If Cade York had been just a little less good at soccer, he probably never would've become an NFL kicker, one just drafted 124th overall by the Browns.
York was on a super competitive soccer team, one that went on a trip to Europe, competed in world youth cups and prevented him from playing high school soccer. Growing up in Texas, where everyone is part of some sort of high school activity, he figured he'd try kicking for the football team.
The first two years were a lot of trial and error, and he hooked up with a kicking specialist after his sophomore season. As for the elite soccer team? It ended up taking his scholarship away because of football.
"That's probably what took me from someone looking for something to do to being a fourth-round pick," York said, somewhat ruefully, a few days after he was indeed the highest kicker chosen since 2016.
It's been a year since the Browns' AFC North-mate Bengals selected kicker Evan McPherson in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. McPherson was a perfect 14-of-14 in the playoffs. His walk-off kicks sent the Bengals first into the AFC Championship Game and then the Super Bowl, and he had 12 field goals of 50 or more yards, serving as a veritable weapon on a team already loaded with offensive star power.
Still, there was some outside skepticism of how early the Browns picked York.
York has a relationship with McPherson; he competed against him in a famous LSU upset of Florida in December 2020. Through thick fog, York nailed a 57-yarder, one that would stand as the difference after McPherson sent a 51-yarder wide left. (York wouldn't talk any trash over that, saying, "It's probably the only time he ever missed a kick.") Because he'd kept up with McPherson, he set the same goal for his own drafting: the fifth round.
General manager Andrew Berry called in the fourth round, however, not wanting to risk losing out on the kicker he feels can be a difference-maker, especially after having witnessed first-hand all of the Browns' kicking inconsistencies these past few years.
"You're not always going to find a Justin Tucker after the draft," York said, naming the Ravens kicker that ultimately may go down as the best all-time kicker in the NFL. Tucker was an undrafted free agent who beat out veteran Billy Cundiff in a tight 2012 training competition, and the Ravens finding Tucker was in some ways, "left to luck," York said.
"I think it's just as important to find the kicker that's the fit for your team as another position. Especially in the NFL, where the big difference from college is how much tighter the games are."
Tight games, pressure moments and big crowds are all things York was thinking about when he retooled his mental game a few years ago.
"It's dangerous to try and replicate someone's kicking motion because you're supposed to do what's comfortable for you," he said. "So what I try to take from guys is how they master consistency."
Calling upon Tucker as an example again, he pointed to the NFL-record 66-yard field goal the Ravens kicker nailed as time expired in Detroit last September.
"A lot of guys can kick that 66 yards, but to actually get one shot, in an indoor stadium where the ball doesn't fly as far and nail it? That's impressive," he said. "One of the best genes to have as a kicker is the clutch gene."
York said Friday at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus that he's spoken to one legendary Browns kicker who carried that gene: Phil Dawson.
Dawson spent 14 years with the Browns and is well-aware of the weather-related challenges that have historically plagued kickers at FirstEnergy Stadium. York sought his advice a week after he was drafted and said they spent over a half-hour talking about how to handle them.
"He mentioned that there are going to be days that are tough," York told reporters. "You just have to go out there and hit a true ball. You have to be OK with not hitting it right down the middle every time, and just have confidence in what you do."
A strong leg that can push the ball through the wind will help. York certainly has that, and he's eager to show he can handle kickoffs, too, something he didn't do in college only because there was an incumbent kickoff expert. He said he did it every day in practice and has no qualms about handling those duties.
As he looks to the summer, he wants to find some golf courses close to the facility in Berea — he's roughly a 12-handicap when playing regularly — and he's also thinking about trying to take up the guitar. His father plays in three different cover bands and he's hoping that lineage means he can handle more than the French horn he gave up on in fifth grade. (York's first concert was a KISS show. The way he tells the story, he's "pretty sure" his father had to sleep on the couch after his mother found out her husband had taken their third-grader to see the rock band.)
York is also trying to figure out how to graduate. A 3.9 GPA finance major, he's 12 credits shy of his degree, and one of the courses is only offered in person at LSU.
Of course, the thing he's most eager for is getting reps at FirstEnergy Stadium and experiencing all that Lake Erie wind everyone keeps talking about. He'll be in for rookie minicamp and OTAs and said he'll likely spend most of the time before the season in and around Cleveland, so he can get work in and acclimated.
"I want to spend a decent amount of time at the stadium," he said.
When he said that, he meant this summer. But Berry, the Browns and Browns fans who've longed for a money kicker since Dawson departed hope it really means this next decade.