After 17 years starring as one of the NFL's best placekickers, once Al Del Greco retired, he could have virtually done anything he wanted. For “Automatic Al,” there was little doubt that his future after football would be tied to golf.
He played the game as a kid and was deeply and quickly hooked. While kicking game-winning field goals, first for Auburn and then in the NFL, Del Greco always worked in time to indulge in his passion for golf, including regularly participating in – and winning in 1998 – the American Century Championship.
These days, Del Greco serves both as the co-host (along with former Alabama signal caller Jay Barker) of The Morning Drive on KJOX FM in Birmingham and as the Head Coach of the men's golf team at Samford University. He recently took some time away from his busy schedule to speak with USA Football about kicking in high-pressure situations, his brief stint as a professional golfer, and the differences and similarities in coaching football and golf.
EM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, Al. So, going back to the beginning, when did you first start playing organized football? I know you grew up in Florida, which is one of the perennial hotbeds for the sport. Did you start playing at a young age?
ADG: I started playing in high school. I actually wanted to play earlier as part of a youth league. I did play flag football as a kid, but I didn't play full-contact football till the 10th grade. I grew up loving the sport and as soon as I started high school, I signed up. I knew I wanted to kick, but back then, they didn't let you do just that, so I had to play another position. I was a defensive back and I guess that helped me a little bit when I had to tackle someone bigger and faster later on in my career.
EM: So, you always wanted to be a placekicker? When did you know that was a skill you possessed and how long was it before you knew you were good at it?
ADG: Gosh, I grew up playing soccer. I was always one of the best shooters with a soccer ball in my area. I remember literally going up to the football field by myself and taking one football, I didn't have a tee, so I would cut out the insert of a cup or find something to hold the ball. I would kick a field goal, go run and get it and repeat this over and over. Something about that fascinated me.
In high school, I made All-City and All-State so I figured that if I could get the opportunity to kick in college, I knew I could do it. Auburn gave me that opportunity and I think I did okay there. I probably missed more than I should have. When the NFL came around and I was invited to training camp with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent. I got in some preseason games there and once there I realized I was good enough if I got the opportunity somewhere. I got that with the Packers.
I'll never forget, at the press conference, [then Head Coach and Hall of Famer] Forrest Gregg said that [I] was a guy who could kick in this league for 10 or 11 years. Having someone like him say that about me helped me tremendously.
EM: So, coming from a big-time program like Auburn to the NFL, would it be fair to assume that you were used to kicking in high-pressure situations?
ADG: I would say so, yes. I remember my freshman year, I made a 52-yard field goal in the Iron Bowl and that was the longest of my career at Auburn. I watched the Bear Bryant Show the next day and they were going over the replays. He had that grumbly voice and he was talking about this freshman kid from Miami who comes in and kicks this 52-yard field goal against us and it wasn't even that good looking of a kick. I remember thinking, 'Dang.'
Growing and learning about the significance of what it meant to play in the SEC was something I learned about and learned to adapt to. As I got better as a player it was something I learned to do better. Honestly though, I think you have to be born with the ability to handle kicking in situations like that. You either have it or you don't. I think you can get more comfortable with it the more experience you get, obviously. But I think that's what separates guys, they can either handle the pressure or they can't.
EM: So, from what I have read, you started playing golf at a pretty young age, right? Do you think that there is a parallel in the solitary nature of golf – that it's just you out there against the course – and how individualistic a role of the placekicker? Obviously you depend on the snapper and holder as a kicker, but it still is up to you to get the job done, right?
ADG: Yeah, I was probably about 10. My uncle was on vacation visiting us one year. He always played a lot of golf and he took me out to play at a course down in Key Biscayne, Florida. I caught the bug for it right away. The thought of trying to get that little white ball into the hole as quickly and efficiently as possible just spoke to me. Maybe two years later, my Dad got me a summer membership to that course and I would spend 7 or 8 hours a day there playing golf, putting. It was great for me.
I think that there is a lot of similarities between being a golfer and a kicker. The plane of the swing of a golf club is very similar to the plane of kicking a football. Being able to focus for a short period of time, whether your lining up to kick a field goal or hitting a tee shot those are similar skills. There are a lot more variables in golf than in kicking. I went to a sports psychiatrist when I was in Houston to help me with my golf game and the two went hand-in-hand. I really think that is why I became a better kicker while I was there.
EM: I know you spend a number of years playing on the Celebrity Players Golf Tour and competed at the American Century Championship numerous times. After retiring, did you give serious thought to trying out for the PGA Tour or the Champions Tour?
ADG: Yeah, actually when I retired in 2000 I spent maybe two years playing professionally on the Mini Tour in Florida. I had mixed results at it, but I found out two things. One, I wasn't good enough at it to make a living at playing professionally and two, I didn't enjoy spending all that time away from my family. I would miss soccer games and dance recitals. Sitting in hotel rooms really didn't make me happy.
I think that's what most people have a misconception about being a professional golfer. Most of those guys aren't playing well and they're sitting in hotel rooms alone. I knew pretty quickly that's not the life I wanted.
EM: That makes sense. I know you do media work now and you also coached some football and golf at the high school level. Have you thought about coaching football?
ADG: I guess experiencing football practice for all the years that I did, I quickly realized that coaching football was not as much fun for me as golf. I didn't want to spend time doing something that wasn't going to be fun. Golf on the other hand, as a coach, I could set the practice schedules and we could go to different places to play. It also seemed like a great chance to get to play more golf.
EM: How did the role at Samford University come about? Was coaching at the college level something you wanted to do?
ADG: I did the high school golf coaching for 10 years. My son was going to be a junior at Vanderbilt University on a golf scholarship. I coached him every year in high school and then I coached the high school for two years after. I realized that I wanted to see him play more so I quit the high school and watched him for a few years. I was doing the radio show when I heard the job here at Samford opened up. I remembered how much I enjoyed coaching golf. I had known the Athletics Director for a few years and I emailed him and he invited me in that day to talk about the job and I've been doing this since 2014.
EM: Since you've had experience with both now, what are the similarities and differences – in style or approach – in golf and football?
ADG: Well, I think coaching golf is a lot more mental work. You have to teach kids how to stay focused and keep composed out there on the course. They have to learn how to not let one bad hole continue on into the next one. In football, if you make a mistake either physical or mental, you can make up for it by being aggressive. You can use your adrenaline or anger to your advantage. With golf, it's about remaining poised, even when you're doing well. You can't let anything get you either too amped up or too down. With football, there's so much physicality to it that there are different ways to get out of it coaching-wise than there is with golf.
EM: That makes a lot of sense. Last thing for you, if you could pinpoint one thing from football – maybe a lesson or a philosophy or something of that nature – that you still use to this day, what would that be?
ADG: I'll go back to my high school days… I had a coach who had a saying that he was adamant about and I think it works on a lot of levels. He used to say as a kicker you've got to keep your head down and let the crowd tell you if you made it. Now, obviously he was talking about the mechanics of kicking, but I think that works in a lot of ways. It is basically the same thing in golf. Keep your head down, keep good posture, and just finish. If you think about it, it’s a lot like life. Let someone else tell you how great you are. You just keep your head down and do your job.