Some nights, Roberto Aguayo would just stare at the wall in his home and cry. Think to himself: What is happening? Stare at his foot: Why aren't you doing what you've always done? Stare at himself in the mirror: Why can't you do this?
The pressure weighed on him. Consumed him. Pressure of missing another kick. Of being drafted in the second round out of Florida State in 2016 after Tampa Bay traded up for him in a stunning move. Of letting everyone down.
He was angry. Angry at the fans who called him a "bust" and a "headcase." Angry at the reporters who'd ask him over and over why he was failing. Angry because the painful reality was that they were all right. He was being paid to do a job that he could not do. He was not delivering. He was not living up to expectations.
And he didn't have answers. Not for fans, for reporters, for himself. It might have been this, it might have been that, but he did not have one clear-cut answer. Nothing beyond: I don't know. I'm human. I sucked today.
He was failing. In front of America. He did not have the luxury of failing privately in the comfort of his own home, as most of us do. He did not have the luxury of time to adapt from college to the NFL, as most kickers do. No. He was Roberto Aguayo, the second-round kicker. And it nearly broke him that he was no longer Roberto Aguayo, the greatest college football kicker of all time. Now, he was Roberto Aguayo, the 22-year-old who could not make a kick.
"I'm a different person now," says Aguayo, now 25. He's sitting in the living room of his home in Jupiter, Florida, in early May, next to his wife, Courtney Aguayo, and their two toy poodles: Groza, named after the prestigious Lou Groza Award that Aguayo received in 2013 as the nation's best collegiate kicker, and Stella, who is so tiny Aguayo can cup her in his palm.
Aguayo has essentially lived two very different lives: the one at the highest highs and the one at the lowest lows. He's been praised; he's been condemned. He's been confident; he's been insecure. He's been the highest-drafted kicker in a decade, and he's been cut. First from the Bucs, in 2017, after he went 22-of-31 on field goals as a rookie. Then, he bounced briefly to the Bears, the Panthers and, most recently, the Chargers. Los Angeles waived him in September 2018 despite his going perfect in the preseason: 3-of-3 on field goals and 6-of-6 on extra points. He kicked the game-winning field goal in the Chargers' final exhibition.
As he tries to make an NFL comeback this season, he knows there will be teams who may not give him another chance. Who may not care how hard he has worked to overcome his struggles, to grow, to change. To become mentally tougher, wiser.
"I know I can get back," Aguayo says. "People are probably like: 'Oh, he's done. He can't do it anymore.' No. I did it at a high level in college.
"I never got a chance to show it again. I know I can. I'm hitting the ball well now. At the end of the day, it's a matter of opportunity."
But every day that passes, he sinks further into limbo. He's not yet ready to give up on his NFL career but not ready to move on to a different career either. His identity has been tied to kicking for so long. That's what made him feel good. Feel special. Feel like an expert at something. He believes he was made to kick. He believes this ability, what made him nearly untouchable at Florida State, doesn't just disappear.
"I'm ready now," he says. "I'm confident. I found myself." He takes a deep breath.
He's finally ready to talk about what happened.
One afternoon, before the start of the 2016 season, Aguayo huddled with his new Tampa Bay teammates for a team meeting. The coaching staff discussed things the Bucs needed to improve from last season. Kicking was one.
"We don't have that problem anymore!" one player shouted, pointing to Aguayo. "We got him!"
Whoa, Aguayo thought to himself. Does this mean I can't ever miss? Am I expected to be perfect? A robot? He already felt the weight of a few things: Playing alongside grown men whose livelihoods depended on his ability to make field goals. And of course, the second-round tag.
Before he'd missed a kick in the NFL, he was already getting the "Do you think you deserve to be drafted that high?" question from reporters. It planted a tiny seed of doubt within him. Do I deserve to be here? Can I do this? Part of him thought he could. Part of him thought he couldn't. His swing wasn't where he wanted it to be. Everyone thought it was perfect, though. Aguayo never missed a kick from closer than 40 yards during his time at FSU and finished with one of the best overall field-goal percentages in NCAA history.
