The pain was agonizing for Dustin Hopkins.
Every step he took on the football field tormented his hamstring as much as the agony of not playing at all.
While his high school injury was disheartening, Hopkins could still participate in a sport he loved by kicking permanently. Soon after he recovered, the current Washington Redskins kicker discovered that he had the potential to use kicking to make it to the next level.
This kind of adversity is not something that was new to Hopkins. It’s what has molded him into an NFL kicker.
“[My hamstring] finally healed up and so I went back to playing the other position,” Hopkins said. “But then I realized like, ‘Hey, if I’m going to play at a D-I level and then at the pro level, it’s probably going to be kicking rather than corner or something.’”
A Blessing In Disguise
At Clear Lake (Texas) High School in Houston, Hopkins sustained his hamstring injury while playing on the school’s soccer team. When he was attempting to come back for both football and soccer, he kept re-pulling the muscle.
After discovering that the only thing he could do to play without re-injuring his hamstring was turning his attention to special teams, Hopkins’ eyes were opened as he drilled field goals with ease. Hopkins decided to attend a kicker’s camp and realized his biggest obstacle now was to simply polish his newfound skill.
Zeroing in on special teams, the two-time Texas 5A all-state selection turned into a USA Today first-team All-American during his senior season. His talent caught the attention of various Division I schools, where he ultimately chose Florida State.
Switching his focus was not solely about giving himself an opportunity to play football at a higher level. The fact that Hopkins wanted his skill to be utilized in a positive way motivated the future All-ACC selection to put himself in a successful position.
“For me, it was always I never wanted to waste [my talent],” Hopkins said. “There are people who give everything and work with everything they have, but some people just don’t have the talent. I didn’t want to squander away a talent without working hard. I just felt it would be wasteful.
“In a way, it’s a driving force to not let myself be the guy that was super talented but never reached his full potential. So it’s like I’ve always kind of battled against that. Most every guy at [the NFL] level, they want to stay here and have a long career, have that mentality of, ‘Man, I don’t want to waste what opportunities and talent I have.’”
Jody Allen, the long-time special teams coordinator, recruited Hopkins upon seeing high school film of his kickoffs. Despite having a promising year of hitting 19 field goals as a freshman, he had to prove he could be the go-to guy when a field goal was needed.
When Jimbo Fisher was hired to replace Bobby Bowden in 2010, he brought in Eddie Gran to serve as the special teams coordinator in addition to the running backs. Gran’s attention was grabbed once he witnessed Hopkins kick, claiming that the ball “sounded different off his foot”.
Even though Gran eventually named him the starter, Hopkins felt that getting game and practice experience would not be enough to reach his goal of playing in the NFL. He attended strength and conditioning sessions with different positions on his own, challenging himself and his teammates in every drill. Whenever the Seminoles had their own time to workout, Hopkins was a regular on the field attempting to make every kick perfect.
Gran believes that it was not what people saw in games that shaped Hopkins into a better player, but it was what went on behind the scenes.
“He’d compete, he’d get in there and he’d beat them [in the weight room] and that’s what I loved about him,” Gran said in a phone interview. “In the offseason, when you really didn’t have to be out there, you’d see balls lined up and you’d see a guy kicking all the time. He was always trying to master his craft and you know you got a great one when that happens, when he knows that people probably aren’t watching.”
The biggest adversity that Hopkins had to overcome in college didn’t come from an injury, however. Florida State’s 2011 homecoming game against Virginia was a moment that allowed him to take a deeper look at his technique.
According to Gran, Hopkins would have a tendency to kick the ball too high early in his college career. When the Seminoles needed a 42-yard field goal attempt to claim a conference victory, he kicked the ball too high and missed.
From that point on, Hopkins was determined to change the outcomes of Florida State’s games in their favor. During his senior season, he set a new NCAA career scoring record for kickers with 466 points in addition to establishing new NCAA, ACC and Florida State records with 88 career field goals. His performance lifted the Seminoles to their first ACC championship since 2005 and a victory in the Orange Bowl.
“That was a tough deal for him, Florida State losing to Virginia at home,” Gran said. “We had a helluva team. He came back and it didn’t phase him. He was strong, he knew he had to have a short-term memory and just came back and ended up the season doing really, really well.”