CLEVELAND — Cold feet are an affliction that Rich Karlis insists is never a problem in his occupation. Despite being one of those crazy field-goal kickers who chooses to go barefoot, Karlis somehow seems oblivious to frigid weather conditions that would make others shake in their shoes.
Yet, those familiar with Karlis' stormy five-year career with the Denver Broncos know that, figuratively at least, he has sometimes gotten cold feet when called upon to kick an important field goal.
So when Karlis trotted onto the frozen turf here at Cleveland Stadium 5 minutes 48 seconds into overtime of the AFC championship game against the Cleveland Browns to attempt a potentially game-winning 33-yard field goal, many back in Denver might have been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Instead, Karlis swung that bare right foot over the slush that passed for the field and booted the ball just inside the left upright to give the Broncos a stirring 23-20 win. The ball hooked to the left in flight, but Karlis said he knew from the moment that his exposed skin struck the pigskin that it would be good.
Only then could Karlis exhale and exult in a victory that sent Denver to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1978. The kick also exorcised the painful memories of at least three missed field-goal attempts last season that might have helped the Broncos make the playoffs.
"I've had so many ups and downs," Karlis said. "This is definitely an up. This is my present to those fans who hung with me even through the tough times. The majority of fans in Denver backed me, but you always listen to the vocal minority a lot more."
Public opinion of Karlis' kicking last season was so negative that even his wife was heckled at the bank where she worked.
"My newlywed wife had second thoughts after last year," Karlis said. "I guess being married to a field-goal kicker is not as glamorous as she thought. But I'm glad I went through that. It made me stronger, made me mature a lot more and concentrate on what I had to do. Now, I like the pressure situations."
Karlis couldn't have found any more pressure than he faced in overtime Sunday.
There was, of course, the Super Bowl bid on the line. Then, there were the weather conditions--30 degrees at kickoff with a 5-degree wind-chill factor. There also were the field conditions, which Karlis later said were only a little better than a quagmire.
If all that didn't make it difficult enough, Karlis had to set up with his back to the east end zone that features the "Dawg Pound," home of a large group of fans who dress as dogs, bark like dogs and hurl dog biscuits on the field.
Karlis said he had to pick up the biscuits as a golfer would divots and brush away the mud and sand to find a firm spot on which to place the ball. After finishing his gardening, Karlis then did not look up from the ground until the ball was heading toward the net behind the goal posts that catches the ball.
All that happened very quickly, but not in Karlis' mind.
"It really only takes about 1.3 seconds from the time the ball is snapped to when it's kicked, but it seemed like forever. I just kept telling myself, 'Keep your head down and just swing through.' I knew it was good, even though I hooked it. I just had to look at the official to see if he was going to call it good."
Karlis admitted that the fans throwing dog biscuits bothered him.
"I'm from this area, and I'm disappointed in the fans," Karlis said. "Everyone says Cleveland had great fans, but they should do something about those Dawgs."
Strange as it sounds, Karlis said he wanted the pressure. After missing 15 of 38 attempts last season, Karlis said he is concentrating more this season. That includes being aware of the magnitude of each attempt.
"I want the pressure now because I have the confidence," he said. "I've made, what, eight in a row now (nine, actually). My worst kick today was the last one, but I guess that made it more exciting. All the others (two field goals and two extra points) were right down the middle."
Bronco Coach Dan Reeves probably would have liked that game-winning kick to be as straight as the others, but that would be quibbling. Reeves, too, now has confidence in Karlis, but you really couldn't call it unwavering.
"Kickers go through good and bad stretches a lot of times," Reeves said. "You got to let them work out of it. One of the things that always impressed me about Rich is that, last year, he worked so damn hard to get out of (the slump). He still works hard on his kicking." Maybe that's because Karlis realizes that NFL kickers don't have much job security. During the depths of his slump last year, the media and fans in Denver were calling for his head.
Said Karlis: "Hey, if you don't kick well, they look for someone else. That's the nature of the beast in the NFL. But Coach Reeves stuck with me. I'm sure he had thoughts (last season) that it might be better for the team to get someone else. But he didn't.