Dustin Hopkins enters his fourth season with the Redskins as the team's kicker. In a conversation during an off day this week, he reflects on the pressures of his job, having empathy for other kickers and his relationship with the other specialists.
You were the leading scorer in last Sunday's game, which is funny because usually that's something to be happy about, just not when you're the kicker on a football team. Is that hard to balance?
You know, I never even thought about it. As a kicker, a lot of times ours is not a quantity game as much as an efficiency game. You think about it more like, I wasn't percentage-wise where I want to be. Not that you're breaking it down in your head. I purposefully try to stay away from that. "What am I for the game?" What am I for the year?" I'm not thinking that stuff, it's more like I want to capitalize on every opportunity the team puts in front of me. It's not a bad thing if we win.
Like the preseason game against the Jets.
Yeah, then you think about it, oh that was cool. But on a loss or a game where even that was the case, when you don't make all your kicks, it kind of takes it away.
Kickers missed 19 field goal or extra point attempts in Week 2. Is that an anomaly or is it getting harder for kickers?
I want to say it was two years ago, when there was a really high number of missed extra points. It was a record. And I want to say I was part of that record. Not one I want to be a part of. But there was a huge weather system moving across the country, and part of our job is to rise above the climate or whatever the weather is doing, but to say that's not part of it would be missing a lot. I don't know what other systems were in play, I knew there was a hurricane south of us, and that's not why I missed, but I don't know. Usually you see that a little later in the year when it's colder and typically more windy. But with the extra point moved back, it's a very different kick. With the old extra point, you could miss hit a ball pretty bad and just punch it through and you'd be OK. The only way people, most of the time, weren't converting was a botched operation.
Or a crazy block.
Right, or a block. Where now, if you don't hit a clean ball it's not a guarantee. It's a very different kick. To say those 15 yards don't make a difference could be an understatement.
So when you watch Zane Gonzalez miss those kicks with the Browns. What goes through your mind?
You're at a place in the NFL and you've earned a job that only 32 people have, and you feel like you've let down your team, you feel like you've let down your family, yourself, the city. First would be empathy and knowing how that feels, and then I guess my reaction to that is just praying for peace for him. Through failures, they mold us to be who we are in a lot of different ways. I think Kobe Bryant did a thing on this, it's not a direct quote, but you only fail when you stop striving to be the best that you can be. So regardless if you miss a shot in basketball or miss a kick, it's only failure when you cash in your chips and throw in the towel. I just hope that doesn't define him as a player.
How easy or challenging has it been for you to shake off a bad game or a miss like that?
It affects me. You feel like you've let a lot of people down. Your teammates are in there and you hate it for your guys because you feel like they've laid everything out on the line and you didn't execute like you know you can. It's just a bad feeling. You take that in stride. I kind of let myself process that for a day. I break down film, what went wrong, and then after that day period of figuring out what the deal was – for me the way I stay sane is recognizing that we're playing a game.
For me as a player, there are a lot of people in a lot of bad situations around the world, and if the worst that happens for me, or the city, or the team is that we lose a game where I miss a kick, or even if I lost a job, which has happened twice, recognizing that a) the sport doesn't define me and b) that there are a lot of people that would love to have my bad day and c) it's only failure – if I throw in the towel now and let that moment define me, rather than trying to rise above it.
At what point did you learn or have that perspective and mentality?
I would say that's something I learned in college. Because in high school, I felt pressure in high school, more so when I was playing DB at the time. Kicking was always secondary to me. It was a relatively big deal, when you went to school on Monday everyone remembered what happened on Friday. I just remember the pressure to perform and you're in a bubble.
It was good preparation.
Yeah, so in that sense it helped me realize that it matters to people, but at the same time it's still a game. And then in college after having some failures and successes it helped me recognize that, and it's something I already knew. And with the gifts that I've been given I'm going to work as hard as I can to not squander those away, but at the same time I'm going to rest in the fact that whatever outcome takes place, that God is working through those outcomes for His purposes and His glory. I'm not sitting there praying for a win, or that God has a favorite team, but I think God cares for individuals. I do think He cares at the most basic level because it's something that the people he loves care about.
Do you feel as though kicking has changed, even since you've entered league?
I don't know the numbers, but I would be very surprised if percentages were different from 10 years ago, and what's kind of expected is a lot different. Kicking is like the opposite of baseball, it's kind of a game of failure and if you get a hit three every 10 times, you're doing pretty well. Where kicking, it's very much the opposite. If the miss isn't the anomaly then you won't work very long. It's a different mindset knowing that you don't have a lot of room for error.
Let's say your son wants to become a kicker. Do you encourage him, discourage him?
I guess if he chooses to play chess I'm going to support that. If that's his passion I'm all for it. If it's lacrosse, or science, if he has a passion for something, I'm going to support it. But if it is being a specialist in the NFL, I'm probably going to try and push him towards punting, more so than kicking.
I'm semi-jealous of punting in the sense of you can kind of get away with something that you can't get away with kicking. I can hit a really good ball, but if I hit a post and it bounces out, which literally means I missed by three inches, welp, doesn't matter. Punting, if you miss hit one 35 yards and it rolls 10 yards, you've averaged – and you've got 53 yards to work with. And I say that taking nothing away from punting because I think as a skill, it's harder. There's more that goes into it – there's a catch, you have to mold it while you're moving, drop it in a way that's precise and then kick in a way that's precise. I'm not taking anything away from the art of that because it's a tough skill, but I do at times envy the room for error or the gray area you have, while kicking is black and white.
Have you changed anything about the way you kick – technique, form, motion – since you started?
I guess it's semi-constantly evolving. You know what you do well and what's a strength of yours and you try to utilize that strength while working things around it to finely tune those all the time. Every year I've changed things, whether that's like my stance, weight balance, the swing or the pace to the ball, the window in which your vision is looking at the spot.
Has the window shrunk?
No if anything I've broadened it. It's constantly evolving, testing theories – my kicking coach and I always talk about there are certain things in kicking that are proven, and then there's some gray area of what guys do differently. "We think this is the case, but we're not sure."
So ideally, your son would become a professional ping-pong player.
If he loves ping-pong I'll support that. Hopefully I can be a little piece of that training. I'd love to be a backstop for him on the ping-pong table.
How has your progression in ping-pong gone since playing with Tress Way?
When I got here I felt like I was a decent player, but our game has really elevated.
Have you thought about entering a tournament?
Oh yeah, I anticipate us doing an offseason tournament for sure. Hopefully people come out, and I'm sure it will be for some kind of charity, whether that's what Nick [Sundberg] supports with Loads of Love or something else, but we've talked about doing that in the past.
Do you feel like your relationship with Nick and Tress is different than the rest of the specialists in the NFL, or is that a naturally tight group?
I love those guys, man [laughing]. To some degree you're going to spend a ton of time with those guys regardless of where you are. You're typically on your own field working together, you have the same meeting schedules. As a result, a lot of times you grow close to those guys. The other places I've been I liked the guys there, too. We have a really good relationship but there's probably a lot of good relationships in the league.
What's the most embarrassing conversation that you guys have had on a practice field?
We were watching Ryan Kerrigan doing some D-line drills during one of the breaks. He was working a certain drill by himself. At the time, we were talking about some of the Twilight movies. I can't remember if someone had seen one of them, or if we were discussing if we did or didn't like them. And then we were talking about how embarrassed we would be if Ryan could just hear us in this moment, while he's working on his craft. We had already kicked for the day. Kicking is like pitching, you can't kick all day. It's counterproductive. Apparently we were done for the day and we were like, man, what would he think of us if we were talking about Twilight while he's working on his craft?