Sept. 25, 2013
The clock ticks toward zero and the game is tied. Northern Illinois has the ball and is looking to make history, trying to record its first win over the Iowa Hawkeyes and start the 2013 season on a positive note. In final drive for the Huskies will come down to a field goal attempt.
It's a scene that has played out a number of times over the past two seasons and one that leaves Huskie fans with a comfortable feeling as Mat Sims trots onto the field to attempt a game-winning kick.
As he has many times before, Sims splits the uprights and sends the Huskies into hysteria as the 2013 season begins with a 30-27 victory at Iowa.
The win gives NIU head coach Rod Carey his first career victory, it also helps the Huskies avenge their only regular season loss from 2012, but for Sims, it's just another game-winning kick, something that has become commonplace for the Hannibal, Mo., native during his time as a Huskie.
Sims began playing football in the fifth grade through his local YMCA, playing for a team called the Eagles, lining up at wide receiver and running back. Like most kids, Sims played other sports too, he played baseball and soccer, he also got into ice hockey, but all along he knew where his biggest sporting passion was.
"I always wanted to be a football player," Sims recalls. "So there was never really a question about what I wanted to do in college, it was just about what position I was going to play."
Some of that love for football came from his older brother, Casey, who played football collegiately at Central Missouri. Sims remembers looking up to his brother and wanting to follow in his footsteps.
"I was really young when he was playing high school football; he was playing for the Hannibal Pirates and went on to play at Central Missouri. I always looked up to him, he was always an inspiration. Seeing him succeed in high school football and seeing him go on to play college football always gave me a little extra motivation to work my hardest and try to get a leg up on him."
Sims himself would also succeed as a Hannibal Pirate. During his four-year prep career, Sims and the Pirates won three conference championships, going 31-16 in those four seasons. In both his junior and senior seasons, Sims earned first team all-conference honors as a defensive back, wide receiver and kicker. He earned all-state honors as a kicker three times in high school, but when it came to college, Sims had just one Division I offer, Northern Illinois.
"Coach (Jerry) Kill, started his coaching career at Webb City High School in Missouri and we played them my freshman year in the state championship back at Hannibal, so I think that is maybe how he heard of me. NIU was my only Division I offer, so I am thankful that they finally offered me at the very end."
When he arrived at NIU, Sims had to make the transition from wide receiver, defensive back and kicker to simply kicker, something that didn't happen right away.
"It took me a while to get what some people call the kicker mentality," said Sims. "Playing other positions in high school, you are always in the flow of the game, scoring a touchdown or making a tackle. Coming to college, I had to get that kicker mentality and know that when I get my opportunities I have to make the most of them, treat every kick the same and not over think it, just go out and do my job for my team."
While that transition my not have occurred overnight, Sims certainly has made it. Coming into his senior season, Sims had converted 37-of-50 field goals and 135-of-140 PATs. Entering 2013, Sims ranks third in career PATs made and attempted at NIU, fourth in career points kicking (246), fifth in field goals made, sixth in field goals attempted and seventh in career scoring (246).
While the numbers are certainly impressive, perhaps even more impressive has been Sims' ability to make the clutch kick.
Flashback to 2011, with eight seconds left against Ball State on a cool Tuesday night in November at Huskie Stadium, NIU was looking to complete a 17-point comeback when Sims came on to attempt a 34-yard field goal. Just as he had done many times before Sims split the uprights and the Huskies defeated Ball State, 41-38. But this kick was a little different. Not only was it Sims' first career game-winner at NIU, it was his first career game-winner at any level.
"I was just happy that I could help my team," Sims said after the game. "The whole team got me into position to do my job. That's just what I have to do; I have to get it through the uprights. That was the first time ever I got a game winning kick, high school or college. It was just like any other kick, just take a swing and kick it and the holder got it down and the offensive line blocked for me."
"It was exciting," Sims recalls today. "People always ask what it's like kicking a game-winner; it's just like every other field goal, it's fun. I enjoy kicking, it's fun for me. Being able to kick the winner against Ball State and getting the Bronze Stalk, my mom and dad were here, they go to every game. It was a big moment and I was thankful that I got the opportunity."
Just two weeks later, Sims was in the spotlight again, lining up for 33-yard field goal on the final play of the MAC Championship game against Ohio. Just as he had done two weeks prior, Sims split the uprights and the Huskies won their first MAC Championship since 1983.
One year later, in another close MAC Championship game, Sims again played an important role, going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, including a 40-yard effort to force a second overtime where the Huskies would prevail, 44-37, for their second consecutive conference crown. Despite the magnitude of kicks like those in MAC Championship Games, Sims insists it isn't any different than any other field goal.
"You have to treat every kick the same. People try to make them out to be different than what they are, but at the end of the day every kick is the same.
"If the game comes down to me, I want to perform well for my teammates and the fans. Thankfully I have had those opportunities, they have been blessings and I have been able to come up big for my teammates. If I feel like it is going to come down to me I just have to use that kicker mentality, stay calm, stay focused, and just treat every kick the same."
While Sims has becoming well-known at NIU for his ability to make the clutch kick, the life of a kicker is typically isolated and low-key. Perhaps then it comes as no surprise to hear what Sims likes to do away from the football field.
"I enjoy finishing," Sims said. "I'm not a big people person, I don't like going out, I'm not big into the party scene. I like hanging with my friends or kicking it by myself. Up here in Illinois, I don't really have any places that I fish, but when I'm back home in Missouri I like to go fishing and just hang by myself."
When asked about the similarities between his hobby and his position on the football field, Sims could see the distinct correlation between fishing and kicking.
"You have a lot of time to yourself, a lot of time to think, focus in and do what you have to do."
Whether the loner, fishing mentality helps with the kicking mentality is impossible to say, but what is clear is that Huskie fans have become very confident when they see Sims come onto the field to attempt at game-winning kick.