NFL playoffs: Former Gator Evan McPherson a kicking sensation thanks to his last-minute heroics with Bengals

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
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The last time most people in Gainesville got an up-close look at Evan McPherson, well, it’s almost too painful to remember. But just look at him now.

Cincinnati is in the AFC Championship Game for the first time in 33 years thanks largely to McPherson’s 22-year-old right leg. Kickers aren’t supposed to become sensations, but McPherson has booted his way into Middle America’s heart.

McPherson’s jerseys have sold out in Cincinnati. He’s piling up Instagram followers like a Kardashian. He’s 8-for-8 in two playoff games, continuing a rookie run that saw him kick four game-winning field goals for the previously woebegone Bengals.

Super Bowl bound! Former Gator Evan McPherson kicks Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl

Everyone’s marveling over his called shot to win last week’s 19-16 win at Tennessee. Before trotting out to attempt a 52-yard field goal on the last play, McPherson turned to backup quarterback Brandon Allen.

“I guess we’re going to the AFC Championship Game,” he said.

Was there ever a doubt?

“He has ice water in his veins,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said.

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Evan McPherson's confidence developed on a small church stage

No stage seems too big for McPherson — until you get the real scoop from his first coach.

“He was a very, very shy child,” Amber McPherson said.

She’s not just Evan’s mother, she’s the director of the drama program at First Baptist Church in Fort Payne, Ala. About 15 years ago, she nudged her middle son onto the stage for one of the skits.

Actually, it was more of a shove.

“I didn’t give him an option,” Amber said. “I feel like it did wonders for him to stand in front of people to present a drama or a monologue.”

Her skittish thespian turned into a real ham. That trait didn’t automatically make McPherson the most accurate kicker in SEC history. If stage presence were all that mattered, Danny DeVito would have been Danny Wuerffel.

But all great performers need confidence. Amber tapped into something that carried to other stages.

Bengals kicker Evan McPherson celebrates after kicking the game-winning 52-yard field goal to defeat the Tennessee Titans during the AFC Divisional playoff game at Nissan Stadium.

As a high school freshman, Evan made a header in overtime that made Fort Payne High the state soccer champion. Those kicking skills translated well to football, and he wasn’t the only McPherson to show it.

Evan is four years younger than Logan, who set a state record with a 57-yard field goal. The brothers were ultra-competitive in everything. But when Logan graduated, he wanted Evan to top him.

“I’m leaving, so my job is to make you better,” he said.

Whatever he did, it worked. Evan had a 60-yard field goal and became the No. 1 kicking recruit. Evan passed the baton to Alex, who kicked a 61-yarder and has signed with Auburn.

Florida doesn’t play the Tigers until 2024. Gator fans better hope it doesn’t come down to Auburn needing a last-second kick to win.

A dense fog sits over the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during the Florida Gators' game vs. LSU on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla.

Of course, they could always think back to the infamous night of Dec. 12, 2020, when underdog LSU limped into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The fog. The shoe throw. The inexplicable bizarreness punctuated by McPherson missing a 51-yard field goal as time ran out.

“Some people blame Marco Wilson for throwing the shoe,” said LaDon McPherson, Evan’s father. “But Evan will tell you, he should have done his job.”

“He owns it,” Amber said.

That was McPherson’s last Gainesville kicking appearance until Pro Day, when he nailed 21 of 22 field goals for pro scouts. His only miss was a 57-yarder.

That was hardly enough to dissuade Cincinnati from drafting him in the fifth round. McPherson won over his teammates before even trying his first NFL kick.

“We knew exactly what we had as soon as he walked into the building in camp,” quarterback Joe Burrow said. “We just saw how he carried himself.”

That confidence showed in the season’s first game, when McPherson made a 33-yarder in overtime. That literally kicked off a magical year for the Bengals, who will be seven-point underdogs Sunday.

Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City is a long way from First Baptist Church in Fort Payne.

“Looking at him on the stage he is now, it’s just awesome,” his mother said.

What if it comes down to a last-second kick?

“Mama will get a little nervous,” Amber said.

Not her son.

If he misses, we know McPherson will own it. But if it all comes down to McPherson, he'll likely end up owning an AFC Championship ring.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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