TAMPA, Fla. -- With 0:28 remaining in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, Bucs rookie kicker Matt Gay took three steps back, two across and nailed a 48-yard field goal in a 16-14 win -- his first-ever game-winning kick in the final seconds of a game.
Quarterback Jameis Winston clapped his hands wildly in approval. Wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge said, "Bro, you cold-blooded!" as Gay traded high-fives with cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting in the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium.
"I would love to have one of those … as much as I can get 'em,” said Gay, 25, the Bucs’ fifth-round draft pick. “I want to do what I can to help this team win. If that’s gonna be me, I’ve gotta rise to every single occasion. I know a lot of games are decided by three points or less in this league, so you’ve gotta be spot on. I love those situations.”
While coach Bruce Arians is still adamant about keeping this a competition between Gay and Cairo Santos, it’s looking more and more like the Bucs have found a solution at the place-kicker position.
The previous week at Pittsburgh, Gay drilled a 55-yard field goal, tying Mason Crosby for the longest field goal made at Heinz Field in an NFL game (preseason, regular season or postseason). Even before that, during open training camp practices, fans began standing up to record Gay’s kicks -- some exceeding 60 yards -- and would cheer loudly in approval.
One fan leaned toward another and said, “When his foot hits the ball, it just sounds different."
Gay understands a big part of their excitement is due to the tortured history Bucs fans have endured at the position. The Bucs have used 10 kickers in the regular season since 2009, tied with the Los Angeles Chargers for the most in the NFL. Nick Folk once missed three field goals in a 19-14 loss to the Patriots in 2017. The last kicker who was drafted by the Bucs -- second-round pick Roberto Aguayo in 2016 -- only lasted one season before he was unceremoniously cut on an episode of HBO’s "Hard Knocks."
“I’m not worried about what happened before,” Gay said. “I know that that’s happened and [what] this organization has been through, but I’m not worried about [it]. What happened before has no effect on me. I’m my own person.
“I’m my own kicker. I have my own style. So if I take care of what I’m doing -- I don’t need to worry about what’s happened before. So if I just take care of what I’m doing, that’ll take care of the rest."
'I had to fight my way up'
The youngest of eight with five older brothers, Gay followed his siblings into soccer. He credits their roughhousing for building toughness -- both physically and mentally. He would routinely jump at the opportunity to have the fifth (and often final) shot in penalty kicks.
“If I wanted to be with them, I had to take it,” Gay said. “So you get beat up, you get pushed around -- if you want to be with them, you’ve gotta be able to raise your game and compete with them. So I always felt like I had to raise my game, I had to deal with pressure, I always had to fight my way up.”
As a freshman in 2014, he led the Utah Valley University Wolverines soccer team in scoring with seven goals and four assists.
But in 2015, he’d left school for a year to serve on a mission for the LDS Church in Houston, Texas, where he put on 25 pounds from all the celebratory dinners put on by church members.
“I struggled getting back into soccer fitness, being able to go a full 90 minutes running on the field and playing,” Gay said. “And I never actually got down back to where I was, which is why I struggled so much in soccer and was able to kind of turn and start playing football.”
After scoring just one goal in 2016, he transferred in 2017 to Utah, where he switched to football and went from being the third kicker on the Utes' roster to winning the Groza Award -- given to the nation’s top place-kicker -- all in one year.
"The kicking was natural, the feeling was natural," said Gay, who became a two-time All-American and made a school-record eight field goals from 50 yards or longer in just two seasons. He converted 56 of 65 attempts for the second-best kicking percentage (86.2%) in Utes history, also the highest percentage among NCAA kickers with 40 or more attempts during that span.
"A lot of guys I think sometimes -- there's so much information to process -- and then instead of focusing on kicking, you're focusing on all the little things you've gotta do to then make the kick," said Gay, who believes he benefited from not attending kicking camps -- where everything is so heavily dissected -- when he was younger.
"Your mind's not in it, you're [focusing on] doing too much. I think the more simple it can be, the better."
‘You’ve got this part of you that’s missing’
Gay still hasn’t found a place to live in Tampa, and he won’t until the competition is decided. Even if it’s tilting heavily in Gay’s favor right now, it’s still unnerving considering he and his wife, Milli, are expecting a baby boy due at the beginning of September. She’s still in Utah, where both of their families live, although ironically, when she first moved to the U.S. from the U.K., she lived in Tampa.
“I’ve been away from her for a while now,” Gay said. “It’s tough. You’re battling here and you’re trying to do your thing here, but you’ve also got this part of you that’s missing, that’s not here.”
If all goes according to plan, after the Bucs’ fourth preseason game, Gay will fly to Utah so they can induce her into labor. He’ll spend a few days with them before heading back to Tampa with the hope of beginning preparations for Week 1.
“It’s good timing … good and bad timing,” Gay said with a chuckle. “It’s really worked out good, but she then can’t fly with the baby [for several weeks]. We’ll wait until she can fly and then she’ll come out and join us [in October].”