Long before Eddy Piñeiro launched a 53-yard game-winning field goal for the Chicago Bears, before he was mobbed by his jubilant teammates on national TV, before he became a cult hero at the University of Florida, he was a soccer-obsessed Miami junior college kid, son of Cuban and Nicaraguan immigrants, sleeping in a car with his father in a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, parking lot, embarking on what seemed an impossible mission.
It was June 2015 and Piñeiro, a former All-Dade soccer star at Miami Sunset High and the 2014 Miami Herald Soccer Player of the Year, was scoring goals for ASA College in North Miami after his SAT score fell short for a scholarship offer at Florida Atlantic University.
In his free time, he dabbled in football kicking, waking up at 5 a.m. every day to train at Moore Park and Curtis Park with his father, Eddy Sr., who came to the United States from Cuba at age 9 in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and went on to become a soccer standout at Miami Springs High and briefly played pro for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
After dropping jaws at a Fort Lauderdale kicking camp with an 86-yard kickoff and 71-yard field goal that went viral on social media, Piñeiro was urged by two kicking coaches to attend an open tryout at the University of Alabama.
Eddy Sr., scraping by as a construction worker installing kitchens, agreed to go, but told his son there wasn’t enough money for a hotel room. So, they spent the night in the car.
Memories of that trip came flooding back to Piñeiro last Sunday night at Mile High Stadium in Denver after his 53-yard kick split the uprights as time expired to secure a 16-14 victory for the Bears.
Asked what, exactly, led to his postgame tears, he said: “The biggest thing was not having money to get a hotel when we went to Alabama and having to sleep in the car. That’s what brought tears to my eyes after that kick, remembering that, ‘Damn, I was literally sleeping in the car with my dad trying to get some good sleep and go to the camp and win a scholarship.’ ”
Piñeiro’s father texted him immediately after the game.
“He told me he was proud of me with all that we’ve been through, from him getting me up early to go kicking, the whole junior college process ... all the crap I’ve been through,” said Piñeiro, who has earned the nickname Eddy “Dinero” Piñeiro.
Also watching that winning kick with pride was Jay Flipse, Piñeiro’s soccer coach at Sunset High, who initially suggested Pineiro go out for kicker of the school football team. Flipse was at the Kendall Ale House, his eyes glued to the TV screen.
“The game was almost over, and I’m thinking, `Well, Eddy, at least you were 2 for 2, got your extra point. All of a sudden it’s fourth-and-15 and I’m thinking, `Oh my gosh, here it comes’ and then when I saw that look in his face, I was like, `OK, he’s ready.’ When he hit it and no time left, I fell off my stool and started fist pumping like crazy. People were looking at me like, `Are you having a seizure?’ Someone asked `Are you a Bears fan?’ and I said, `No. I’m an Eddy Piñeiro fan.’ I’m so proud of that kid.”
Flipse knew as soon as he started coaching Piñeiro that he had something special.
“Eddy definitely had skill sets that jumped out at me,” Flipse said. “Everybody now is aware of his thundering leg. I have been around many players during my coaching career, and I never heard that sound before when he hit a soccer ball. It was a very violent sound when it came off his foot. I almost felt sorry for the ball. He was creating so much more force than I had ever seen.”
Piñeiro led Miami-Dade County in scoring in 2014, and his leg strength became legendary. On the opening play of a game against LaSalle at Kendall Soccer Park, Piñeiro took a pass near midfield, swung his leg, and slammed in a shot over the goalie’s head from 55 yards out.
“It was a frozen rope into the upper 90 of the goal,” Flipse recalled. “Has to be the fastest goal in state history. Took less than two seconds, and it was seven and a half feet off the ground the whole time, over the keeper’s head. It was crazy.
“Like pitchers who can throw 100 mph, Eddy has a God-given ability to generate a tremendous amount of leg speed. He was blessed with that DNA. It’s not the size or strength of the leg, it’s the leg speed, the whip you are able to generate in that compact motion that is his gift.”
Brandon Kornblue agrees. Kornblue, a former University of Michigan kicker, runs kicking camps around the nation, including one in Fort Lauderdale. He was introduced to Piñeiro in February 2015 by Santiago Arango, a close friend of Piñeiro’s who also was making the switch from soccer to football and who stayed by Piñeiro’s side through his entire journey. Kornblue worked with Piñeiro for a year and a half on the field at Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons High.
“The scientific equation is force equals mass times acceleration, to get the football as far and high as you can,” Kornblue said. “Eddie doesn’t have the mass; he has the acceleration. He’s put on a little mass over last few years, but he’s got such a fast leg whip, and that’s where his strength comes from. He had a strength that was unique and superior to most kickers I was seeing around the country. Some of it is God-given, but his dad was a professional soccer player, so he had the quick-twitch muscle and worked at that for a long time.”
Piñeiro’s first workout with Kornblue wasn’t great. He struggled with his accuracy.