He had incredible leg strength too. Could kick it a mile. Drill a 60-yarder like it was nothing. But he didn't think he was necessarily accurate. He'd thrived with a swing he'd made up in childhood, from playing both soccer and football, but he thought he scrunched down too much, relied on his groin too much. He wanted the ball to rotate end over end, and it wasn't. He felt his body was working harder than it needed to in order to hit a consistent ball flight.
So despite all the success in college, he began tweaking his swing before his rookie NFL season. Small changes—preventative measures to prevent groin, back and hip injuries in the future. "I compared it to the way Tiger switched his swing," Aguayo says, referring to the changes Tiger Woods made in 2004 despite having already won eight major titles.
Golf is Aguayo's other passion. He plays it, watches it, finds comfort in it.
"People were like: 'Dude, Tiger, you were really good. Why would you change your swing?' But he wanted to do it to get better," Aguayo says.
And so did Aguayo. But instead of improving his kicking, the more immediate result was a lack of confidence. He felt a little off, but he couldn't be. He needed to be on every kick. He didn't want to admit to his coaches, to anyone, that he didn't have it all down.
Sure enough, Aguayo hit the uprights on his first preseason kick against the Eagles in early August 2016. Then the misses started piling up. His swing didn't feel developed enough for him to trust. Doubts crept in. "It's like, I can make this," Aguayo says, "but also, I couldn't. I could miss it."
Misses created more anxiety, which created more frustration, which created more misses. A cycle of confusion. Why is this happening? What's wrong with me? That's when he began to think. Not act, think. It was like watching himself kick instead of kicking.
Missing was a foreign experience. So was getting death threats. Being called terrible, trash, a failure, every time he stepped onto the field. He had never not succeeded before. He kicked with such force, even back at South Lake High School in Groveland, Florida, that his kicks sounded different. Like a shotgun going off. "He was a big kid, a very strong kid," says Walter Banks, his high school coach. "We actually thought about playing him at linebacker at first because he was so athletic."
He had always been confident. So confident that by the time he got to college, he used to wink at Florida State's coaching staff after drilling impressive kicks. "He was such a natural," says Dustin Hopkins, Aguayo's former FSU teammate who now kicks for the Redskins. "He didn't have any doubt what he was going to do when he went out there."
The rhythm of his life, then, was make, make, make. Have fun. Win. He helped the Seminoles win a national championship in 2013. "He was just a savant," says Tim Brewster, FSU's former tight ends coach who is now an assistant for North Carolina. And everyone adored Aguayo: women, fans, teammates, coaches, analysts. "I was just on. In the zone," Aguayo says. "No one could touch me."
But as the season in Tampa Bay continued, he was out of the zone, his mind and body out of sync. His coaches kept asking him what was wrong, and he didn't know. He had trouble pinpointing the thing.
As he reflects back on that season in Tampa Bay, Aguayo sees Max Homa, a first-time winner on PGA Tour this year, appear on the TV. Aguayo stares at Homa for a few seconds. They don't know each other, but Aguayo seems to feel a sort of kinship with him. Feels understood by him, as he does with most golfers. They confront similar mental challenges to kickers.
"It's like this podcast I heard Max on. He said he got his PGA Tour card taken away twice. He missed, like, 15 out of 17 cuts," Aguayo says. "He told a reporter that, 'When I was around these guys in tournaments, I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there. I felt like my game wasn't good enough to be there. I just felt like I was a kid among men, like, why am I here? I suck.'
"So, I don't want to say it was the same thing, but kind of," Aguayo says. He just wasn't ready.
During games, he'd sit on the bench, hoping he wouldn't have to kick. When he did kick, he'd tell himself: Don't think bad thoughts. But the bad thoughts swarmed him. He knew he was going to miss. No matter how many times he told himself to Pick a spot and hit it, breathe, relax, you're great, you can do this, it didn't matter.
"I'd miss again, and the pressure cooker got bigger and bigger," he says.
When he wasn't on the field, he was anxiously trying to figure out a fix. Is it this? Or is it that? Should I be getting seven hours, 30 minutes of sleep or eight hours and 30 minutes? Am I lifting too much? "The wheels were always turning," Courtney says. "24/7 obsessing."
