the brothers aguayo

words: devin gordon
art: seba cestaro


The Aguayo brothers, Roberto and Ricky, like to play a game at the end of workouts called IT. It’s basically PIG, only for placekickers. One less letter because placekickers, unlike basketball players, who can shoot all afternoon, have a limited supply of big kicks in their legs. And because when the Aguayo brothers are playing, they never miss.


Just like PIG, you take turns calling your shots. “Sideline, hash, on the numbers,” says Ricky. “Wherever you want.” You can put the ball at midfield. You can put at the pylon. You can go all the way into the back corner of end zone and hook it through. “Sometimes you wanna narrow those uprights,” says Roberto. “Focus on your accuracy.”


“It’s really cool to watch,” says Ken Burnham, a long snapper at Florida State, where Roberto played college football and where Ricky plays now. “For the first ten minutes. Then you start getting bored.”


The games gets tense. Almost silent. Their teammates will watch and talk and flap and crack jokes, and then gradually they’ll notice they’re the only ones talking. “You wouldn’t think that they’re brothers,” says punter Logan Tyler, Ricky’s oldest friend on the team. “It’s fascinating to watch that dynamic flip, because they are extremely close.”


Sometimes Roberto tries to worm his way into Ricky’s head, but it’s whispered, psychological warfare, not the goofy burns his teammates throw at him. They make fun of his hair, call him Pretty Ricky. Tell him he should be in a L’Oreal commercial. On the cover of GQ. Ricky likes that. Doesn’t bother him at all. Tyler likes to imitate the little wiggle-shimmy Ricky does at the start of his kicking motion, a tic that gets him set, the way Tyler snaps his fingers. That doesn’t work either. Nothing does, really, not even Roberto. He’ll get in close. He’ll crowd him. Invade his space. I know you can make this kick, he’ll whisper, but can you make it right now?


On it goes, again and again, until they can’t swing their legs anymore.


Placekicking is a compact, one-second motion that requires the total elimination of distractions—crowds, pressure, idle thoughts—so that a precise set of muscle memories can take over and fire flawlessly. But in Tallahassee, in late July, in humidity so thick you can write your name in it, distractions grow out of thin air. The sweat starts stinging your eyes, and the heat can make you dizzy. Pretty soon the only sound is thhhhwomp . . . thhhhwomp . . . thhhhwomp, and then the ball somersaulting through the uprights. “It can kind of go on for a while. Too long sometimes,” Ricky says. “And then we’re like, ‘Hey man, sudden death.’”


Games tend to end the same way: hit the upright with the ball. “Like calling backboard,” Roberto says. “If I hit the upright, you gotta hit it.” He says this like it’s no big deal—hitting an eight-inch-thick pole from 40 yards away—but for Roberto and Ricky Aguayo, yeah, it kind of is no big deal. “I can call it, and I can hit it,” Roberto says.


“This is our craft. This is what we do.”


The spring of 2016 was a special time for the Aguayos. Ricky, then a high school senior and committed to Florida State, moved to Tallahassee a semester early so he could start training with the Seminoles and overlap for a few months with Roberto, who’d already declared for the NFL draft.


At the draft combine that April, Roberto told Sports Illustrated that his goal was to get drafted in the second round. Everyone laughed. “A kicker coming off the board in Round 2?” wrote “Keep dreamin’, kid.” And then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did just that, trading away two picks in order to move up to take Aguayo in the second round, immediately marking him as the most hyped rookie placekicker the NFL had ever seen. He was 20 years old, and he was a millionaire, and all he had to do was take three steps and kick a football.


Roberto was handing his little brother a heavy legacy. The best kicker yet at a place known as Kicker U, birthplace of Sebastian Janikowski and Graham Gano. Winner of the Lou Groza Award as a sophomore for the nation’s top kicker, and secret weapon of FSU’s last NCAA championship team in 2013. The name Aguayo already etched in stone before Ricky ever set foot on campus. Roberto could feel it, and he felt responsible for it.


“I’m the older brother,” he says. “I gotta represent myself better and show him the way.” Roberto understood that Ricky wouldn’t be given a chance to get comfortable at the college level. Seminoles fans are, in a word, lunatics. The admissions office at Florida State is located inside Doak Campbell Stadium, if you want to get a sense of the priorities around campus. Tallahassee isn’t south Florida, or even central Florida, where the Aguayos grew up, outside Orlando. Tallahassee is the South, the Deep South, where college football is king and you get yelled at on the street if you screw up. Ricky would have to be perfect from day one.


