FORT PAYNE, Ala. (BP) – Long before his heroics Saturday night put the Cincinnati Bengals into their first AFC Championship game in 34 years, Evan McPherson had delivered under the lights.
A lifelong soccer player, McPherson was a freshman when he made the header in sudden death overtime to bring a state championship to Fort Payne High School. But he and his brothers, Logan and Alex, became best-known for their heroics on the football field, giving the Wildcats a consistency in the kicking game for 13 straight years other coaches can only dream of.
McPherson’s 52-yarder as the game ended – which followed one from 54 that gave the Bengals a 9-6 halftime lead – beat the top-seeded Tennessee Titans Jan. 22 during a bonkers weekend of playoff football many are calling the best ever. His “God is good” T-shirt during the post-game press conference and use of Scripture on social media point to his faith that grew while a member of the youth group at First Baptist Church in his hometown.
Speaking with Baptist Press shortly after arriving home from Nashville yesterday, parents LaDon and Amber spoke of the natural calm their middle son has always shown. And as comfortable as their boys were on a ball field, debate exists over their excitement for being on stage during skits with the church’s drama team, which Amber directs.
“You kind of forced them to do it,” said LaDon.
“What in the world … no I didn’t,” Amber countered. “I just ‘encouraged’ them to.”
But quickly, she made a slight concession.
“OK, they were told they were going to do it,” she said. “They didn’t really have an option.”
What with a busy schedule that included hundreds of miles driving to kicking camps and college visits, credit is due the McPhersons for “encouraging” church involvement like Sunday school, choir tours and yes, skits.
“They enjoyed it once they got up there,” Amber said. “Evan handled a lot of the comedy. He’s hilarious and has good timing.”
Talking in front of others was once a struggle area for him, they said. Not anymore.
“I credit her with getting them on stage,” LaDon added. “If you watch Evan talk today on the platform he’s been given, you see how he’s able to handle himself and answer questions.”
That platform has exploded in the past 48 hours, with McPherson’s Instagram account doubling to more than 85,000 followers. Interview requests have rolled in from the expected sports-centric outlets, but also others like Nickelodeon, his parents said.
In the meantime, faith remains a priority. McPherson and his fiancé, Gracie Groat, began dating when they were in the ninth and eighth grades, respectively. Plans are to get married next year when Gracie finishes her biomedical sciences degree at Auburn University. In the meantime, staying in touch includes long-distance Bible studies together.
McPherson’s rise to becoming the nation’s No. 1-rated high school kicker in 2018 included a then-state record 60-yard field goal. He went on to a stellar career at the University of Florida, making 149 out of 150 extra point attempts and 51 out of 60 field goals. McPherson opted for the draft after his junior season, becoming the only kicker taken when Cincinnati snagged him in the fifth round.
Staying cool under pressure and a bubbling confidence are necessities for kickers, who are relegated to the sideline for most of the game before being called on to save the day. The one nicknamed “Shooter” and “Money Mac” has no shortage of either.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, himself known for handling pressure well, affirmed as much after the game Saturday. Before trotting out to silence some 69,000 Titans fans, McPherson gave a quick word of assurance to his team’s bench.
“That guy is unbelievable,” Burrow said to reporters. “He was talking to [backup quarterback] Brandon [Allen] as he was going out to kick, give[s] a little warm-up swing, and he said, ‘Looks like we’re going to the AFC championship.’”
Confidence has always been strong enough among the McPherson boys to push each other without the fear of being overshadowed. Logan motivated Evan to treat practices like they were games. Evan’s state record fell to Alex, who will play at Auburn next season. It was actually Alex’s second 61-yarder that night, but the first one was disallowed with a penalty that pushed the attempt back to 66 yards, which he missed.
Years ago when Logan, who went on to be a punter at Louisiana Tech, lost his school-record 57-yarder to Evan’s from 60 it meant the fulfillment of a goal not for Evan, but for his big brother.
“When he finished high school, Logan told Evan, ‘My job is to make you better than me,’” Amber said. “It’s just in their mentality. They’re soooo competitive, but they encourage each other to get better and better. When Alex broke the record, Evan went crazy, he was so proud.”
The McPherson brand of confidence will take the road to Kansas City this weekend, where the Bengals will be the underdog again. The stage will be big and lights bright, with Evan on the field and family making the trip from northeast Alabama.
A win is the goal and even expected, but if it doesn’t happen it’s not the end of the world. For as they all can testify, God is good.