CHARLOTTE -- Perhaps the most revealing -- and least surprising -- fact about John Kasay is that he wouldn't agree to an interview for this story.
Then again, you're not supposed to hear the sniper, are you?
The Carolina Panthers' mild-mannered, lightning-legged kicker is the owner of a side few see, and that's by careful design and meticulous execution. He's gone to great lengths to insulate himself from every small detail not pertaining to his job. Perhaps that's why he's so good at it.
For 18 years, the past 14 in Charlotte, it's been about making that one kick when it's his time. Everything else is preparation. And there is no time for or interest in any of the extra stuff.
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When the time comes, few have been better. Early next season, he'll crack the league's all-time top 10 in scoring. At 81.6 percent, he's in the top 15 in all-time field-goal accuracy, and as you might imagine, his percentage goes up in the fourth quarter (84.0 percent) and rises again in the playoffs (91.3 percent, second-best all-time).
He's been around long enough to know how important he is to the process, though he'll try to minimize his role.
After he clinched the regular-season finale at New Orleans -- with one second left for his 12th career game-winner -- he shook his head, thankful he was able to help the other 52 men on the roster.
"You just (say), 'Lord, help me make this, help me do this. This is bigger than me.' And by his grace ... ," Kasay said quietly that day. "Now guys relax, they don't feel as tired, they don't hurt as much. We get two weeks to recover. We get a home game. There's a lot of things that ripple out from that.
"If one thing causes so many consequences, that can be difficult."
Because of the stakes, you want it in the hands of someone you trust.
Kasay's teammates believe in him implicitly, and that's not as simple as it sounds, not in a sport where kickers are so often set apart, little guys who aren't really like the rest of them.
But that might be why they do trust him.
It might be, in part, because he's got a lot harder edge than anyone believes.
"He's a lot more like me than anybody knows," said wide receiver Steve Smith, who's found an unlikely soulmate in Kasay.
You'd be hard-pressed to find two more diverse characters in the locker room, but only if you look at the surface.
One's hard off the streets of South Central Los Angeles; one grew up around the perfect geometry of football fields, son of a coach in Athens, Ga.
One's the stereotypical angry young man; one's the humble and quiet man of God. Right?
One's all unrestrained emotion, furious anger riding on the end of a lightning bolt. One's the rock in the stormy sea, the guy who's trained himself to be solid, to be stable, to be secure. Right?
Kasay must be a fighter, too, or Smith wouldn't have taken to him the way he has.
"He's not an open book like people think," Smith said. "John's a feisty guy. He's a great guy, but a lot of people don't know him.
"I've gotten to learn things from him. ... But let me tell you, people's perception of me and people's perception of John might not be right."
The Panthers' Jack Bauer
Kasay's not going to clear it up, however, not right now anyway.
This year, he's topped milestones, broken records, done things few others have and passed on discussing them.
He's unfailingly polite, apologetic even, and occasionally he'll stick his head out of his hole, long enough to talk about that particular game. He gets asked for perspective because he's been around since the Panthers played their first game in 1995. But context isn't really his thing. Looking at the big picture can only take away from his focus.
Snipers use telescopic scopes, not wide-angle lenses.
He's the Panthers' Jack Bauer, the guy the team calls when they're running out of time.
"John's been there, he's done it, he's done it right," said quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Once in New Orleans, a penalty pushed a field goal attempt back to the edge of his range. The punt team ran onto the field. Kasay took both arms over his head and waved them back to the sidelines. Made it, one of six that day.
"How gangsta was that?" cornerback Artrell Hawkins said.
Likewise, a penalty didn't rattle him during the regular-season finale there this season, when all that was on the line was the division title, the second seed in the NFC playoffs and the bye week.
He nailed it.
"Miss or make, he's my boy," Smith said. "If I'm going into a back alley, I want John."
It's hard to reconcile that image, of Kasay as a ninja, a hard-case, of Kasay as anything but the peaceful Christian, smiling suburban husband and father, the guy you'd ask to help clean your gutters or do your taxes.
Not somebody you'd think of if you needed help in a brawl.
"Oh, he'd take somebody out," Smith said, laughing, after Kasay clinched the Saints game. "There's no doubt about that."
Like all good marksmen, Kasay chooses his equipment precisely and works with those tools the same way.
If he looks detached on the sidelines, it's because his ears are jammed full of tiny foam plugs. He doesn't want to hear you from the stands whether you're for or against him. Or if you work with him.
"You learn early on not to bother talking to him on the sidelines," fullback Brad Hoover said. "He's in his own little zone over there."