But all summer long, Ricky seemed ready. He showed up in Tallahassee breezy and confident, his long pretty hair almost a rebuke to the supposed pressures of his job and the long shadow of Kicker U. Such a little brother. He had no intention of living up to what Roberto did at Florida State. “He wants to be the best kicker that ever played here,” Tyler says. “He competes with his brother harder than anybody.”


It was a special summer for the Aguayo family, Roberto and Ricky kicking together, their parents staggered by their luck, both of their boys playing within a few hours from home, their father, Roberto Sr., who tried three times to cross the border from Mexico, who almost died the time he finally made it for good, millimeters from drowning in the Rio Grande, now with one of his sons about to play in the NFL, and the other replacing him at an elite college program, the Aguayo boys booming, a straight climb through the uprights.


It was the summer when Ricky’s dream was just getting started, the summer before Roberto’s started to crumble.



Placekicking has got to be the strangest job in sports. It’s debatable, because you can debate anything, but just start with this: Aside from punters, it’s the only position in sports where you play what amounts to an entirely different sport than the rest of your teammates. They only touch the football with their hands; you only touch the football with your foot. You score in a totally different spot on the field.


Imagine deciding the outcome of a basketball game by bringing in a kicker to plunk a basketball off the backboard from the opposite baseline. Or the outcome of a soccer game by using a specialist to throw the ball past the goalkeeper.


This is how football works. Everyone plays one game, then the kicker comes in and plays another one.


As a result, placekicking is a job perfectly engineered for breeding resentment. It’s not hard to understand. These massive people, magical athletes, blessed with video game strength and speed and instincts, bash each other’s brains in for 60 minutes, and then this guy, this stranger, this rando comes onto the field for five seconds and decides whether or not you’re a Super Bowl champion for the rest of your life. Someone you talked to maybe a handful of times all season. It’s nothing personal—you’re just never in the same room with the kicker, or on the same practice field, or with the same coaches. And now it’s all up to him?


In the passion of the moment, as the kick sails right, it is a thought that has crossed the minds of every player, coach, fan at least once: Why is that guy even on the field?


It’s a fair question. It is weird.


For a while, the prevailing stereotype was that the placekicker was only technically part of the team at all. Remember the scene in Any Given Sunday, when the steroid-raging pass rusher tosses the kicker out of a bathroom stall like a used tissue—“Kicker! Out!”—to address an urgent case of roid-induced diarrhea? That, we assumed, was how it worked. Kickers were, at best, second-class citizens on their own teams. It didn’t help that placekickers looked so shrimpy compared to everyone else—the dad-bod frames, the single-bar helmets. Who wouldn’t want to punch that guy when he missed?


Kickers don’t look like that anymore. Growing up, Ricky Aguayo played soccer, too, but by high school he was way too big for soccer—too tall, too thick, too muscular. If a kick returner breaks off a big return and sees only an Aguayo brother between him and the end zone, there’s a good chance the Aguayo is bigger than him and hits harder. ESPN used to show highlights of kickers getting laid out on return touchdowns; now you’re more likely to see the reverse—a kicker flattening some speedy little fidget spinner into the turf.


The stereotype is still there, though, and it’s not entirely wrong. Kickers don’t get treated like dirt anymore, but they’re still an island apart. “It’s a little different,” Tyler says with a sarcastic smile, proud but with just a hint of irritation. “The specialists are often put to the side and people think that we’re not working, and that we’re just indoors sitting down or whatever. That’s obviously not the case.” People—like fans, outsiders? Or teammates? “Outsiders,” he says. Then he laughs. “And some teammates.”


The special teams unit does plenty of its own walling off, too, though. The difference between what kickers do and what everyone else does on a football field goes down to the cellular level. Tom Brady, who uses his brain more than anyone else in the stadium on game day, ramps up his adrenaline to SEAL Team Six intensity before kickoff by bashing helmets with his lineman. Cornerbacks lose their shit on the sidelines when the offense scores a touchdown.


