The sixth-largest crowd in Kidd Brewer Stadium history quieted Saturday at the end of JMU’s first drive versus Appalachian State. Fair enough — the drive ended in three points for the road team.
For JMU, the field goal 6:50 into the game by redshirt junior kicker Camden Wise signified something more than a fleeting lull at “The Rock.” It was the first made field goal by a JMU kicker other than Ethan Ratke (2016-21) since Nov. 17, 2018, versus No. 15 Towson in the last game of the regular season that year.
That was 41 games ago.
Now, Ratke, nine months removed from his JMU playing days, 542 points and 101 made field goals later, is looking for more.
From the feet, up
Ratke got “the cleats they had in the back” from JMU as a redshirt freshman in 2017. He said he didn’t think much of it. He began the year as the fourth-string kicker, to be fair.
By the end of fall camp, Ratke had climbed to second string. The starting kicker, then-junior Tyler Gray (2015-18), injured his hip flexor against William & Mary during the seventh regular season game in that same year.
So, Ratke and his white cleats were tested against live bullets, starting in the third quarter versus the Tribe. He passed the first test: 2-for-2 on field goals, 3-for-3 on extra points.
It was relatively smooth sailing for Ratke at first. JMU, by the end of the 2017 regular season, hadn’t lost in 23 outings dating back to the previous September. Ratke overtook kickoff duties, made 4-of-5 field goals and all extra points in his first four full games.
But the cleats accumulated holes. Ratke said it was because he always dragged his right foot. The left side of his right cleat was lined with openings, starting at his big toe.
Even still, they were his shoes, his cleats, after all, which he said he wanted to roll with the whole season. Former JMU punter Harry O’Kelly (2017-21) said Ratke was superstitious about them. Ratke felt he had to keep his pair.
That changed versus No. 10 Stony Brook in JMU’s first matchup in the 2017 FCS playoffs. Ratke went a combined 4-for-6 on field goals and extra points. Ratke attributed the missed kicks to his cleats, one being the only missed extra point of his career that wasn’t blocked.
The cleats became “unusable.”
“It would just kind of be like a tear, and it just slowly opened up even more from just the impact on the ground,” Ratke said. “Eventually it was just like a big hole that was there, and so I felt like a big hole was kind of impacting, catching on the ground when I kicked, and that made me want to switch.”
For the FCS quarterfinals the next week versus Weber State, Ratke exchanged the holed cleats for the same model but a half size down to 8 1/2. He didn’t wear the new pair all week.
Ratke remembered that Dec. 8 Friday night as “very cold,” he said in a text to The Breeze. He stayed by the sideline’s heaters most of the time, he said, and adrenaline pumped to the point he didn’t feel the frigidness.
Then came the first test in his new cleats: A 46-yard game-winning field goal attempt, with JMU’s 24-game win streak and the FCS semifinals on the line.
Ratke kicked. JMU won. Five years later, he’s the all-time college football leader in points (542) and field goals made (101).
“He was a very nervous, shy guy at first,” O’Kelly said. “Then, I think ever since that Weber State kick, he really had that ‘I'm a dog’ mentality, and he was — he was a dog.”
After the kick, Ratke said, classmates and friends told him no college moment would be better. A young Ratke disputed that.
“I don't want this to be the peak of my career,’” Ratke recalled telling himself. “So, I remember kind of keeping that in mind, and then start thinking about all the other goals I would want to achieve throughout my career.”
NFL kickers are struggling early in 2022. According to a Sept. 16 article from The Athletic’s Mike Sando, Week 1 kickers were worse in clutch kicks than any week since at least 2000. By the end of Week 3, the 33 kickers who’ve attempted a field goal are 79.7% on 174 attempts. Ratke made 101 of 117 field goals in college, or 86.3% of them.
Ratke, not on an NFL roster, is readying for an opportunity. He said he’s kicking 3-4 times a week. He finished his public administration graduate program at JMU in the summer after interning at enCircle, a nonprofit that provides services for people with disabilities. He said he wants work in public service if the NFL doesn’t pan out or, even if it does, serve in the offseason. He’s currently job-hunting around Richmond.