If he looks serene, it's because he's trained himself. Started wearing a heart-rate monitor on his wrist a few years ago and has practiced breathing to lower his heart rate when it's time to hit the field. Olympic biathletes have been doing it for years because they have to cross-country ski for miles, then stop in a moment, raise a rifle and center a less-than-2-inch target at 50 meters. Can't shoot if you're huffing and puffing. So if there's one less vibration pulsing through Kasay's body, there's that much more chance he achieves the desired result.
Goody Two Shoes, sort of
If he looks a little odd in uniform, it's because he's wearing two different shoes.
The one on the right foot's black and white, a regular cleat, size 11 -- same as what he'd wear walking down the street.
The one on the left, the moneymaker, is a 9 1/2, so tight he has to wedge his foot in and light as a breeze. He wants to feel the ball, wants no extra material between him and the object of his extreme concentration.
The preparation is just as particular.
Every day, he quietly goes about his routine, for the most part away from the others. He's a field away at practice. Of course, he's also out there alone when there's not a practice, whether it's a weekend off or the middle of the summer, when he has to shag his own balls.
"John's looked at as a leader by a lot of guys," Delhomme said. "Just the preparation that he does ... I mean when he walked out of here last Friday after practice (before the bye), he left with a bag of balls over his shoulder.
"If that doesn't say anything to you, when you're off for the weekend, I don't know what does."
When Kasay goes to work, it's all about the routine. The visible part is amazing, tai chi in a helmet.
He stretches, a remarkable routine that reveals him to be so flexible you wonder if he has bones. Flat on his back, arms outstretched in a T, his legs go up, one at a time as he twists his body until the foot hits the ground on the other side of his head. Try it. Then call your chiropractor.
Once he's loose (and that takes time), he kicks, over and over.
On the easy days, it's a gentle swing with no windup at a ball on a tee. But on Thursdays, the heavy preparation day for everyone, it's a remarkable machine-like repetition.
The rest of the players will be on one of the other practice fields, but the kicking happens in relative solitude. It's him, punter-holder Jason Baker, snapper Jason Kyle and special teams coach Danny Crossman. Kickoff guy Rhys Lloyd usually is hanging around watching (and hopefully taking it all in), and behind them all is video assistant Chris Herbert, holding a camera whose evidence will be dissected later.
Crossman calls out the location, the situation, and Baker will take his knee to the left of the ball.
Kasay stands scarecrow still. The left leg eases back, the first of four gentle steps backward. He stops, brings the left back in line with the right and takes two paces to his right. He stops again, stares at his feet to make sure everything's just so. Waggles his shoulders so his arms hang loose.
Then it happens. Three sharp stabs of steps, right-left-right, almost impossible to see without slow-motion, before the left leg swings, not stopping till it's head-high and the ball's on its way, usually square between the uprights.
He walks back, sets up, does it again.
"You have a very specific role, very specific task, more so than anybody in the locker room," Baker said. "Most guys have 15 things they have to do. I have a list of three or four concerns, and if I'm doing my job, John should only have one concern, and that's putting his foot on a football. Outside that, you realize you don't have a bunch of opportunities, and you try to realize you're not perfect, so you do your best to capitalize on each one.
"You know there are some times it's going to be live or die, and you try to approach each one of them like they're the same. He's got a pretty good approach to it, as much as any guy I've been around."
Calm before the storm?
Baker's worked with some good ones. Played alongside all-timer Morten Andersen and current great Jason Elam. Played with David Akers, who interned here under Kasay in the 1997 camp.
None are quite like this guy.
"His mental approach to the game is comfortable in any environment we can be put in," Baker said, the genuine awe evident. "I've played with a lot of good ones. It's been nice to work with a guy like John because he never gets wound up about anything. When everybody else is going nuts during a game, John and I can sit down and we'll end up talking about something that doesn't have anything to do with the game. And the next thing you know, you're kind of back down at ground zero.
"A lot of people ask what we talk about before kick. Hey, we just do the same thing we do 86 times a day, and it's just business as usual."
That's what the sniper says, too, right before he pulls the trigger.
John Kasay career facts
• Was one of the first two unrestricted free agents signed by the Panthers (along with DE Mike Fox) on Feb. 20, 1995
• Missed the end of the 1999 season when he tore the ACL in his left (kicking) knee, then the entire 2000 season when he broke the left kneecap during a training camp drill
• On Oct. 29, 2008 (two days after his 39th birthday), he signed a four-year, $9.2 million contract extension that will keep him here through the 2012 season, when he'll be 43.
• Ranks 11th on the NFL's all-time scoring list (1,634 points), 65 behind Jan Stenerud for 10th place
• He's had to do most of that by kicking field goals for bad offenses, since his 476 extra points are the fewest among the top 20 scorers.
• He's 21-of-23 on field goals in the postseason, and that 91.3 percent accuracy is second-best in NFL postseason history.