“I could hear there was a loud thump on the ball, you could see he had a strong leg, but it was going left and right and all over the place,” Kornblue said. “That first impression, I’ve seen before. The difference came because of the work ethic he has, the desire to take the instruction and tweak the technical things. And, he has the mind-set to be able to perform in any situation.
“There are guys out there who have that kind of leg power. He’s not the only one. But very few guys can kick a 53-yarder in front of 80,000 people and drill it down the middle.”
It was that combination of physical and mental skills that caught the attention of Alabama coach Nick Saban at the kicking combine in summer 2015. With less than a year of practice, and having never kicked a field goal in a game, Piñeiro stood out among the dozens of kickers who tried out.
“He went up to Eddy and said, `Listen, I’ve only heard that sound one other time in my life and that was from Sebastian Janikowski. You have an amazingly strong leg,’ ” Flipse said. Janikowski, the former Florida State University star, was picked in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft by Oakland and played 19 years.
On the way back to Miami, the Piñeiros stopped in Gainesville for a tryout with coach Jim McElwain at the University of Florida. Piñeiro napped in the car on the way to the field. He did so well the Gators offered him a scholarship on the spot.
Before long, he had offers from Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Miami. He initially committed to Alabama, but changed his mind because he wanted to be closer to home. He picked Florida over Miami, he said, because UM was rebuilding.
The Gators’ kicking game was awful the previous season, so Piñeiro became an instant fan favorite when he drilled 3 of 5 field-goal attempts from 46-yards plus in the 2016 Spring Game, including a 52-yarder. The crowd chanted “Ed-dy! Ed-dy!” He became one of the nation’s top kickers during the next two seasons.
In 2017, he made 17-of-18 attempts, for a 94.4 percent conversion rate that led the nation. He converted 29 of his final 30 attempts at UF, and his 88.4 percent career accuracy is best in school history. Piñeiro chose to give up his final year of college eligibility and enter the 2017 NFL Draft. Based on what scouts told him, he expected to be a mid-to-late-round pick. But he went undrafted and signed with the Oakland Raiders.
Expecting to get the starting job as a rookie, Piñeiro got injured during the preseason and spent the season on the injured reserve list. In the offseason, he was traded to Chicago, which was in desperate need of a kicker after losing 16-15 to the Philadelphia Eagles in a playoff game when former Dolphin Cody Parkey’s 43-yard attempt was tipped and double-clanked off the left post and crossbar. Parkey was released in March, and the Bears brought in nine kickers — yes, nine — to training camp.
The Bears’ kicking competition was the most intense and closely scrutinized in the league. Coaches created pressure at practice by using an “Augusta silence” tactic. Nobody was allowed to talk while the kickers practiced. By the end of the summer, Piñeiro was named the starter.
During the final minute of the game at Denver, Piñeiro was praying he would get a chance to kick the game-winner.
“I was praying on the sidelines that I’d be able to get that moment,” he said. “I was like, `Please, God, give me this opportunity. I want to be in the spotlights to make this happen for the team.’ That’s what you practice for. That’s what you play for.”
All of that tension made Sunday’s kick that much sweeter.
“I’ve been working my butt off, the Augusta silence, kickers getting cut left and right, so this was an emotional kick,” Piñeiro said. “At UF, they had the worst kicker in Division I and I came in with pressure, the fans, the media, same thing. `Is this kid going to come through?’ I came through for them and, hopefully, now I can come through for Chicago. This is not the first time I’ve been through this.”
His former coaches are not surprised he was able to remain calm when other kickers would have cracked. His focus under pressure also came through on Oct. 15, 2017, in Gainesville, when Piñeiro was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by the screams of a woman who was being assaulted by a man. He ran down three flights of stairs, chased the man and held him until police arrived. The police department gave him a Police Service Award for his selfless act.
“He has a singularity of purpose and is able to dial in and block out everything, and that is really important for a field-goal kicker,” Flipse said. “He did it for me playing soccer, and he’s doing it now for the Bears. His mental strength will be his greatest weapon.”
“I’ve been telling everybody since May that Eddy is perfect for the Bears because nothing fazes him,” Kornblue said. “He’s always been that consistent. You give him an opportunity and he’s going to drill it, whether it’s on crazy YouTube videos or in an NFL game as time expires. The mental side is God-given, and I foresee him having a long NFL career. It’s such a great story, especially with his family background.”
Piñeiro said his greatest motivation is his family — his father, his mother, Grace, who came from Nicaragua, and his siblings, Gicely and Adam. When he signed with the NFL, he helped his family buy a $300,000 house in the Silver Palms development in South Dade.
“I want to be a great kicker so I can support my family for the rest of my life so they never have to work another day in their lives,” he said. “That’s been my goal since Day One. They’ve struggled so much and given me everything, and now it’s time for me to give them everything.”
Heading into Monday night’s game against the Washington Redskins, Piñeiro hopes to gain more trust from coach Matt Nagy.
“Now that he sees I can hit some 50-yarders, maybe he’ll let me try longer ones,” Piñeiro said.
Asked at a news conference how a guy with so little experience has so much swagger, he smiled and replied: “I’m from Miami.”