The improbable journey of Eddy Piñeiro

CHICAGO — They rose before the scorching South Florida sun, toting cleats and hope for the fateful voyage. On an early June morning in 2015, some 51 months before you learned his name, Eddy Piñeiro ducked into the passenger seat of a rented Chevy Impala and buckled up. His father slid in behind the wheel. A friend accompanied them. And for 12-plus hours, they cruised, first up the Atlantic Coast. They swung inland, on highways lined with greenery, weaving between lakes. They passed Orlando, and Gainesville, and Tallahassee, cutting across the Panhandle and into a different world. Their destination was Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and in the morning a camp. But for now, there was no dorm or hotel address to punch into smartphones.

No, the night before the kicks that would make or break his football career – that would make or break his and his family’s life – Eddy Piñeiro shut his eyes in a parking lot.

Not on concrete, but in the Impala, with darkness as his comforter and the carseat his bed. “Trying,” as he says now, “to friggin’ get some good sleep.”

The memory, still vivid, overwhelmed Piñeiro on Sunday night, sometime after he swung his rocket launcher of a right leg and pummeled a football 60-plus yards through Mile High air. Sometime after his Bears teammates pranced onto the field and mobbed him. Sometime after Chicagoans toasted him, recollections of that 2015 evening brought tears to his eyes.

Because a week before it, before he wowed Nick Saban, before SEC bluebloods offered him a future, Piñeiro didn’t know what his future held. He sat in a high school classroom in Coral Springs, Florida, about an hour north of home. He was a 19-year-old JUCO soccer player, the Miami-born son of Cuban and Nicaraguan immigrants, who’d never kicked a field goal in a game. And he was tempted to shun football before it ever really gave him a shot.

Eddy Pineiro kicks the game-winning field goal with one second left on Sunday against the Broncos in Denver. (Getty Images)

Fútbol or football?

Piñeiro has, for some time now, been a cult hero, ever since he enrolled at the University of Florida for spring semester in 2016. Viral videos of 73-yarders endeared diehards. “ED-DY, ED-DY,” Gator fans used to chant. Last month during training camp, before he’d even attempted a regular-season NFL kick, Chicagoans adopted the chorus.

Then, on Sunday, Piñeiro’s 53-yard game-winner in Denver vanquished double-doink demons, and the “cult hero” tag shed its modifier.

Three days later, on a picturesque autumn morning in ultra-suburban Chicago, the newly minted NFC special teams player of the week sat at his Bears locker. Chris Brown’s “Yo” filled the room. Notebook- and camera-wielding reporters circled. And when the music quieted, they swarmed.

“We can just do it with the music on,” Piñeiro joked.

And then he spoke, for nearly 20 minutes, with energy and his customary Latin twang. A pair of stud earrings gleamed either side of his thick eyebrows and clean-shaven face. A smile came readily. And so did an answer to the first real question thrown at him.

“My biggest congratulations?” he pondered, mentally scrolling through the hundreds of messages he has received since Sunday.

“Probably from my dad.”

His dad, Eddy Sr., was a Marielito. He was born in Cuba in the early 1970s, as Fidel Castro ramped up efforts to suppress dissent. In 1980, aged 9, he and his family fled, via boat from Mariel Harbor, to the United States.

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More than a decade later, he married and had Eddy Jr. The family eventually swelled to five. He had a short stint as a professional soccer player. Then, to support his wife and three kids, he turned to blue-collar labor. He now toils as a construction worker, installing kitchens. He made enough to keep the family afloat. But “financially,” Eddy Jr. says, “they’ve never been stable in their life.”

Sport, therefore, became Junior’s route to college. And sport, throughout his childhood, meant fútbol. His goal growing up? “I gotta be better than my dad,” Piñeiro says with a grin.

For a while, that seemed realistic. He was a multi-time All-Dade County selection in high school, and the Miami Herald’s 2014 player of the year. There are stories, passed down in writing and by word of mouth, of goals from midfield; of late winners; of shirtless celebrations. Piñeiro was a forward with flair, and with enough ability to earn a full ride to Florida Atlantic. Only then did fate intervene.

The NCAA ruled him academically ineligible. Piñeiro scrambled for a Plan B. He chose ASA, a local junior college. Before long, he was wearing No. 10 and banging in goals. His education depended on it.

On the side, however, he had taken up kicking. He’d arise at 5 a.m. to train with dad. Or he’d work out with a friend, Santiago Arango, a fellow futbolista-turned-footballer who’d come to the U.S. from Colombia at age 14. Arango introduced Piñeiro to Brandon Kornblue, a kicking coach who’d refine his technique.

To begin, in February, that technique was nonexistent. “Out of like 20 field goals,” Arango remembers, “he might make 10.” Kornblue’s estimate is 30 percent. “He was all over the place,” the coach recalls.

By April, he’d belted an 86-yard kickoff at Kornblue’s camp. He’d pinged the crossbar from 71. To those who were aware, he was a burgeoning phenom.

In between, however, Piñeiro and Arango would retreat to Piñeiro’s home and fire up a computer. They’d email Division I coaches across America, or tweet at them, pleading for a chance. “And no one would respond,” Arango remembers.

Piñeiro had improved. Immensely. But without the financial means to travel to showcases, to force college programs to notice, validation eluded him. Hope wavered.