If you’re looking for the kicker, meanwhile, he’s probably sitting on the far end of the bench, zoned out, hardly paying attention, like he’s waiting for a yoga class to start. “Looking like I am right here—legs crossed, arms up on the bench, just sitting here, just watching like a fan,” Tyler says. We’re sitting in an office in the athletic complex at Doak Campbell, a long way from the vibe of a Florida State home game. “Ricky does the same thing. He sits next to me.”


Kickers don’t want to be amped. They don’t want their veins coursing with emotion. They want to be cool. They want to be a metronome, set slow. “It’s not our job to be emotionally involved,” Tyler says. During a game, their job is to “stay mellow. Keep our heart rate down, keep our emotions under control, keep our bodies ready and loose. You can’t get tense. You can’t start pressing and try to be perfect.”


For a placekicker, perfection is not the goal. It’s the job. “Bore everyone to death,” Roberto says. “That’s one thing Coach Fisher”—Jimbo Fisher, the head coach at FSU until he left for Texas A&M this winter—“told us. At first it was kind of weird. Why would you want to be bored? But you want to bore the coaches, you bore the fans, you bore everyone with, ‘Oh, he’s gonna make it.’ You know, no excitement. Once it’s boring, that means you’re doing it right.”


No other athlete in any other sport aspires to be anonymous. No kid grows up dreaming of doing something so well that they vanish. For a kicker, though, or for a punter, or a holder, or a long snapper, it’s usually a bad sign when everyone is shouting your name. “We want to be forgettable,” Tyler says. “You want to be one of those guys that just goes out there and does what he needs to do, and nobody really remembers you.”


By the time he left Florida State, Roberto Aguayo was the most boring kicker in the history of college football. His NCAA record for career accuracy—88.5 percent—still stands. But when you’re that boring, that robotically excellent, you can cross a rare threshold and become a kind of superhero. You acquire a nickname, invariably humanoid, like Greg “Legatron” Zuerlein of the Rams or, in the 2000s, Martin “Automatica” Gramatica. (Martin’s little brother, Bill, also kicked in the NFL for a couple seasons, making them almost by default the target for the Aguayo boys.) A kicker who never misses, even under pressure, even in a Super Bowl, from almost anywhere past the 50-yard line—those guys are super rare, and limitlessly valuable. Only a handful have existed, Adam Vinatieri being the GOAT, and they’re all Hall of Famers, or will be soon, and they’re all rich.


By trading up to take Roberto Aguayo in the second round, the Buccaneers were basically declaring him the next Adam Vinatieri before he ever put on a helmet. He would have to be in order to justify the price that Tampa paid. Being a solid NFL starter would not be good enough. Aguayo wasn’t drafted to win games. He was drafted to win a Super Bowl.


The thing is, Aguayo wasn’t perfect in college. His senior year, he missed five field goal attempts, and his longest make was just 51 yards. In three seasons at Florida State he never once missed an extra point, 198 for 198, but the season before he arrived in the NFL, the league backed up PATs 10 yards, turning what had always been a gimme kick into a very missable 33-yarder. The hashmarks are in different places on college and NFL fields; for a placekicker, a millimeter of adjustment can turn into a couple feet by the time the ball reaches the uprights.


No one, at any position, comes into the NFL perfect. But the moment Roberto was drafted with the 59th overall pick by the Bucs, a round ahead of where anyone would’ve guessed, a round ahead of where anyone else would’ve dared, he had to be perfect.


Not in a year, not in three years. Now.


The moment when Roberto Aguayo was fired from the Bucs, barely a year into his four-year contract, aired on national television. He knew the camera was there. He’d seen Hard Knocks before. He’d seen this exact moment before, when some nameless kid gets summoned to the general manager’s office and told to bring along his playbook. He just never imagined it’d be him in that chair. Not this soon. Not ever. And he didn’t know they’d put it on TV a few days later. He didn’t know everyone would watch it happen. His friends. His teammates. His family. His little brother.


Ricky didn’t see the moment on HBO, and didn’t plan to watch it at all, but the next day he was scrolling through Twitter and there it was: the lowest minutes of his brother’s life, his brother humiliated for all to see. It angered him that such a painful, private moment got shown on TV, but he tried to take it stride. “If you’re working at a coffee shop,” he says now, “and your manager calls you in, you get fired, there’s no cameras in there, but it’s basically the same thing. Learn what you can, and move on.”


