In 2004, Greg Zuerlein won a state championship with Lincoln Pius X in a 14-9 victory over McCook to complete an undefeated season. Fifteen years later, dozens of friends and former teammates of Zuerlein gathered at Dino's on Sunday night in southeast Lincoln to watch him play for a Super Bowl title with the Los Angeles Rams.
Tim Aylward, who is now the athletic director at Pius, coached the Thunderbolts for 31 years and led them to six state championships. The win in 2004 was their last.
“It was nice to have that sort of insurance in a kicker,” Aylward said of Zuerlein.
That cold November night in 2004 was not Zuerlein’s best game. During that junior season, he set the state record for field goals in a season, converting 12-of-15 attempts, including a long of 52 yards.
In the state title game, with Kevin Kugler and Scott Frost in the broadcast booth, he went 2-for-2 on extra points and had a tackle, but he missed a crucial 33-yard field goal with 8 minutes, 47 seconds to go that would have put Pius ahead by seven points. The Thunderbolts still squeaked out the victory, though.
Sunday night, Zuerlein and the Rams had a quiet first half. The Los Angeles kicker was only on the field for the game’s opening kickoff, and he made the tackle on New England returner Cordarrelle Patterson.
The only collective cheer of the opening half from the crowd of Zuerlein fans came when New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 46-yard field goal midway through the first quarter.
But in the second quarter, Gostkowski made up for it with a 40-yard attempt that put the Patriots up 3-0 before halftime.
For some, watching their friend in the Super Bowl was a surreal experience. Zuerlein’s former teammates said they used to joke about the NFL with him. It wasn’t until a few years after Zuerlein’s first football game that they began to notice a change in their friend.
“He was kind of cocky when it came to sports in high school, but he always backed it up,” said Anthony Kohel, a high school soccer teammate of Zuerlein’s. “When he got to college I think is when he really started to be more humble and realize he had a real gift.”
Zuerlein plays perhaps the most psychologically tormenting position in all of sports. But he’s proved before that he can step up in the clutch under the brightest lights.
In 2006, he led the Thunderbolts to a state soccer championship. It was an overtime win over Omaha Skutt that gave the school its first ever soccer title and Zuerlein scored the winning goal.
“It was funny because it was a headed goal that gave us the win,” said Dan Gonnerman, a former soccer teammate of Zuerlein’s. “He didn’t even use his leg. But it just shows that he does well under pressure."
Sunday night was no different. Late in the third quarter, Zuerlein drilled a 53-yard field goal to tie the game at 3-3. It was the second-longest kick in Super Bowl history, only trailing a 54-yarder by Steve Christie in Super Bowl XXVIII in the Buffalo Bills' loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He attempted one more kick, a 48-yarder, but missed it wide left. By then, however, his team was down 10 points with under 15 seconds remaining, leaving little chance for Los Angeles even if the kick had split the uprights.
The 13-3 Patriots win left the once raucous atmosphere at Dino's in stunned silence. The final score was not what Zuerlein or his friends wanted, but in times like this, Aylward believes reflection is the most important thing.
“I know it’s hard after a loss, but you have to look back at the body of work they had as a team,” Aylward said. “He’s one of the biggest reasons they are there. There are a lot of teams that wish they could have been in that position and they were."
Win or lose, his friends and family would tell you that Zuerlein does things the right way.
“He never seeks the spotlight,” said family friend and former neighbor Brian Kohel. “If any kids out there are looking for a professional athlete role model, Greg is your guy.”