Ask the Detroit Lions players and staff to pronounce the name of Håvard Rugland, a Norwegian tryout for place kicker, and they will invariably mess it up. After mangling the syllables – it’s ho-var – they instead go with his celebrity moniker: “Kickalicious.” That’s the name of Rugland’s four-minute YouTube highlight reel, in which the left-footed kicker punts footballs to people in passing cars, swishes one through a basketball hoop and – most spectacularly – kicks one up about 30 yards and then punts a second ball so it collides with the first one in midair. Filmed in a few days in September 2012 over multiple takes (getting the footballs to collide took eight attempts), the video has since garnered nearly 4.5 million views and propelled Rugland from his rural hillside hometown in southwest Norway to the gridiron of the Detroit Lions minicamp. He is the first professional prospect to have reached the NFL exclusively via social media, without ever previously playing any organized football.
“I think there are still a few doubters out there,” Rugland says in June at Lions camp, noting that a Norwegian broadcasting company requested the video’s raw footage to verify its authenticity, “but I always hoped I’d get to show my skills.”
Rugland, 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds with a short crop of red hair, grew up playing club soccer in Ålgård, population 10,000, where he worked as a counselor for troubled youth (his mom and three brothers are all local teachers). Soon after Rugland saw Super Bowl XLV in 2011, which aired at midnight in Norway, his club soccer team disbanded and he began searching for a new sport. “I kept looking at the kickers thinking I could do a good job,” Rugland says, “so I bought a football and decided to do something about it.”
After practicing his kicks for a year, Rugland made “Kickalicious” in a few days and posted it online, hoping to impress his friends and get props on the YouTube trick-shot video circuit. But about a month later, ESPN posted a link to the footage on its Facebook page with the caption: “Dear NFL Teams, if you need a kicker, you might want to check out this guy.” Incredibly, the league took notice. In December, the New York Jets invited him across the Atlantic for a tryout. “I had to double check to make sure the email was real,” Rugland says. Although the Jets ultimately passed on Rugland after finding him too green, they saw promise and recommended he continue training in San Diego with former NFL kicker Michael Husted, who took him on at a discount (Husted was already a fan of Rugland’s video). After Rugland started regularly nailing field goals, including ones from more than 60 yards – the NFL record is 63 – Husted contacted Detroit. In April, the Lions signed Rugland to a contract, paying him roughly $1,000 a week and covering his room and board.
Rugland’s power is apparent, but he is still proving his consistency (Jason Hanson, the Lions former kicker, often drilled 49 out of every 50 field goal attempts). Rugland is also playing catch-up with football’s psychology of intimidation – he showed up wearing pink cleats to his first week of Lions practice. “He had never kicked a field goal in a game,” says Lions head coach Jim Schwartz about Rugland, but then adds “he’s well on his way to becoming a professional kicker.”
Whether or not Rugland makes an NFL team this season, the Lions rendered his prospects legitimate. Loving his new life in America – “I grew up with Wu-Tang” – Rugland is dead set on going pro here: “I’m going to kick in the NFL.”