Finally, in late May, Chris Sailer, one of the nation’s elite kicking coaches, trekked to South Florida. Piñeiro secured a camp invite. Two days of moonshots later, the curriculum brought guru and raw talent to that Coral Springs classroom for an evaluation. Sailer sat behind an old-school teacher’s desk. Piñeiro sat across from him.

“I call his dad in,” Sailer says, picking up the story. “And he said, ‘Chris, I need to know the honest truth. ... We’re at a crossroads here. What do you think? Should my son kick? Because after this camp, we’re making a decision. You either quit football completely and focus on soccer, or’ —

“And I go, ‘Listen, Mr. Piñeiro, trust me.’”

The following weekend, there was a high-profile camp in Tuscaloosa. Two-dozen Division I prospects. Saban. Opportunity.

“Get him down to Alabama,” Sailer concluded.

“You have an NFL leg right now,” Arango remembers Sailer saying.

Are you sure? Piñeiro Sr. responded. It costs a lot of money. We don’t have money.

“Mr. Piñeiro,” Sailer assured. “Yes. Take him. Go.”

Eddy Pineiro (15) sits on the shoulders of his Florida teammates as they celebrate after defeating South Carolina in 2016. (AP)

The trip that changed everything

So, with borrowed money, they rented a car that would double as lodging. Father made the stakes very clear. Son concurred. “If I don’t get a scholarship here, I told him I was done,” Piñeiro Jr. remembers. He still loved soccer. Saturday morning, after a night in the Impala, stiff neck and all, would be his “one shot.”

Instead, it became big-time college football’s introduction to the legend of Eddy Piñeiro. To the leg former Florida coach Jim McElwain would later compare to a golf club. To the unshakeable confidence, and the incorruptible swagger.

After impressing Saban and schmoozing with him, the Piñeiros and Arango returned to the road, whizzing through the night back south. Junior slept while senior drove. The following morning in Gainesville, his body doubly drained, a few kicks were enough to earn a scholarship offer from Florida.

‘Bama, Miami and Georgia soon followed. Piñeiro chose the Crimson Tide. Then came more viral videos, and more attention, which he soaked up. Then a sophomore soccer season, and an Alabama decommitment, and a Florida pledge.

The rest, as they say, is history. The kicks, but also the charm. The 52-yarder in his first spring game, but also the subsequent dab. The near-perfect junior season, but also the Mannequin Challenge handshake. “We would plan some out,” long-snapper Ryan Farr says of Piñeiro’s celebrations. “You didn’t see the majority of ‘em. There were some we definitely would’ve gotten a flag for.”

Having drilled his final 16 kicks of 2017, Piñeiro agonized over his NFL draft decision and then made it, electing to forgo his senior season and turn pro. After hearing 256 names called, none of which were his, he questioned himself. “That was probably the most disappointed I’ve ever heard him,” says Kornblue, who spoke with his former pupil that night. “Damn,” Piñeiro thought, reconsidering his early entry. “Maybe it was a mistake.”

He latched on in Oakland. After appearing to have the Raiders job won as a rookie, a minor injury led to a “redshirt year” and a dream put on hold. This past spring, he was dealt to Chicago, and thrust into the most scrutinized kicking competition in the league.

But the manufactured pressure? The “Augusta silence”? The inescapable cloud of Cody Parkey’s miss that loomed over his and his challengers’ every move?

Arango used to tell him: “Bro, you’re the perfect kicker. Like, you don’t think of the pressure at all.”

“They say pressure’s on kickers,” Piñeiro once said, perhaps explaining his immunity to it. “You want to know pressure? Pressure is my dad going to work every single day, and he’s the only one that brings money into my house. That’s pressure.”

Eddy Pineiro celebrates after kicking a fourth quarter game-winning field goal against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on September 15. (Getty Images)

In the spotlight

Back inside Halas Hall at Bears headquarters, the man of the hour stands below a nameplate that’s no longer accurate. Eddy Piñeiro? Nah, try “Eddy Dinero,” or “Eddy Money.” Two iterations of the same new nickname. Two emblems of his newfound fame.

Whether he’s changed or not, his life has. He’s met the mayor. He’s stocked up on free Snickers. He became the main attraction at Halas, the Bears PR staff struggling to pick up the blitz of requests that filled their inboxes. After 15 nonstop minutes with reporters, Piñeiro let out a sharp, stress-breaking “Whoo!”

“This is so many questions,” he said laughing. “How much time we got here?”

There’s a refreshing duality to his personality, a chill Latino vibe that operates concurrently with a more private determination. There are the trick shots, and the 81-yarders for cameras; but also an unseen work ethic, and a deep commitment to his faith. With adrenaline still pumping after his game-winner Sunday, he told Fox’s national audience: “If you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, you better start, because He’s real!”

Yet amid the same pandemonium, there was a youthful exuberance, and a spontaneity. Oh, and if it were a soccer jersey draped over his shoulders rather than a football one?

“My shirt would’ve definitely been off, and I would’ve waved it and slid on my knees,” he says, beaming. “One hundred percent.”

Most of all, though, there is a deep familial love, bred and still based in South Florida, unaltered by the shallower love now flooding in from elsewhere. There’s a desire to help those who’ve helped him. And the kid who used to do so by installing kitchen cabinets with dad can now use game checks.

“I want to be a great kicker so I can support my family for the rest of my life,” Piñeiro says. “So they never have to work a day in their life. That’s been my goal since Day 1.

“They’ve struggled so much, and they’ve given me everything. And now it’s time that I give them everything.”

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.