When Spencer Lanning finally traded in his 2001 Honda Civic for the Toyota Tundra pickup of his dreams, he knew he’d arrived – kind of.
The auto swap came after Lanning signed a two-year contract to punt footballs for the Cleveland Browns last year. The contract, and the new truck, symbolized Lanning’s attainment of a modicum of stability, a fleeting feeling for NFL kickers.
Tuesday, Lanning returned to York Comprehensive High School, where he graduated from in 2006, to speak to a pair of ninth-grade physical science classes taught by his mother, Lisa. His story offers several pertinent life lessons especially valuable to teenagers.
That Lanning even got into kicking in the first place is a lesson in always being ready to adapt. He was a soccer standout at York before blowing out his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, crushing any dreams he harbored of playing the beautiful game at a higher level. But he continued kicking for the football team, earning All-State honors as a senior in 2006 and eventually got a shot with South Carolina where he thrived as a big-legged walk-on able to punt or kick.
“Nobody ever thought I would kick after high school, and nobody ever thought I would kick after college,” Lanning said with a grin on his mug.
Lanning went undrafted out of college, not a surprising development for a kicker, and spent the 2011 season with the Chicago Bears’ practice squad. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him to a futures contract in the spring of 2012 but that gig went nowhere and he was released before the summer. He won his first shot with Cleveland in the fall of 2012 but was cut just before camp ended. He promptly signed with the New York Jets but was cut after four days and one preseason game. Another lesson: always be prepared.
“The one thing I really had to work on was being ready,” Lanning said. “I had an opportunity with the Jets and didn’t play very well. I’d like to be able to blame it on other things but I just wasn’t good enough. When it came around and I had the next opportunity I made sure I was ready.”
Lanning was working as a personal trainer at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Charlotte when he signed with Cleveland the day before Valentine’s Day in 2013. He knew it was basically his last shot at the NFL.
In fact, Lanning not only made the Browns roster but he also had a pretty good season. In the third week against the Minnesota Vikings, he was pressed into field goal kicking duty after an injury to Browns’ starting kicker Billy Cundiff. He not only punted and hit an extra point, he also threw a touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron on a fake field goal, the first time since 1968 that an NFL player had made all three plays in a regular season game.
“I’ve always been a big proponent of the struggle, and failure,” Lanning said. “I’ve failed at football more than I’ve ever succeeded. I’ve been told by three different professional football teams that I wasn’t good enough. But I’ve been very steadfast in what I’m doing and I kept on trucking.”
Even Google seemingly lacks respect for Lanning. Its entry on “Spencer Lanning” says the former Gamecock kicker is 5-foot-1. He laughs about that, all 5-foot-11 of him. It’s another lesson for his audience on Tuesday.
“I’ve always had people telling me I couldn’t do it, and I wanted them to hear that; just because they have people telling them they can’t do something, it doesn’t mean that you have to fulfill what they expect you to do.”
This was one of the main points Lanning tried to make Tuesday, that sacrifice and commitment lead to success in any facet of life. He delivered that message more pointedly to a group of football players that stayed after one of the classes.
“It’s sacrifice and that’s the reason very few people make it, because it’s hard,” Lanning told them.
Some of these messages may sound cliche, but Lanning’s affability enables him to communicate with young people. He doesn’t come across like the typical pro athlete. NFL kickers are sometimes more cerebral than their teammates at other positions because they have more free time to soak up the experience.
South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier got through to Lanning in that regard, that football will always be a game no matter how high the level of play. That’s another lesson the York ninth graders could take from Lanning – perspective.
“I grew up watching these guys, the Julius Peppers and the Calvin Johnsons, and you’re on the field with them and it blows your mind,” he said. “I’ve really had a pretty unique experience that I’ve been able to see it from all angles and that’s what I wanted to share with these kids today.”
Who knows what gets through to kids these days, though Lanning felt he had some success with his mom’s classes.
“They were very respectful and I think they were excited that I was speaking to them,” said the teacher’s son. “But the thing that probably got me the most excited was that both of these classes were very attentive.”
The 25 year old will return to Cleveland this weekend – he’ll drive back in his truck, a far safer experience than the Civic – to begin nine weeks of offseason workouts, while continuing to rehab his left meniscus, which he tore midseason and played through during the Browns’ final six games.
That might sound grueling but Lanning would be the first to tell you it could be worse. He doesn’t have to drive back to Cleveland in the Civic, with its 200,000 miles of wear, busted alignment and corroded engine mounts. Lanning’s final lesson to the York kids: dreams can come true.
“I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” he said, the grin overtaking his face again.