JAGUARS ORIGINAL KICKER MIKE HOLLIS TRAINS FOR JACKSONVILLE SHARKS NATIONAL ARENA LEAGUE COMEBACK
FLORIDA TIMES UNION ARTICLE BELOW:
On a rain-soaked morning along the St. Johns River, Mike Hollis peered out through the downpour toward the newly-laid turf field of a new beginning.
He's played the Pro Bowl — Honolulu, Hawaii.
He's played two AFC Championships — one in Jacksonville, on in Foxborough, Mass.
He's played the 1995 Hall of Fame Game — Canton, Ohio, day one in the annals of the Jaguars.
Now, at Blue Cypress Park — sandwiched between two recreational soccer fields and the clubhouse originally built for the old University Golf Club — Mike Hollis is back.
The original Jacksonville Jaguars kicker is now trying to kick down new barriers in a football comeback, lining up with the Jacksonville Sharks at the start of training camp on Thursday morning at Blue Cypress Park in Arlington ahead of the National Arena League season.
"It just brings back memories of back when I played," Hollis said. "It's the same preparation, the same practice. I was thinking today, this is the first day of a new opportunity. It was like that however many years ago when I walked into the Buffalo Bills organization, same exact thing the first day of the Jaguars."
Now one month shy of his 50th birthday, he's been away from the field for nearly two decades. But don't try telling him he can't make it back.
"Age is just a number," he said. "I'll be 50 in May, getting up there, but I don't feel 50."
His arrival is among the most unexpected storylines for the Sharks, who missed the playoffs in the six-team league in 2021.
A Pro Bowler is in the house, and that's encouraging for Burley, in his second stint with the Sharks after leading the team to an NAL triumph in 2019.
"It's great for the team, great for the other guys to see the game that they play is taken serious by a guy with a resume like that," Burley said.
A LONG ROAD BACK
Some of the younger Sharks in camp weren't even in preschool when Hollis last took the field in professional football.
Hollis kicked for the Jaguars from 1995 to 2001, converting 175 of 217 field goals during the Jaguars' golden age of four consecutive playoff appearances and two AFC Championship visits under Tom Coughlin in the late 1990s.
He delivered reliability in those years, including a scoring title and a Pro Bowl appearance in 1997, a stark contrast to the kicking merry-go-round — Josh Lambo, Aldrick Rosas, Stephen Hauschka, Brandon Wright, Jonathan Brown, Chase McLaughlin, Matthew Wright — that has taken Jaguars fans on a wild ride since 2020.
Hollis spent one year with the Buffalo Bills in 2002, then was reunited with Coughlin for a stint in camp with the New York Giants. But a back injury forced him to the injured reserve list in August 2003 and ultimately brought his playing career, at least the first one, to a halt.
In a young man's game, a 49-year-old kicker is among the rarest of rarities. Even George Blanda, the oldest player to line up in a modern-day NFL game, kicked his last football in competition at the age of 48, while Adam Vinatieri's last NFL kick came at age 47 at the end of the 2019 season.
To find a placekicker older than that, one has to cross the Atlantic Ocean: Manfred Burgsmueller, a former midfielder for West Germany's international soccer team during the 1970s, began his professional career with Rot-Weiss Essen of soccer's Bundesliga in 1969 and ended it as a 52-year-old football kicker with NFL Europe's Rhein Fire in 2002.
But Hollis is no stranger to life as an underdog.
Overlooked by major colleges during his high school career at Spokane (Wash.) Central Valley High School for his 5-7 frame, he signed with Idaho and worked his way to the college's athletic Hall of Fame.
During the grueling summer of 1995 that started with the Jaguars' inaugural training camp in Stevens Point, Wis., Hollis was viewed as an extreme long shot against the more experienced Scott Sisson, a former New England Patriots kicker who had won a national title at Georgia Tech. Yet Hollis beat him out in preseason.
"And now, the thing that people would look at is my age. 'Well, clearly he's too old.' Well, am I? It's a challenge within."
ROAD TO A COMEBACK
Hollis has been off the field since the 2000s, but not far from the game. He's been living on the First Coast since 2004, operating his ProForm Kicking Academy.
That coaching work kept him active demonstrating technique to young kickers, and it eventually brought him into contact with the Sharks.
"Over the years, we've always flirted with the idea, and in conversation a few months ago, it kind of came about with his mindset being in a situation where he wants to get back out and try to play," Burley said.
"The thought has always been there, not necessarily a serious thought, but just like a 'What if?' kind of thing," Hollis said. "I've always taken a lot of pride in being healthy and trying to stay young, doing whatever I can to stay young."
Hollis said the comeback dream really took root through contact with Nick Furris, part of the Sharks' ownership group, starting last summer.
"I was working with a kid and wanted to get into the arena because I thought they had a home game when they actually didn't," he said. "I wanted to get in and have my guy kick, but I also said that I wanted to kick it around, kind of see what I've got."
"About four months ago, he actually reached out to me and said, 'Hey, were you serious about that?'"
The Sharks got their answer.
CHANGES — AND STAYING AT HOME
Jacksonville is coming off its least successful NAL season to date, a 2-6 finish. For the Sharks, the question is straightforward enough: How will Hollis help to change that picture?
"The game of arena football is set up to be close games, and having that mindset of always being in close games and not being afraid to win those close games, the way that we did in 2019 [when the Sharks won the league championship]," Burley said. "It's getting back to the culture of what it takes to win."
"I want to help the team that I'm on win games, and if it's the Sharks and I'm here playing and we're winning games because I'm making kicks, that's my goal," Hollis said.
It's a different game indoors. Compared to NFL goalposts, with their width of 18 1/2 feet, the 9-foot National Arena League goalposts present a far tighter target.
But Hollis doesn't plan to alter his technique.
"Nothing different," he said. "I think that's what hurts a lot of arena kickers, especially if they've kicked outside a bunch. When they get inside, they tend to kick it real carefully and try really hard to make the kick, instead of just relying on their technique to do the work for them. They do too much work and end up missing more than they make."
"The biggest thing is getting adjusted to the angles of the smaller goalposts, but kicking is kicking is kicking," Burley said. "You can figure it out."
Hollis believes he can make an impact. He cited the examples of other kickers with long-lasting NFL careers who kept playing into their 40s, among them John Carney, Morten Andersen, Adam Vinatieri and Jason Hanson.
"With kickers and quarterbacks, age doesn't play as much as a factor as it does with the wear and tear of receiver, DB, running back and stuff," Burley said. "So at the end of the day, we'll see."
"I've always liked to challenge myself in everything I do in life, and this is another one," Hollis said. "If I feel comfortable doing it, if I feel athletic and young enough, I'll do it."
Clayton Freeman covers high school sports and more for the Florida Times-Union. Follow him on Twitter at @CFreemanJAX.