Kicker Dustin Hopkins was cut by the Saints just before the season opener. A tryout, and then a contract, with the Redskins have given him another opportunity.
About a week before the NFL opened its season, Dustin Hopkins was resigned to sitting around his home, sullenly packing up his belongings and helping his wife, Gabrielle, move them into a New Orleans storage unit. After what he thought was a successful preseason with the Saints, the team informed him that he had lost the starting kicking job to Zach Hocker.
Hopkins remained determined to land on a team, and continued to train a couple blocks from where he was staying at a park, an "intramural baseball field," he said, kicking towards some light posts that resembled the Arena League's dimensions and stature. Some construction workers were around, but the park was mostly his to keep in shape.
The Washington Redskins on Monday, Sept. 14, announced the signing of kicker Dustin Hopkins. Take a look at his NFL career in photos.
"My wife was helping me hold," Hopkins said. "Some of the construction workers were helping me retrieve [the kicked footballs], or some joggers with a dog, or whatever, were helping me at one point. But they're probably just like, 'What's this guy doing out here?' And it was kind of sloppy out there. It had just rained, so I was just trying to get ready for the workouts. It was kind of a funny situation."
Later that week Hopkins got the call he was waiting for.
The Redskins asked him to come in for a tryout on Monday and, after releasing veteran kicker Kai Forbath, signed him several hours later. He met his new teammates on Tuesday and finished his first practice Wednesday, back to kicking and aiming at NFL-regulation goal posts.
"It's been an interesting handful of hours I guess, between the tryout and just getting established here and meeting new guys, a lot of new faces, a lot of new names," Hopkins said. "But everyone's been really welcoming, and that's been great, and I'm excited to get this opportunity. I'm glad it's with such a historic organization, and I'm just glad to be here."
The unpredictability of the last week is something Hopkins has grown accustomed to, though hopes won't continue in Washington despite never kicking in an official NFL regular season game before.
Hopkins was drafted by the Bills in 2013 out of Florida State, where he set an NCAA scoring record for kickers with 466 points, setting school, conference (ACC) and NCAA records with 88 career field goals. In his senior year he averaged 65.5 yards per kickoff with 10 touchbacks.
With the Bills, he was scheduled to take over the starting duties from veteran Ryan Lindell, and eventually beat him out midway through the preseason. Just before the season opener, however, Hopkins injured his groin on a kickoff, a "freak deal" he credited to being a rookie, that would eventually land him on the injured reserve list, forcing him to miss the entire season.
He landed with the Saints' practice squad at the end of 2014 and competed for the starting job into the 2015 preseason, where he converted 3-of-5 field goal attempts and made all four extra points.
"It was disappointing having won the job and then having that setback," Hopkins said of his situation in Buffalo. "And all that being said, I'm glad it's happened the way it's happened, because it makes you appreciate where you are. So I'm blessed in that way, but in the same time I'm glad it's finally happening."
Head coach Jay Gruden said Monday that the decision to release Forbath had more to do with leg strength, and long-term viability regarding kick-offs. Though Hopkins doesn't have an official stat-line with a team, he believes the preseason – being under the lights, fighting for a job – has given him the necessary preparation for his debut this Sunday.
"As you go through kicking camps and different things, you talk to sports psychologists, and you might read some books or whatever it may be," Hopkins said. "But I think ultimately you build confidence through actually doing, performing. So I think that's why preseason is so big. It's a game-like atmosphere, you're getting the chance to do it with the lights on and this is just the next step."
Hopkins will use this week to prepare mentally and get on the same page with his other specialists, long snapper Nick Sundberg and punter/holder Tress Way, two players who had strong relationships with Forbath and will be equally vital to Hopkins' success.
"I think it's huge, just getting your timing down, that's why this week is a big week," Hopkins said. "It's just having an opportunity to work with them, and after watching them work today, they're great at what they do. So I'm not worried about that at all and tomorrow will be a good day just to get to work with them."
The whirlwind isn't over just yet. His wife is flying into town Wednesday night and he's still living out of a hotel this week. In some ways it's another mental test, isolating life's distractions and realities. All of that can wait.
"We'll play those cards when the time comes," Hopkins said. "I'm just trying to focus on the game, to be honest, on the craft."