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How Matt Gay's move from soccer to football brought him to the NFL – and back to the Colts

Matt Gay always thought he'd play soccer professionally. But when that goal started to become less realistic, he made the switch to football – and carved out a successful career in the NFL in the process. 

Matt Gay was a legit youth soccer prospect – legit enough on a national level to be the first Utah native invited to U.S. Soccer's residency program in Florida. And he proved himself to be one of the better set piece-takers in that incubator, which included future US Men's National Team and LAFC free kick ace Kellyn Acosta.

So Gay always envisioned a career as a professional soccer player. Gay led Utah Valley University with seven goals as a freshman in 2014, but after returning from his LDS mission in Houston in 2015, he didn't feel like his future in soccer was playing out the way he hoped.

After the 2016 season, Gay decided to pivot. He traded football for American football.

But it wasn't an impromptu switch. He didn't make it so he continue as a collegiate athlete – he could've just kept playing soccer. Instead, Gay transferred his ultimate soccer goal to football.

"If I'm going to do this, if I'm going to try and go kick," Gay said, "I'm going to do this to go to the NFL."

Gay attended a specialist camp at the University of Utah in the summer of 2017 and impressed Utes coaches, but they didn't have an immediate roster spot for him. He was told to sit tight and wait for one to open up during fall camp. When one did, Gay walked on and entered a competition with three other kickers, one of whom had the advantage of being on scholarship.

Eventually, it came down to Gay and the freshman kicker on scholarship. The kid with the scholarship – Chayden Johnston – ultimately won out and got the first opportunity to kick for Utah in the 2017 regular season.

But when Johnston missed his first field goal attempt – a 45-yarder that went wide left – a coach found Gay on the sideline and told him: You're up.

Gay was taken a back a bit – he didn't tell his family to come to the game, since he was behind Johnston on the depth chart – but took a moment, said a prayer and went out to kick a football instead of a soccer ball in a game for the first time as a college athlete.

"That's kind of where the process started," Gay said.

Gay made two PATs, then a 33-yarder, then another PAT, then a 32-yarder, then a 49-yarder and one final PAT in his collegiate debut (he had so many opportunities thanks to an offense powered by current Colts teammate and running back Zack Moss). He didn't miss any of his kicks.

Gay went on to make 30 of 34 field goals, including an FBS-leading five from 50 or more yards, in 2017. At one point during the season, Utah's punter – Mitch Wishnowsky, now of the San Francisco 49ers – told Gay he was in the running for the Lou Groza Award.

"What's the Lou Groza Award?" Gay asked.

Wishnowsky explained: It's the award given annually to college football's best kicker. A few weeks later, Gay won it; he was named a consensus All-American and led the nation with 30 made field goals.

What Gay did in 2017 – transitioning from soccer to football and being named college football's top kicker – is remarkable. You don't just see a soccer player decide to become a football kicker and thrive the way Gay did. Even Harry Kane would have a hard time replicating Gay's immediate success.

"I was like, holy cow, I could win this thing and ended up winning it," Gay said. "And after that year I was like, okay, this is what I want to do and set out to do is go to the NFL, but I got a shot here. I can actually do this."

After Gay starred for Utah again in 2018 (he made 26 of 31 tries, including 21 consecutive made field goals), he was picked in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was in Tampa where he ran into adversity for the first time as a kicker – he made 27 of 35 kicks (77 percent) and missed five PATs.

Mentally, Gay's time in Tampa was challenging. The Buccaneers waived him on cut-down day before the 2020 season, leaving him with an uncertain future in the NFL.

Two weeks later, Gay began re-building his pro football career when the Colts signed him to their practice squad. With support from general manager Chris Ballard, special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, punter Rigoberto Sanchez and long snapper Luke Rhodes, Gay was able to clear his mind and simplify a few things in his kicking process.

"My time here in Indy was really, really important for my career because I was able to kind fo resent mentally and physically, and just kind of kick free and get back to who I am and how I like to kick," Gay said. "And that set me up for my time in LA."

The Rams signed Gay off the Colts' practice squad in November of 2020, and over his three years in Los Angeles he connected on 74 of 80 field goals (92.5 percent), including 12 of 15 from 50 or more yards. Only the Las Vegas Raiders' Daniel Carlson has a higher field goal percentage (93 percent) since the start of the 2020 season.

And last week, the Colts signed Gay as a free agent, rewarding his consistency with an opportunity to be a long-term solution at kicker back in Indianapolis.

"We're really excited to get a dependable, proven kicker like Matt Gay, who's done it at the highest level, performed under pressure the last few years, has been over 90 percent making field goals including in a run to the Super Bowl," Colts special teams coordinator Brian Mason said. "We're just really excited to able to bring him into our specialists room and our special teams units and to be able to lean on him in some big moments."

For Gay, his mentality as a kicker goes back to his soccer roots. It's all about trusting his process, first and foremost, but Gay is the kind of player who wants the game on his foot – and doesn't shy away from those pressure-packed, win-or-lose moments.

"Playing soccer growing up, I wanted to be the one to take the penalty, I wanted to be the one to take the free kick," Gay said. "I wanted the moment and I was fine if it didn't work. I just wanted it. If it didn't work out, it didn't change that I wanted the next one."

Matt Gay has been one of the NFL's most consistent kickers over the last few seasons. The 29-year-old made 60 of 64 field goals (94 percent) and 79 of 81 PATs (98 percent) with the Los Angeles Rams from 2021-2022; he earned Pro Bowl honors in 2021.

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