He spiraled into a deep depression. Courtney, the only person he confided in, kept him from collapsing. "She was the only person that I felt like I could feel safe around," Aguayo says.
He was seeing several therapists but didn't feel he could trust them. They were contracted by the Bucs organization. He felt judged by everyone. And he felt like admitting pain was a further sign of weakness. Some nights, he'd just cry.
One night, Courtney came home and found him sitting on their creme-colored couch, next to two, maybe three, empty beer bottles, staring blankly at the wall. "Numb," Aguayo says. "You don't know what that feels like unless you're going through it, unless you've been in it."
His sadness crowded their home. Suffocated rooms. Stole sleep. Courtney often took showers at random hours just to cry, so he wouldn't hear. She had to be strong, though she felt empty. Roberto, deeply tied to his faith, questioned God for the first time in his life.
He grew frustrated with people who had never played the game telling him to simply: Believe! It's all mental! It's all in your head! Just clear your mind! He felt ashamed, watching his mother, Martina, scurry to the family's car after games, as if trying to hide from the embarrassment. From him.
He didn't feel comfortable opening up to his father either. His dad, Roberto Sr., was the one who had drilled him into doing 50 kicks this foot, 50 kicks that foot every night throughout childhood. His dad had built a goal with uprights by hand, so Roberto and his brother, Ricky (who succeeded Roberto as FSU's kicker), could kick late into the night until their feet disappeared in the darkness.
His dad was tough on him if he missed, Roberto says. So Roberto didn't want to talk to him about his struggles in Tampa Bay. He didn't want to burden him. Roberto began telling his parents not to wear anything with his name on it. Eventually, he told them to stop coming to the games. He didn't want to let them down. He was also trying to protect them from the taunts. One man was so nasty, so loud, screaming insults at Roberto's parents in the family section one game that a mother of a teammate had to tell the man to stop.
Some of his teammates offered encouragement. "Guys would be like: 'We're behind you. You got this,'" says Andrew DePaola, a former Bucs long snapper who is now with the Raiders. "It was, Is there anything we can do to help with this kid? Because not only was he our starting kicker, responsible for putting points on the board, but he was also young."
Still, Aguayo withdrew. Hung out with his friends less. He didn't think he was deserving of doing any activity outside of kicking. Even golf wasn't as fun anymore. He felt paranoid when he left his home, sure strangers would mock him. If a woman was walking her dog, approaching him but not saying anything to him, he would think, She knows I'm a failure.
Once, he showed up to the Apple Store in a gray hoodie and sunglasses, not wanting anyone to think, See, he's not upset about missing. He's out having a blast at the Apple Store! "What are you, some kind of celebrity or something?" an Apple associate asked him. Aguayo shrugged.
Some of his close friends fell away too, making him feel worse. "They just looked at me like I'm an alien, like, What is wrong with you?" Aguayo says. "It's like, I'm still the same person."
In Week 11 of that 2016 season, he went 4-of-4 on field goals and was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. But he finished the season with a dismal 71 percent field-goal percentage, the worst among NFL kickers making more than five attempts.
When Roberto missed an extra point and a 47-yard field goal in his first preseason game against Cincinnati in 2017, Courtney knew he was going to get cut. She immediately deactivated his Instagram so he wouldn't return to his phone afterward and see awful messages. Indeed, he was cut the next day, and then the moment aired on HBO's Hard Knocks not long after. The worst moment of his life was now on loop, on any device, available for all to ridicule.
Driving away from the facility, Aguayo broke down crying. Courtney stayed on the phone with him to make sure he got home safely. "I couldn't live up to the expectations that were on me," Aguayo says. "I take full responsibility." In a strange way, he felt relieved. A weight had been lifted. It was done. He needed a change of scenery. A new team. A new start.
First, he would marry Courtney. July 8, 2017. One of their friends said it was not a good time. "There are waves in the ocean," the friend said. "Make sure there's still water before you make a change like that."
