Watching Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham chase down and tackle a return man in the National Football League divisional playoffs made many in his hometown of Wallaceburg, Ont., recall the bruising checks Suisham used to deliver at the rink.
"Hockey was his passion, and he was a really physical defenceman," said Marv Barr, Suisham's teammate in minor hockey as well as high school soccer and football. "If you had asked him back then what he was going to do after high school, he would have never said he'd be going on a scholarship to be a college kicker."
A scholarship to Bowling Green State University in Ohio was just the beginning. On Feb. 6, the 29-year-old Suisham will play in the Super Bowl, and his journey from a small town in Southwestern Ontario to Cowboy Stadium has been a unique one.
If his Uncle Rob hadn't been coaching the football team at Wallaceburg District Secondary School, Suisham would never have played.
"I asked him to just give it a try for one year in Grade 9," Rob MacLachlan said. "He played every year after that, offence, defence and special teams. But what he loved to do most was hit."
Suisham's soccer team often had him take corner kicks because he could get great distance. In his senior season, that leg strength showed up on the football field too. He routinely kicked field goals more than 50 yards, booting a 58-yarder and a 53-yarder for a victory in the regional championship game.
"Other teams' coaches would say, 'There's no way they are kicking from that distance, it's a fake,'" MacLachlan said. "But he would put it right through the uprights."
While a running back or a quarterback playing at a small Canadian high school may not win over a U.S. college with his stats, a 58-yard field goal is impressive no matter where you play high school football. So the Suisham family sent a highlight video to more than 50 colleges, resulting in the scholarship to BGSU in 1999.
When he first got there, the multisport athlete felt the strain of concentrating solely on kicking. He tore a quadriceps muscle, had surgery and lost a season before returning to play during a memorable time at BGSU, led by then upstart coach Urban Meyer.
"I learned a lot at Bowling Green," Suisham said by phone from Steelers practice this week. "I had no idea how to prepare myself mentally and physically, and I had to learn how to kick in front of that many people."
Suisham has popped on and off NFL rosters and tryout lists. In five-plus seasons, he has played for the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and the Steelers, converting 80 per cent of his kicks.
The six-foot, 200-pound kicker started the 2010 season with no team. He had a couple of tryouts but nothing stuck, until one day in mid-November when the phone kept ringing.
"I had waited for months, practising at local high schools or out back on my property [in Ohio] trying to keep myself in shape, and then the Steelers, Bengals and 49ers called on the same day," Suisham said. "I had played for the Steelers briefly in '05, really liked the franchise, so my wife and I instantly leaned toward Pittsburgh."
In seven games with Pittsburgh, Suisham has made 14 of 15 field-goal attempts, including one to help the Steelers top the New York Jets in the American Football Conference championship.
Since making it to the NFL, Suisham has given back to Wallaceburg. He has donated sports memorabilia for a fundraising auction for the community's minor lacrosse association. Yearly, Suisham holds a free football camp for kids on his old high school field. He also spearheaded a campaign to get a $40,000 scoreboard for the field, the first one it has ever had.
"When I was playing there," Suisham said, "we had a man with flags telling us how much time was left in the game, we never had a scoreboard. I had a lot of people help me get to where I am today, and I'm happy to help out back home."