Oh, so you think you can make it in professional football? And as a field goal kicker who is either celebrated or vilified by your team’s fans on a weekly basis, depending on your accuracy on those given NFL Sundays?

OK, if you say so.

It’s not an easy life, despite some of the obvious perks that come with the job. You not only need to be enormously physically gifted, but also uncommonly tough between the ears, blessed with an almost otherworldly ability to focus and perform in the most pressure-packed of situations.

It’s not a life for everyone. But it appears to fit 2017 Cedar Crest grad Chad Ryland as snugly as a pair of  warm gloves one might use to survive a harsh New England winter.

Despite enduring a thoroughly up-and-down rookie season with the New England Patriots, Ryland is more convinced than ever that he chose the right profession and his employer made the correct decision when selecting him in the fourth tound of the 2023 NFL draft.

That’s not to say that Ryland had an enjoyable introduction to the National Football League. In many ways, his struggles mirrored those of the Patriots as a whole. With the ex-Falcon soccer player turned kicker converting just 16 of 25 field goal tries, New England went a dismal 4-13, an uncharacteristically poor showing from the six-time Super Bowl champions that led to a parting of ways with legendary head coach Bill Belichick at season’s end.

New England’s offense, which has struggled to replace Tom Brady since his departure in 2020, averaged just under 14 points per game with quarterbacks Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe at the controls. That lack of production led most directly to the Patriots’ fall, but Ryland’s difficulties with reaching the level of performance he had attained during a standout collegiate career at Eastern Michigan and Maryland didn’t help, drawing the ire of the team’s fan base on social media.

“It was certainly one of the longer years of my athletic career,” Ryland said in a phone interview earlier this week. “It was a certainly a grind, but I’m glad to be here in the offseason now, so I can really get to work and prepare myself for next season. I’m blessed, I didn’t have any injuries, but it was certainly a long season in terms of  tiredness of the legs. I’m looking forward to really improving in that way throughout this offseason.

“I’d be lying if I said it was easy to go through,” he added. “Obviously, it was not the start or the first season that I had imagined myself having. But everything happens for a reason. I’ve kinda reflected on this year, the way I did my first season at Eastern Michigan. It had a lot of similarities to my first season at Eastern Michigan, in terms of kicks I made, kicks I missed. Just learning what it meant to be in college then, and what it means to elevate to the pro game now. I’m starting to make those adjustments.”

If those sound like the words of a man who remains confident that he will put those rookie season struggles behind him rather quickly, well, it’s only because they are.

“No doubt,” Ryland said firmly to the suggestion his faith in himself seems to be intact. “Honestly, I never once felt that I did not have the talent or the mental capacity to play in the league. I knew coming in that being an NFL kicker was hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

If he had any lingering doubst about his abilities, they were put to rest on Christmas Eve, when Ryland booted a game-winning 56-yard field goal with 2 seconds left to lift the Pats to a 26-23 road win against the Denver Broncos. It didn’t hurt that he received encouragement from Patriots veteran wide receiver and perennial special teams Pro Bowler Matthew Slater on the sidelines prior to the kick.

Chad Ryland celebrates with teammate Bryce Baringer after kicking a 56-yard field goal with 2 seconds to go to give the Patriots a 26-23 win over the Denver Broncos. (Courtesy of the New England Patriots/David Silverman)

“Man, that was probably the biggest kick of my career, to date,” Ryland recalled. “It was a career-long, on Christmas Eve, it was about 20 degrees and I had missed the first PAT of my career in that game, along with a 47-yarder. To just have the chance to go out and win that game. … It’s funny, Matt Slater, he wasn’t playing in that game, but he came up to me on the sideline after I missed that extra point and said, ‘We’re gonna need you in this one, pal. We’re gonna need you to win this game. It’s already written.’ And he was right,”

Further elevating Ryland’s spirits was the support he received from his hometown, which he has maintained close ties to, even as he pursues NFL stardom. Safe to say that Ryland has not forgotten where he came from, nor will he ever.

He proved as much in December, when he took part in the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign that showcased players and the causes that are near and dear to their hearts. Ryland chose to wear cleats painted with the Lebanon County Christian Ministries logo. Proceeds from their auction went to LCCM, which plans to use the funds for food distribution and shelter initiatives for those in need in the community.

The cleats are now on display at Chrisland Engineering on Cornwall Road as piece of history. (Provided photo)

“I spent some time over there the one day during the draft process, volunteering,” he said. “And that transitioned to a good relationship. All of those people are super awesome, They have the biggest hearts and they care a lot about the community of Lebanon County. And that’s something I’m passionate about, too.

“I want to help out close to home and give kids the chance to succeed. Just to help the people is my ultimate goal. I like to think I understand the platform I have and it’s a rare one in this area. Any way I can maximize that and bring attention to things that really help the community, I’d like to do that.”

“I think it’s super important. I’m a Christian first, and we’re put on this earth to serve others, I’m a Christian first, and then I’m a football player, and a bunch of other things,” he said.

He is also a proud Lebanon County native who has been touched by all of the support he has received, noting that his phone is filled with text messages after each game from family and friends, who are quick to celebrate the person he is as much as the kicker he is.

“It’s really cool and special,” Ryland said. “I certainly feel the love from people back home.”

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Pat Huggins covered local sports for the Lebanon Daily News for almost 25 years, beginning in January of 1999. Pat was born and raised in Lebanon County and is a 1987 graduate of Lebanon High School and a 1991 alum of Elizabethtown College. A huge Phillies and 76ers fan, Pat spends his spare time on...


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