“Obviously you want to make everyone proud,” Roberto says, “especially your younger brother who looks up to you. But at the end of the day, he knows what the position holds.”


So much has been said and written about what happened during Roberto’s rookie season that it’s become necessary to set the record straight about what didn’t happen. He did not get the yips. He did not fall to pieces, or lose his nerve. He wasn’t anything like a golfer who suddenly couldn’t make a putt, or a pitcher who suddenly couldn’t find the plate.


During his one season with the Bucs, Roberto made 71 percent of his field goal attempts, which isn’t good enough to hang on to your job as a NFL placekicker, but it’s also not anywhere near the total unraveling that people have come to think happened. Vinatieri, who kicked two Super Bowl–clinching field goals, made 76 percent of his tries as a rookie. One more make for Roberto and one more miss for Vinatieri, and they would’ve had the same season. That’s the gap between the two of them as rookies, the difference between being the greatest clutch kicker of all time and being among the biggest draft busts of all time: two kicks.


Vinatieri, though, was not a second-round pick. The Patriots didn’t trade up to select him. In fact, they didn’t select him at all. Vinatieri went undrafted. He didn’t get a $1 million signing bonus. He got plucked off the street. No one expected anything from him. When you’re a kicker taken in the second round, Roberto quickly realized, when you’re the most accurate kicker in college history, every miss shocks people. Fans got on him right from the start, when he’d miss during drills. Not scrimmages. Drills.


Maybe it got to him. Or maybe he was just new to the NFL, trying to adjust like every other rookie, just like Vinatieri had to. Who knows. It doesn’t matter, is the point. Roberto missed a PAT in his first preseason game. Then he missed a pair of field goals in his second. In his first regular season game, on the road against the Atlanta Falcons, Aguayo made all five of his kicks—one field goal, four PATs. But then he hit a skid, too deep and too soon to be forgivable, missing at least one kick in five of his next six games, and cementing him in the eyes of fans, and his teammates, as a flop before November.


Ricky and Roberto talked on the phone a lot that fall, maybe more than ever. “He knew what I was going through,” Roberto says now. “He said, ‘You’re gonna get through this, bro. I understand it.’ It’s a tough thing to do, and he was like, ‘No one else can understand that as much as I do.’ He just kept motivating me.”


“It was kind of eye-opening,” Ricky says, and what he means is: Things going wrong on the field for an Aguayo brother, how easily it could happen. “He never really was in that position. I was just happy to be there for him. It helped me lean on him better and him lean on me.”


Up the coast in Tallahassee, Ricky got off to the opposite start, opening his college career with what still ranks as the best game of his life: six field goals in six attempts, 3-for-3 on PATs. The Seminoles needed every kick, coming back from 24 points down in the second half to beat Mississippi.


“From 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Ricky was a completely different person,” Burnham says. “You could see his confidence increasing. On his fifth, sixth kick he was like, ‘Hey, let me get this one. I want this one. Let’s get it, let’s get it.’ It went from the pregame jitters, adjusting to college to, in the end, was ready for the spotlight. It was a big four hours of growth.”


It’s a remarkable thing, making all eleven of your kicks in a single game; just as remarkable is even getting a chance to kick eleven times in a single game, including six field goal attempts. Plenty of kickers go their whole careers without getting six tries in one game.


The whole night had an electric vibe for Ricky—the next great Aguayo, announcing himself in theatrical fashion. After one make, Ricky dropped all pretensions of calm, steady, robotic kicker cool, pointing an imaginary needle at his forearm and shouting “I’ve got ice in my veins”—the boast made famous by D’Angelo Russell, who, let’s remember, unveiled it in a game against the awful Brooklyn Nets, during a season in which the Lakers would win just 17 games.


It was, in other words, an obvious karmic boomerang waiting to happen, an act of youthful indiscretion at a level where everyone gets humbled soon enough. And Ricky’s came fast. One month later, at home against conference rival North Carolina, he missed all three of his field goal attempts during a game in which any one of them could’ve flipped the outcome. FSU lost by two points, 37-35. “My low point,” Ricky calls it. He remembers each miss. Usually he’s good about forgetting misses, but not this time. “The third one—it’s a rough feeling when you walk to the sideline, I’ll tell you that. I just wasn’t prepared as well as I could have that week. I wasn’t confident going into that game, and it just showed on the field.”


