There’s nothing like that first drop of sweat forming on the brow as the Texas sun goes down and the stadium lights illuminate the night. Or the locker room rituals where young men feel the weight and security of today’s version of a suit-of-armor. Their cleats touch the crisp, green grass and the dream begins: Will they have what it takes to score the winning touchdown? Who will go on to play college ball? What will it take to reach the ultimate level?
These former Lake Highlands Wildcats – Phil Dawson, Wade Smith and Matt Stover – have proved they have what it takes. They are living the NFL dream.
A kicker’s job is all about capitalizing, usually when the game’s on the line. How do they deal with that pressure?
“I’m a big believer in preparation,” Dawson says. “I work extremely hard during the week to prepare myself for those situations, so I’ve been there before. That way when it’s time to do your job, you flip your body on auto-pilot.”
Lake Highlands has produced two of the best kickers in the NFL in Dawson and Stover. Under Coach Joe Bob Johnson’s reign, Stover was the Wildcats’ all-district wide receiver as well as the kicker. He kicked five field goals in a single game, including one for 50 yards. Both are Texas state records.
He says his younger days as a Texas wide receiver give him some credibility, but he’s happy to not catch passes on Sundays.
“Oh, sure I can [still] catch,” Stover says. “I’m glad I’m not paid to do it now. I learned my specialty is kicking footballs.”
Stover attributes much of his early success to Pee Wee football and the neighborhood’s junior- and senior-high schools’ resources.
“All the programs were good about encouraging me to reach my full potential,” Stover says.
In 1990 the New York Giants drafted him out of Louisiana Tech as the 329th overall pick. He signed with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in March of 1991. In 1996, the Browns moved to the East Coast and became the Baltimore Ravens, where Stover still plays.
In 1999, the Browns franchise was resurrected, and Dawson, a former Longhorn, signed on as kicker.
“It’s crazy to think that from 1991 to now, the only kickers for the Cleveland Browns have been from Lake Highlands,” Dawson says.
As a kid, Dawson’s father took him to every game, outings that fueled a dream of one day playing for the Wildcats. He grew up to be the kicker, punter, defensive end and offensive tackle for Lake Highlands. In his senior year, he was the top place kicker in Texas, hitting 18 of 24 field goals.
Professionally and personally, Dawson and Stover have stayed close. Last season, Dawson set a new career-high with 27 field goals, the highest total since Stover hit 29 in 1995. Dawson is the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. Stover is third.
Smith was a tight end for the Wildcats, and helped lead the team to the area championship in 1997 and the regional title in 1998.
“Growing up, my main goal was to be a high school football player,” Smith says. “The tradition was so rich at Lake Highlands. I wasn’t even thinking about college or the NFL.”
He began his collegiate career in Memphis as a tight end, but as Smith grew, his role for the Tigers changed. Now he is a 6-foot-4, 318-pound offensive lineman for the New York Jets.
Smith was drafted on May 22, 2003 (his birthday) by the Miami Dolphins, and started all 16 games at left tackle. His progress was marred by a season-ending forearm injury in 2005, but Smith is looking to rebuild his young career with the Jets.
LHHS Class of ’93
University of Texas kicker
Cleveland Browns (’99-present)
LHHS Class of ’86
Louisiana Tech University kicker/punter
New York Giants (’90-’91)
Cleveland Browns (’91-’95)
Baltimore Ravens (’96-present)
LHHS Class of ’99
University of Memphis tight end
and offensive tackle
Miami Dolphins (’03-’05)
New York Jets (’06),