A Brief History of the Rabona Kick in the NFL

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A lot of Steelers fans might have questioned place kicker Chris Boswell’s judgment last night when he blew their final comeback opportunity with a tangle of legs and a botched kick. As crazy as it looked to the rest of us, soccer fans know exactly what happened: a spectacularly failed attempt at a rabona kick.

Rabona kicks are a sort of standardized trick shot in soccer. They’re primarily used as misdirections, but they have a long history in high-stress situations. The first credited appearance (and success) goes back to 1948, when Argentinian player Ricardo Infante used it against another Argentine team. A headline in El Gráfico after the match read “Infante plays hooky.” Hooky in Spanish is “rabona,” and that’s how the kick got its name.

If you haven’t seen a rabona kick in action, this is the basic concept: The player acts as if he’ll kick the ball with one foot, but instead plants that foot beside the ball and whips his opposite leg behind the first, kicking the ball with the unplanted foot. It’s used for penalty shots, goal attempts — any time where it’s to your advantage to mislead someone.

In football, that’s exactly what an onside kick calls for, which is why it happens. It’s just rare, and most of the time you only see them coming from players who grew up in a soccer household.

In 1972, for instance, Cowboys kicker Toni Fritsch pulled one off against the 49ers in the NFC championship. With one minute and 20 seconds to go in the fourth, Fritsch, an Australian who had played soccer as a kid, booted one with a rabona that was recovered and went on to give them a comeback victory. Because of that comeback the Cowboys ended up winning Super Bowl VI.

Chris Boswell learned the move from his father, who had played soccer in Brazil years earlier. In 2013 as the place kicker for Rice University, Boswell pulled off the rabona in spectacular fashion. Trailing Houston by five points with two minutes left in regulation, Boswell tricked out the kickoff and Rice managed to recover it on their own 47 yard line.

Rice failed to capitalize on the opportunity, but the kick clearly stuck with Boswell. He went for it again last night, but it looked like his first foot got too far ahead. So when he brought foot number two around, it came down on the football from the top, slamming it into his other ankle, leading to an anticlimactic, zero-yard duff into the turf.

The penalty flag went up for that extra, frustrated kick that sent the ball bouncing across the field, but it didn’t matter. Boswell blew the last chance for the Steelers, and it’s hard to blame him for being frustrated. To add insult to injury, the Ravens ended the game taking a knee.

Boswell will be practicing that kick a lot this week. And as more teams realize how valuable it is in a kicker’s arsenal, it won’t take another 40 years before we see one pulled off, successfully, in a high-pressure game.