He recovered, making all four of his kicks the following week against Miami, and only missed one over the following month and a half. But on November 26, as his brother’s woes were hitting their peak, he missed two of his three field goal attempts against archrival Florida. The Seminoles won in a rout, and the campus was rocking that night, and Ricky was out late celebrating with his teammates. What happened next was caught on camera too: Ricky, a little drunk but nothing unusual for a college kid, passing a fraternity house and getting jumped by some of the brothers.


If Ricky made a mistake that night, it was going back a few moments later to retaliate, taking a few more punches but throwing a couple of his own, in one of those drunken scraps that last a few clumsy moments before everyone falls down or someone breaks it up. In this case, a teammate of Ricky’s showed up, a tight end, a much larger teammate, and in the video you can watch one frat guy get tossed into some shrubs like he’d been swept up by a tornado. In the court of public opinion, the frat guys were the clear villains. A kid two months into college, beaten up by his own fans. Ricky wasn’t charged by police, or disciplined by the team.


The video footage, though, eventually got sold to TMZ and spread widely on Twitter. The ugliest part wasn’t even the fight itself. It was watching a white, overprivileged frat guy get up in the face of a Mexican-American kid and lecture him about daring to speak when he’s just a kicker and not showing proper “respect.” In the deep South, a white kid telling a person of color to shut up and show respect—the racial dog whistles were everywhere, and it was coming from a classmate.


“It definitely surprised me,” Tyler says. “At the end of the day, we’re nineteen, twenty, twenty-one-year-old kids. We’re doing everything that we can to give our best to the school, to the fans. Obviously, it was extremely disappointing.”


The Florida game was Florida State’s last of the regular season. Their next game was the Orange Bowl in Miami against Michigan, on December 30. He made two crucial field goals, and the Seminoles won by a point, 33-32. Ricky’s freshman year was over. All in all, a big success.


Two days later, New Year’s Day, 2017, was the last game of Roberto’s rookie season, but it was not a big success. In fact, it would turn out to be his last game with the Bucs—the last NFL regular season game he’s played in to this day.


Sometimes a missed kick matters less than when you miss it. Roberto recovered after the ugly first half of his season, looking much more like the kicker that Tampa thought it was drafting, missing just four kicks in his last nine games. But two of those misses came in the season’s final game, and they happened at home, in front of Bucs fans who’d already seen enough of this Aguayo guy, and who wanted back those picks that Tampa dealt for him. It was the team’s dumb decision—spending a second-round pick on a kicker was always insane, if for no other reason than that he would’ve still been there in the third—but Roberto was the one paying the price for it. For someone else’s blunder. Take away those two misses at the very end of the season and he would’ve been Roberto Aguayo again, the kid who hit some bumps early but figured it out and got rolling again. Take away those two misses and he still could’ve been the next Adam Vinatieri. Instead, it was like a thundercloud that rolled in over him and stayed put all summer.


The 2017 season was a wash for Roberto. After he got cut by the Bucs, he signed with Chicago and hung on there for a few months, but backup kickers rarely last long. He got cut again, signed with Carolina’s practice squad, then got cut again. The Los Angeles Chargers signed him this spring, after a season in which they went through four kickers and narrowly missed the playoffs, and he went into camp in a competition with ex-Eagles kicker Caleb Sturgis for the starting job. If you watch him now, you’d never guess what happened in Tampa, partly because he’s put it behind him, partly because it was never that bad to begin with. “Oh my goodness, man,” Burnham says, “that guy’s still got a boot and a half.”


Roberto might not get many more chances—he knows that. He’s like every other placekicker now, just trying to make a team and hold on to a job. But things could be worse. He’s married now, kicks a ball three or four times a week for a living, and has already made nearly $2 million at it so far. He’s only 24 years old.



Here is what Ricky loves most about kicking:


That split second of impact, this tiny and elemental thing, when the hard ridge on the top of his foot connects with the sweet spot of the ball, about one-third up from the ground. “This big bone right here,” he says, rubbing the spot on his right foot. “You can hear it—the perfect thump when you get it on the metatarsal bone. You can feel it too. It goes off your foot so easily and it just jumps out.” The pure ball, Ricky calls it. “It kind of gets addicting after a while.”


