Mike Zimmer has tools in his Winter Park office to thwart the ghosts of Vikings’ playoff past — a “crystal ball” and a “wood spirit” gifted by good Samaritans.
He makes nothing of a so-called Vikings “curse,” but if there is one, it has rested on the foot of kickers.
Kai Forbath sports designer shoe brands like Saint Laurent and Davinci by day. But when he puts on his Nike cleats before Sunday’s NFC divisional round playoff game against the Saints, he’ll do so with little thought toward the superstitions and blown kicks that vex Vikings fans.
“If I trust my swing and watch my foot hit the ball,” Forbath said, “typically good things happen.”
That’s the best-case scenario for the Vikings’ championship hopes.
A pair of infamous kicks will have fans fighting visions of wide-left attempts from All-Pros Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh in the 1998 and 2015 playoffs. But within the organization, there is less fretting.
Coaches and teammates are confident in Forbath because of his consistent leg and an even-keeled demeanor befitting a 30-year-old who grew up surfing on Southern California beaches between Santa Monica and Malibu.
“Unlike a lot of specialists, if something goes wrong — he doesn’t freak out,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “He doesn’t lose his mind. He doesn’t lose his composure. He learns from whatever mistake he might have made on that particular kick or kickoff or whatever it is. He comes back stronger than ever.”
Still, there is a wait-and-see mode that follows Forbath and the kicking operation that is ranked 18th in the NFL in field goal percentage, 31st in extra point percentage and still settling in with a new long snapper, Jeff Overbaugh, who signed Dec. 26.
Cool kicks, calm customer
Running back Jerick McKinnon noticed the shoes in the locker next to him shortly after the Vikings replaced Walsh with Forbath in November 2016.
“Didn’t really peep it until a week and a half later,” McKinnon said. “I saw he was here before me. I sit down and see some YSL shoes. He wearing those to practice?” McKinnon exclaimed. “After that it was a whole list of stuff: off-white, Davinci — all that stuff. I said, ‘Hey Kai, you got that swag bro. You got too much for me.’ ”
Forbath added to his wardrobe this fall when long snapper Kevin McDermott gave him a “Cobra Kai” jacket with the “Karate Kid”-themed insignia on the back. One reference to his name is enough for the soft-spoken kicker.
“That’s probably it,” Forbath said through a dip of Skoal chewing tobacco. “I can’t do too much.”
The second of two children to Susy and Thomas Forbath, Kai was born in Santa Monica before moving a little bit north to the Pacific Palisades. Forbath sharpened his surfing skills as a junior lifeguard in the summers. During the fall seasons, he ran between Friday night football games and weekend-long soccer tournaments around California with a club team, Samba, in the West Valley Premier League.
Forbath’s athleticism, especially for a kicker, stood out to his former high school coach Kevin Rooney.
“The kickers who would only kick weren’t usually really good at anything else,” Rooney said. “Kai was a really good athlete who, had he chosen to play receiver or defensive back, would’ve been very good, but he was more focused on soccer in high school.”
Forbath turned fully toward football by his senior year. ESPN and Rivals.com promptly named him the No. 1 kicker recruit in the country. He made 26 of 33 field goals, including a long of 57 yards, in his final two high school seasons. So Forbath chose the scholarship at UCLA over pursuing a career as a center midfielder in soccer.
“It’s a lot of running on offense and defense,” Forbath said. “Maybe I got tired of running so I became a kicker.”
Something to prove?
Beating the Saints would be redemption of sorts for Forbath.
A day after his 29th birthday last year, Forbath was at the airport readying to board a flight back to New Orleans where he had just beaten Connor Barth for the job as Saints kicker. His phone rang. Saints coach Sean Payton decided to reverse course on Sept. 6, 2016, signing undrafted rookie Wil Lutz and cutting Forbath just a few days after giving him the job.
The Vikings came calling two months later. Now both kickers will take the field Sunday. Forbath has epitomized sportsmanship with his public comments, downplaying the significance of the matchup.
But he felt pretty good against another former team on Nov. 12, when he drilled a 53-yard field goal and made all five extra points in Washington during the Vikings’ 38-30 win. About two years ago, Forbath had found out on Twitter he was being cut by the Redskins in September 2015.
“Especially being able to kick a long one when a lot of the media and whatnot used to claim me as somebody who didn’t have a strong leg,” Forbath said. “You get to go in there and hit a long one, it kind of felt nice.”
Forbath is the eighth-most accurate kicker in NFL history with a career 85.9 percent success rate on field goals (84.2 percent this season).
That alone is enough reason to give the Vikings the assurance they need, but he lacks something held by nearly everybody around him on the all-time list — playoff experience.
In his lone playoff appearance for Washington on Jan. 6, 2013, Forbath made two extra points (the 20-yard variety) but didn’t attempt a field goal.
He’s already made big kicks for the 13-win Vikings, including a game-winning field goal in Chicago, six field goals in a win against the Ravens and the long one in Washington to give the Vikings an 11-point lead. Perhaps no kick was trumpeted more by Priefer than the 49-yarder in Green Bay, where frigid winds meant challenging conditions.
The kick boosted confidence in a Vikings operation that missed nine kicks (two blocked) heading into the postseason.
“It’s a football game for me,” Forbath said. “Same kicks. Kicks aren’t worth more or less just because it’s the playoffs.”
Entering Sunday, the Vikings are comfortable with Forbath’s field goal range in the “low-to-mid 50s,” according to Priefer.
“Any type of kick now going forward is a pressure kick. It’s a big kick you need to have the team’s trust,” Priefer said.
“Right now, I think they trust him — I know they trust him because I think he ended up making 32 field goals for us and most of them were huge.”