this is not a 50-yard field goal. What he doesn't know is that he kicked it the other way. He just kicked a 70-yard field goal," Petisco said. "He has tremendous talent. He could really be a kicker."

Eddy Jr.'s original plan was to play soccer on a scholarship from Florida Atlantic University, but an academic issue sent him the junior college route to nearby ASA College Miami. He played soccer and kicked for the Silver Storm's football team, routinely encouraged to take up football seriously.

He started to work on his kicking technique with Kornblue Kicking and Chris Sailer, refining his powerful leg before attending Division I football camps.

At the time, Eddy Jr. still pivoted between a love for the game he grew up with and the reality that his real future may lie on a different playing field. But he recognized his potential, and he wanted to see it through.

"I was physically gifted with kicking a football," he said. "Some people just don't wake up and say, 'I'm going to be a professional kicker.' They can train their whole life and never be a professional kicker. It's just a gift from God."

Alabama's kicking camp was a pivotal step in his football journey. Pineiro's long-range ability impressed Saban, who told Eddy Sr. he hadn't seen his son's kind of talent before. He was eventually offered a full scholarship to Alabama.

Eddy Jr. remembered looking at his father in the car, torn between fulfilling his lifetime dream of soccer and his newfound talent for football. But when he considered the potential financial impact of a career on the gridiron, Eddy Jr.'s decision was made a bit easier.

"My goal in soccer was obviously to make money to help my family, but I have a better chance to make more money and help my family in football than I do in soccer," he thought. "I'm going to give football a shot."

Before the Pineiros could finish the drive from Tuscaloosa back to Miami, Eddy Jr.'s phone started ringing. Eddy Sr. saw a 352 area code number pop up on the phone, and was surprised when the voice on the other end was Florida head coach Jim McElwain, who invited Eddy Jr. to kick in Gainesville the next day on the drive back to Miami.

Just one day removed from kicking at Alabama's camp, Pineiro sailed a strong kickoff in front of Florida coaches, and the Gators offered him soon after. Eddy Sr. said the weekend was "like a fairytale."

A video of Eddy Jr. landing kickoffs and making practice field goals from 20-71 yards out gained traction on YouTube that summer, and he gained attention on Twitter for posting more long-range connections - including a 77-yard attempt - throughout his recruitment. Rated 247Sports' top-rated JUCO kicking prospect in the 2016 class, Pineiro received offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Miami before signing with the Gators.

But he didn't accept any offers before his father asked some essential questions.

"Everybody started offering scholarships, and that's when I said, 'Listen, what is a full ride? Do you pay for books, do you pay for his food?'" Eddy Sr said. "Obviously, we didn't know anything about that. They go, 'On a full ride in football, he gets his books, his tuition, his food, his dorm.' That's when I said, 'OK, obviously you can change from soccer to football.'"

Pineiro's long-range accuracy from kicking in practice carried over to Florida, where he took his first in-game field goal attempts.

He set the Gators' record for highest field goal conversion rate at 88.4 percent (38-for-43) across two seasons, connected on the sixth-most field goals in Florida history, and made 16 straight field goals to close his college career, the second-longest streak in program history.

Pineiro got to the NFL in 2018 when he was picked up by the Raiders as an undrafted free agent. When he received his first check as a professional football player, he placed a down payment on a house for his family in Miami.

"He's like, 'Listen, dad, you've been through so much with me, you've done everything for me, and I never want you to pay a mortgage in your life,'" Eddy Sr. said. "He put a down payment, and the next couple of checks, he paid the house off."

That decision was part of Eddy Jr.'s plans from the very beginning. He said first-year priorities didn't involve any of his wants. He wanted to pay off a house in Miami and help his family with bills and credit card payments.

It was an easy decision to make for the people who helped him through the emotional decision to trade his soccer cleats for a football helmet.

"They've been there for me," he said. "They understand the struggle, and they understand what I went through ... from changing from soccer to football. It was super emotional for me.

"They saw how much, emotionally, I was doing it for them. Not mostly for myself, I was doing it to help them out. For them to finally have a house, pay off their bills. That was more for them than I did for myself."

Pineiro was placed on injured reserve for his first season with the Raiders, and he was eventually traded to Chicago in 2019 to set up a kicking competition with Cody Parkey after the Bears' "Double-Doink" loss in the playoffs the prior season. He won the job and kicked for the Bears throughout the 2019 season, connecting on 82.1 percent of his kicks (23-of-28).

That season included a last-second Week 2 game-winning field goal from 53 yards out against the Denver Broncos. Pineiro also hit a 52-yard field goal in that game, earning him NFC Special Teams Player of the Week accolades.

Jack Dempsey/AP

He said the Broncos game was when reality started to sink in for his family.

"That's when I feel like it really hit my parents," he said. "Like, 'Wow, I'm really here. I'm really in the NFL. I'm here. I made it.' That's probably the most special moment for us, me and my family."

And that season was also when Pineiro first connected with special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, who now coaches him in Carolina. Tabor recalled the Denver game when Pineiro impressed him in a high-pressure situation.

"That said a lot to me about the kid, really proud of him," Tabor said. "And he's just kind of done that throughout his career. So if that situation comes up, hopefully, he stays true to form."

Pineiro was placed on injured reserve again in 2020 and eventually spent the end of the 2021 season with the New York Jets before landing with the Panthers and back with Tabor following a season-ending injury to Zane Gonzalez.

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

He expressed gratitude for his relationship with Tabor upon arriving at Carolina this August, reunited with a coach he said he has felt a connection with since they first worked together in Chicago.

"I literally tell him he's like my second dad," Pineiro said. "Just the way he's coached me and the way he's used me on the field to my best potential, it's been amazing. He's always kept up with me throughout my career."

The Pineiro family came to Charlotte for the Panthers' Week 1 game against Cleveland, where Eddy Jr. converted three extra points and a 34-yard field goal in his first game as a Panther. He has made all four field goal attempts in his first two games here, getting more comfortable as he goes.

He's trying to create the same dynamic for his family.

As his career has progressed, Eddy Jr. said he already bought another house in a different Miami neighborhood. So as he laces up his football cleats each day, he keeps his loved ones and the sacrifices they made for him at the forefront of his mind.

"I just do it for them," he said. "I don't even do it for myself. I just put my body out there, do what I have to do, for them to live the best life they can possibly live. I don't care how I live. I don't care what I wear, how I dress. As long as they're good, that's all that really matters. That's my mindset."

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