Both brothers got hooked young. Roberto Sr. had them kicking some kind of ball since the moment they could swing their legs. First soccer, then football. Over and over he made them kick. Before practice, after practice. Roberto and Ricky loved kicking, but no kid loves anything that much. Roberto Sr. made them keep going. He tried so many times to cross the border, got caught, got sent back, tried again, then again, and now that he was here, his sons were going to be professional athletes. That was that. You try, you fail, you try again, you fail again. You keep trying until you don’t fail. You keep trying until you never fail.


“I’m not gonna lie—he wasn’t easy on us,” Roberto says. “I look back at it and sometimes I’d be like, ‘Hey, Dad, why you gotta be so tough?’ Now I know why.”


When they were still little, their father built an H-shaped soccer goal in their backyard that could double as football uprights. It wasn’t big back there, maybe an acre, but it seemed massive then. If you teed up the ball along the side of the house, in the driveway, you could line up a 30-, maybe 35-yarder. There was a small forest behind the house, so the boys would split the uprights, try to clear the power lines, and then go hunt in the woods for the ball. They’d kick until it was too dark to find it.


By the time they were in junior high, the yard wasn’t big enough anymore to hold them, and they lost about a dozen footballs in those woods. For the other parents, whose boys were normal athletes who kicked footballs a normal distance, it was surreal to watch Roberto, as normal-sized as their own sons, his voice cracking just like theirs’, swing his leg and crush a ball like that . . . and then three years later, watch his kid brother come along and do the exact same thing, like a superpower passed down the genetic line. Ricky remembers a Pop Warner game when his coach was riding the kids for their effort, and finally one of the moms in the crowd decided she’d had enough. “Hey, coach,” she called out. “Stop yelling at all the kids, they’re not going to go pro—except for Ricky.” That’s what it was like for both Aguayos. They were special. Everyone could see it.


Lots of special talents reach the NFL, of course, and quickly discover that their talents aren’t so special anymore. Even if they’re still good enough to hang on—sometimes even if they’re good enough to start—their careers depend on making peace, fast, with what they are now: ordinary. Or, as they say in the NFL, “just a guy.” It’s a slow dawning that happens to some pro football player somewhere every day. Usually it happens quietly, on the bench, or in practice, or almost invisibly on the field, a few missed assignments that only a coach would notice. Few athletes, though, have ever come back to earth so quickly and so publicly as Roberto Aguayo, and it’s hard to think of another recent player who’s been punished more harshly for it. It wasn’t Roberto’s idea to get drafted way too high, so high that even his misses in practice got covered on SportsCenter, so high that the price could be repaid only with a pound of his flesh. He missed the kicks, yes, but it wasn’t his fault that so many people were waiting to pounce when he did.


There were moments during that terrible season when it seemed as if it might ruin Ricky too. After Roberto’s lousy preseason, Ricky got booed in Tampa during a road game against South Florida. His disastrous game against North Carolina came just six days after Roberto missed two kicks of his own in a home loss. It always seemed like kicking was in the Aguayo brothers’ blood, like predestiny. Was this in there too? Like a poison, or some kind of curse?


It’s silly, of course, but sillier things have wormed their ways into athletes’ heads and chewed up their nerves. Roberto and Ricky Aguayo, though, just don’t think that way. Great kickers don’t think that way. For them, there is no narrative, there is no score, no crowd. There is no backyard, no woods, no I or T if you miss, no brother trying to get under your skin. There is only the ball, the kick, the uprights.


If Ricky keeps making his kicks, this will probably be his last season at Florida State. He won’t get drafted in the second round; no one is doing that again for a while, certainly not with an Aguayo. But he will get drafted. The question is whether his big brother will still be in the NFL when he arrives. Roberto played well for the Chargers during their preseason, kicking the winning field goal in their final game. But three days before the first game of the regular season, the Chargers went with Sturgis, and they cut Aguayo. He was out of a job again.


This time, though, the circumstances were different. Roberto got 10 attempts during his brief stint in L0s Angeles—four field goals, six PATs—and he made all 10.


He was perfect.


Devin Gordon is a freelance writer based in New York City. Until recently he was GQ's executive editor, and he last wrote about the Mets' broadcast booth for The New York Times Magazine.