Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein has a strong Missouri connection
Before Greg Zuerlein’s journey to the Super Bowl ever went through Missouri Western, it made a pretty important stop at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Omaha.
That’s where Zuerlein, now the kicker for the L.A. Rams, was working as a cook when Missouri Western’s coaches called him to inquire about him joining their program.
Prior to that, Zuerlein found out the football program at Nebraska-Omaha was shuttering, and he’d need a program to play out his final season of eligibility.
He had his sights set on UCLA, but he agreed to meet with the Missouri Western coaches.
The only problem?
He couldn’t get off work to meet them on UNO’s campus.
So offensive line coach Todd Throckmorton and defensive line coach Wes Bell came to him. They sat down in a booth, ordered some wings, and Zuerlein took a quick break to come out and meet them.
He wasn’t necessarily sold on the program at that initial meeting, but when he found out soon after that the NCAA wouldn’t allow him to join Division I program UCLA, he settled on Missouri Western.
“My manager was nice enough to let me go out there and talk with him for a few minutes,” Zuerlein said. “They gave me their spiel about Missouri Western and it worked, I guess.”
The Chiefs aren’t in the Super Bowl this weekend, but thanks to Zuerlein and his decision, there is a little bit of Missouri flavor in Sunday’s blockbuster game.
“People talk about Bo Jackson, how it sounds different when he hits the ball, that kind of stuff,” former Missouri Western coach Jerry Partridge said. “And honestly, Greg’s that way. The ball sounds different coming off his foot.”
Before he got the chance to coach Zuerlein, then-Missouri Western kickers coach Jay White remembers seeing him warm up when Missouri Western hosted UNO.
While the Griffons stretched and got loose, Zuerlein took his place on their side of the field and kicked balls over White’s players.
“Obviously then I was like, this kid has some good confidence and can hit some good balls, too,” said White, who’s now a member of the Chiefs’ equipment staff. “Needless to say, they beat us that game and he had a bunch of field goals over 40.”
But it wasn’t just his leg strength that impressed White. It was also his composure and his confidence.
As Zuerlein walked off the field after the game with his parents, White jogged over to them.
“Hey, congratulations on a great game,” White told Zuerlein. “Keep on doing what you’re doing and you’re going to be playing on Sundays eventually.”
Pretty prophetic, right?
But before he could get there, Zuerlein had to take a medical redshirt in 2010, and Nebraska-Omaha cut his program in March 2011 because it believed it could no longer afford to keep it with the move from Division II to Division II. Zuerlein had one season of eligibility left and no program.
But after the Buffalo Wild Wings talk and a visit to the campus, combined with the NCAA’s decision to keep Zuerlein from going to a Division I school, the kicker picked the Griffons because of their indoor facility, constructed thanks to the Chiefs hosting preseason camp there, and the field.
“He came to Missouri Western, a lot of people say because of our indoor facility there,” former Missouri Western coach Jerry Partridge said. “But he came because he liked our old field. It didn’t have a crown. It was flat.”
In addition to the field, the indoor facility was enticing to Zuerlein because it would help him prepare for the NFL Draft after the season.
“If I wanted to make it to the NFL, I was going to need to be kicking in the offseason, in the winter, preparing for those workouts and there’s really no good spot where I can get good work but Missouri Western,” Zuerlein said. “Having that indoor, being able to kick when everywhere else is snowy is perfect.”
In his single season at Missouri Western, Zuerlein was named to a handful of All-America teams and led the nation in field goals per game (2.30) and broke a school record with a 58-yard field goal against Northwestern Missouri State — twice.
“He hit two 58 yarders in both directions which was really impressive I thought. One into a slight breeze and one with the wind at his back,” White said. “Right there, you don’t see that on Sundays that often and you sure as heck don’t see that at the Division II level.”
Two weeks ago, Zuerlein pulled off another Paul Bunyan-esque feat when he nailed an NFL-record 57-yard kick in overtime of the NFC Championship to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Partridge, who’s seen Zuerlein hit a 72-yarder in warmups, knew it would have the distance.
“When he was kicking the game tier, i was like, ‘please hit this, I don’t want you to be the (scape)goat forever,’” Partridge said. “And he stroked it. And the game winner, I said, ‘He’s gonna hit this thing. It’s gonna happen.’
And it did.
Now, Sunday night, Zuerlein will be kicking on the biggest of stages, finally reaching this pinnacle after traveling a path that took him through St. Joseph, Missouri.