But Courtney and Roberto knew life didn't work like that. Things were as they were. Good, bad, horrible, great. They loved each other. And marrying her, in a way, was Roberto's first step toward healing. Toward finding himself. Because Courtney didn't see him as the rest of the football world did: a kicker, a bust. To her, he was just Roberto. The guy she had been with since college.
She had no idea, at first, while they were at FSU, that he played football. And, when she found out, she didn't much care. She liked how kind he was, how funny he was. "Your accomplishments don't make you who you are," she'd tell him then. "I'm not going to treat you like the best person ever because you make field goals. I'm going to treat you like the best person ever because you treat me with respect and love."
He was nervous when he asked her to be his girlfriend during his junior year. No other woman made him nervous. Nothing in life made him nervous. Not kicking. Not school. "She's just always been there for me," Aguayo says.
And so, during the nightmare in Tampa Bay, she saw him at his lowest and said, I'm staying. Even when he was too depressed to be there for her. Too locked in his own storm to realize she was knee-deep, right next to him. It made both of them stronger. Made Roberto realize that football can come and go, but he had found the person who was going to be there for life.
He was picked up by the Bears in late August of that year. Every night, while in Chicago, he and Courtney read a chapter of Tim Tebow's book Shaken. He began to read dozens and dozens of books, like The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. He'd binge movies and podcasts about overcoming adversity.
"I'm not gonna feel sorry for myself. I'm not gonna tell myself, 'I can't do it anymore,'" he told himself. "I'm coming back."
One day, a Bears staffer asked Aguayo if he had any hobbies outside of football. He mentioned golf. She recommended he read and watch Seven Days in Utopia, a story about a young golfer who has a dreadful debut on the pro circuit. He drives as far as he can, encountering a rancher. Aguayo sums up the rancher's advice: "What's it going to say on your gravestone? Does being a golfer really matter, or is being true to who you are, what you believe, matter?"
That's when Aguayo realized that he has always defined his self-worth through making kicks. Not his work ethic or his character. He continued to read books about the mental side of the game, all the while battling Connor Barth for the Bears job. Aguayo was released after about three weeks. "It was a blessing," Courtney says. "He wasn't really ready to be on a team yet."
Instead he had time to work on his swing without the pressure of performing. Of coaches watching him. His mechanics started to feel better. Stronger. He was beginning to build some trust.
Then in late October, he made the Panthers practice squad, not missing a kick in his tryout. Cam Newton approached him on his first day in the locker room. "Hey, I'm Cam Newton," Aguayo remembers Newton saying.
"Hey, I'm Roberto Aguayo."
"I know who you are. Welcome," Newton said. He began to walk away and then turned back around. "Man, I gotta get my two cents in. You just need to get your swagger back, and you'll be good. You'll be fine."
That meant everything to Aguayo. His teammates treated him with respect. Graham Gano, the Panthers' kicker and fellow FSU alum, became a mentor, an older brother to him. It felt like a redshirt year in which Aguayo could take time to learn.
"He just had to stay confident," Gano says. "He was trying to figure it out. When he was with us, he was hitting the ball great. … Him being with us, it helped me be better as a kicker. Everybody enjoyed having him here."
By December 2017, he realized all that learning had paid off. He finally had the elusive swing he had been searching for. "The lightbulb clicked," he says. He was using more quad than groin. He scrunched far less. He felt calmer.
He was released from the Panthers shortly after the breakthrough, but still, he felt better. By January, when he signed a reserve/future contract with the Chargers, his mind was clear. He even felt excited. He wanted to kick. That confidence, that in-the-zone feeling he had in college, was back.
I can do this, Aguayo said to himself one game while sitting on the Chargers bench. But he wasn't just saying it. He felt it. Believed it. Realized how much he had grown. This time, his mind quieted. There was no, Am I going to miss? He just let go. It felt good, especially the game-winning kick. "I had no demons. I had nothing to think about. I had nothing to worry about," he says.
The fun was returning too. After training, he'd ask Courtney: "What do you want to do today? Where should we go?" At first, she was taken aback. Roberto wants to do things? They'd go to the restaurant Lemonade, and he'd order his favorite, the ahi tuna poke bowl. They'd walk around Fashion Island in Newport Beach, enjoying the sun coming down, enjoying just being together.