One kicker got drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft in April and six were signed as undrafted free agents — all from Power 5 programs. For the duration of Ratke’s career, JMU was an FCS program.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for Ratke to make it to the NFL: Arguably the greatest NFL kicker of all time, Adam Vinatieri, attended the FCS’ South Dakota State. Four of the 33 NFL kickers who’ve attempted a field goal in 2022 are products of the FCS or lower division schools, or schools that were FCS for the beginning of their college careers.
“I think had we been in the Sun Belt for the last few years, his opportunity gets better. Same for a few of our guys,” O’Kelly said. “I think they got overlooked purely because we're in a conference where there was no really other good teams. I mean, there's one other good team every year, but really, we’re the dominant force.”
Ratke knows his other knock: He hasn’t attempted many long in-game field goals, and he wasn’t the primary kickoff specialist at JMU except for in 2017, when Gray went down. His longest made field goal at JMU was the 46-yarder versus Weber State in the FCS quarterfinals. Longs of the seven drafted and undrafted 2022 rookies in their last years of college? Fifty-one thrice, 52, 54, 56, 57, 57 and 62 yards.
He’s been working on it and, frankly, Ratke said he doesn’t think long-distance kicking has ever been an issue. He said JMU just hadn’t been in positions to try many long kicks while he had the job. Once a week, Ratke said he’s practicing 60-yard kicks and feels comfortable hitting them.
JMU’s pro day on March 23 allowed Ratke to show off his leg in front of 20-plus NFL scouts. But Ratke couldn’t attempt a field goal longer than 52 yards — because of rain, JMU moved its drills to a half-football-field indoor facility. A retractable side opening let Ratke move back to maximum distance.
He nailed it, with room to spare.
“Thinking of distance as an issue is not something I think about,” Ratke said. “Fifty-two is more than someone has seen for me in the game, but most guys are going in and going back to 60 in their pro day, like the guys who were getting signed or taken to a minicamp.”
Ratke said he received some interest for an NFL minicamp invite after his agent sent out his pro day footage, but nothing panned out. A few congratulatory handshakes at the pro day from scouts didn’t amount to anything more.
That doesn’t mean an opportunity can’t present itself, especially if missed kicks in the clutch continue this NFL season. O’Kelly said he wouldn’t be surprised if Ratke’s shot comes.
“If you want a guy who’s going to kick a field goal and not miss inside 50 yards, it’s Ethan Ratke,” O’Kelly said. “He had a couple unfortunate misses when he got into his head a little bit, but he’s money every time he goes on the field.”
The good ol’ days
Ratke is one of four specialists who defined an era of JMU special teams: O’Kelly, holder Alex Miller (2018-21) and graduate long snapper Kyle Davis, the only one still rostered by JMU in 2022. From 2019-21, they ran the show when the JMU offense and defense rested on the sideline. Davis guessed they amassed 5,000-6,000 snap-hold-kick reps together.
For Davis, now, 2022 is different.
He said Wise, Ratke’s replacement, is the “polar opposite” of Ratke. Wise is more relaxed, while Ratke worked himself up before many kicks. Davis’ job frequently became helping Ratke, his roommate, simplify the job, encouraging him to just kick the ball.
“If he was thrown off a little bit, you could tell it threw him off,” Davis said. “He would freak out throughout the game and stuff, so I just tried to play that calming role.”
With time, Ratke stopped worrying so much before every kick. His holder, Miller, described Ratke’s on-the-field demeanor as “level-headed.”
Over the span of all those kicks, stressed and not, Ratke said the top of his right foot and toes swelled; it didn’t hurt, he said.
He got new cleats every year at JMU, but he was big on keeping the same pair every year. On senior day in 2021, when JMU wore all black, Ratke still sported his white cleats. Head coach Curt Cignetti never told him to change them, Ratke said.
He can’t fit into those Weber State size 8 1/2s anymore, but he thinks he still has them somewhere.
They were too valuable to throw out.