The perfectionist inside of him was still there. He still burned to make every kick. But the volume of the harsh critic inside him decreased. Just enough so he could hear himself. Trust himself. No one is perfect but God, he told himself.
Aguayo was let go despite the stellar 9-of-9 showing with the Chargers but says, "I know my time is going to come back again."
But will it?
Sometimes he fears that no matter how improved his swing is, no matter how clear his mind is, teams still won't give him another shot. "Am I baggage to teams? Am I bad publicity? Am I just washed up now?" he says. "Is that what they think about me?
"I can't control that."
He is less bothered nowadays when people ask him if he's still kicking. "He's so much more mentally prepared," says John Carney, a close friend and former Pro Bowl kicker. "Now he has the information and tools to be a consistent kicker not only on a daily basis, but a weekly basis and throughout an entire season."
Aguayo has learned to process his emotions too, seeing them less as an indication of weakness and more as vulnerability necessary for moving forward. "A lot of guys could be easily be like: 'I'm done. I'll do something else. Hang it up,'" says Cody Parkey, a close friend and former kicker for the Bears. "But he's had a good attitude this whole time, like, 'I'm gonna stay ready.'"
Aguayo doesn't have any regrets. He believes things happened the way they did for a reason: to humble him, to make him more appreciative. Kicking had always come easy to him. Sure, he worked hard, but the ability was naturally there.
He doesn't want to get a desk job just yet, but he's had to contemplate a Plan B. Maybe something in broadcasting. Maybe something in golf. He recently completed an internship with the PGA of America, but wages were minimal. Courtney works as a Pure Barre instructor. Sometimes Roberto is disappointed in himself for not providing financially.
The other day, he was listening to a Joel Osteen podcast, sitting at his kitchen table. The episode chronicled a baseball player who had lost everything but finally made his way back to the pros. Aguayo began to tear up, almost choking on his eggs. That could be me one day.
Every night, he envisions what it will feel like to return to an NFL field. He imagines himself looking up to the sky and thanking God. He has memorized the names of the people he will thank when he hits his game-winning kick. He anticipates the postgame interview, when a reporter asks, "Did you ever think you were going to get back here?" to which he replies: "Yeah. I did. I did think I was going to be back here."
Then he wakes up. Wakes up to the reality that none of this has happened yet. Maybe it won't. And he realizes he has a daily choice: feel sorry for himself or work out. And so, around 8:30 a.m., he drives 10 minutes to the local high school, carrying a bag of 10 footballs. The muggy sky, filled with giant, fluffy clouds, begins to gray. It's going to rain. He kicks and kicks and kicks until he can't anymore.
Aguayo hardly ever goes into the trophy room upstairs in his home, but today he makes an exception. There is a shelf with all of his books. His national championship ring from Florida State. It sparkles like it's never been out of the box. But all of this seems like dust of a past life. A life not worth revisiting.
Except for one thing: a framed photo of him, mid-kick, as a 12-year-old in Pee Wee. "That's little me," he says, cracking a smile. He was scrunching a little. His head was down, his leg was all the way through. The ball sailed above the line of scrimmage, no chance of getting blocked. "I like that. That swing," he says. "It was just…it was just…" He pauses for a few seconds. "It wasn't tainted, you know what I mean? It was free."
Courtney walks in. "You're so dramatic!" she says jokingly. They share a laugh. She knows what he means, though. Back then, he was free. He didn't need to be perfect. He didn't need to make money. The joy was in the kicking. The doing. Being a kid.
They talk about having kids someday. Roberto often thinks about what they'll be like, ever since he took a child-psychology course at Florida State. He thinks of the day his future son will discover Google and ask him, "Dad, what happened?"
Aguayo pictures himself being calm. Not angry, not ashamed, as he begins to tell his story. "Eventually you learn you fight through adversity," he imagines himself saying. "That's what me and your mom fought through. That's what we went through. It taught us to be better people."
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.