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Bears kicker Eddy Pineiro celebrates a 53-yard field goal in the final second to defeat the Denver Broncos.
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PRESSURE KICKER

Bears kicker Eddy Pineiro’s journey from soccer star to Chicago darling wasn’t a smooth journey.

The day after Eddy Pineiro’s life changed forever, he had a stop to make on his way home to Miami.

His dad pulled their rented Chevy Impala into a University of Florida parking lot in June 2015. When he stepped out, Pineiro had bad news for Marc Nudelberg, the Gators’ quality-control assistant for special teams.

“My leg is dead,” he said.

Pineiro had kicked more than 100 balls at Alabama’s camp the day before, establishing himself — a junior college soccer player without even a high school field-goal attempt — as a top recruit.

It happened just in time. Months after a video of Pineiro making a 71-yard field goal and 86-yard kickoff went viral, Eddy Sr. made a deal with his son. He’d try the Alabama camp, and if no scholarship offers come, he’d let Eddy return to soccer full-time.

Nudelberg wanted Gators head coach Jim McElwain to offer Pineiro a full ride. But now the kicker was hurting.

“I thought, ‘This is going to go terrible,’ ” Nudelberg said.

Pineiro worked out anyway. With McElwain watching from high inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Pineiro kicked off. His first ball soared through the back of the end zone and into the stadium’ stands.

“I looked up at ‘Coach Mac’ in his office and he gave me a thumbs up,” Nudelberg said. “And the interview was over.”

Pineiro was gassed for a reason. To afford the trip to Alabama, Pineiro, his dad and friend Santiago Arango, a fellow kicker, slept in the Impala. They pulled into a Tuscaloosa parking lot the night before camp and let Eddy sleep in the front seat.

They then drove through the night to Gainesville, with Eddy sleeping during the eight-hour trip.

“My back, my neck was hurting,” Pineiro said this week. “I took some Advil and my dad just motivated me, like he always does.

“The best thing about my dad is he pretends that everything is OK in the worst situations. He’ll convince you that you’re amazing in the worst situations, and then you start to think of it in your head.”

He’d need that skill later, at the height of the Bears’ kicker derby.

Alabama and Florida both offered Pineiro scholarships. He committed to the Crimson Tide then switched to the Gators. He became a celebrity at “The Swamp” and, more recently, in Chicago. The night of the Bears’ opener, he even shook hands with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. She wanted to wish him luck.

No pressure could be greater than his last-shot football camp without a bed, though. That’s why, after Pineiro made a 53-yard field goal Sunday to beat the Broncos, he thought back to sleeping in the Impala.

“That,” he said, “is what brought tears to my eyes after that kick.”

***

Jay Flipse folded the same paper napkin into increasingly smaller squares with his thumb and forefinger, channeling his nervous energy. Then the television at the South Florida sports bar showed Pineiro jog on the field Sunday with one second left.

“When they zoomed it in, I saw his face,” said Flipse, his soccer coach at Miami Sunset High School. “I’ve seen that staredown a thousand times before. . . . He has this ability to go to a place when he’s all by himself. He goes dark. Everything around him becomes numb. He just blanks it out.

“He is an absolutely cold-blooded kicking assassin. He was like that as a soccer player for us.”

For the longest time, that’s all Pineiro ever wanted to be. He kicked the soccer ball as fast as 80 mph, but flat, so it knuckled, his coach said.

He idolized his father, who played professionally for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers before getting a job building kitchens. Eddy Sr. was 9 when he and his family left Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, landing, along with 125,000 others, in Florida. He met his wife, Grace, who was born in Nicaragua, at church. With money tight, they raised three kids in the Eureka neighborhood of Miami.

At Sunset, the staff moved Pineiro from midfield to forward where his dad played. He led all of South Florida with 28 goals.

Pineiro signed a letter-of-intent to play soccer at Florida Atlantic, but his SAT scores proved too low. He played soccer at ASA College instead.

When ASA began the state’s only junior-college football program, his dad wanted him to try the sport. He woke up early with his son, practicing at a local field from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. before his classes, and then again at dusk.

Pineiro handled a few kickoffs and extra points in high school, but never field goals. He wouldn’t in junior college either; Pineiro proved so proficient with private coaches that he never played a down at ASA. He wanted to save his eligibility for major-college football.

Through Arango, his friend from the Impala, he began attending two coaching sessions a month that Brandon Kornblue, a former Michigan kicker, held in Fort Lauderdale. Pineiro had a huge leg, but the coach honed his accuracy.

“What separated him was an incredible work ethic,” Kornblue said. “He’s not a big strong guy, but he’s got such a fast leg.”

In April 2015, he set a Kornblue Kicking and Snapping Challenge record with an 86-yard kickoff and 71-yard field goal. The ensuing buzz — and encouragement from Kornblue and another kicking instructor, Chris Sailer — spawned the Alabama road trip and the football ultimatum that never came to pass.

“My dad was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got one shot,’ ” Pineiro said. “I told him I was done personally playing football if I didn’t get that scholarship. And it ended up happening.”

***

At home, long snappers can hear the count. But not at The Swamp.

“They would chant Eddy’s name during PATs,” snapper Ryan Farr said. “It was cool for him, but not for us.”

The 91,916 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium couldn’t be blamed for their enthusiasm. In 2015, Gators kicker Austin Hardin went 5-for-14 on field goals. The team was forced to hold a midseason tryout. More than 300 students took turns kicking, with Nudelberg at midfield giving each a thumb’s up or down.

“It was terrible,” Nudelberg said.

Sound familiar?

“They had the worst kicker in the NCAA, and I came in with a bunch of pressure: ‘Is this guy going to change the program?’ ” Pineiro said. “And I ended up doing it.

“It was kind of the same situation here. The whole kicking situation that happened, and I came in. It wasn’t coincidence. I did it in college.”

Pineiro made 21 of 25 kicks in 2016 and 17 of 18 the next season. His 88.4 field-goal percentage is the highest in Gators history.

But he became a real hero on Oct. 15, 2017. With his dad staying at his apartment after a game, Pineiro awoke to the sound of a woman screaming. He looked out his window and saw her being choked and punched by her boyfriend.

Wearing only boxer shorts, Pineiro ran down three flights of stairs, sprinted after the attacker and pulled him off the woman, allowing her to escape. In honoring them, the Gainesville Police Department said that Pineiro might have saved the woman’s life. The man was jailed.

Pineiro was reminded that — as someone who hoped to make a living with his feet — he ran out the door barefoot.

“Yeah,” he said. “But if it’s your daughter, it’s all right.”

***

Punter Johnny Townsend and Pineiro, two Florida kids who became Gators, started their NFL careers in the second-farthest city from home: Oakland, California.

Townsend was drafted in the fifth round in 2018. Pineiro, who left college early because his agent believed he’d be selected, signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent.

Pineiro, whose bedrock is his faith and immediate family, felt far from home. But they had each other. Townsend and Pineiro roomed together, falling asleep in beds four feet from each other for 15 consecutive weeks.

They joked about how they were a package deal — Townsend, the punter and holder, and Pineiro, the kicker. Pineiro was set to win the kicking job, too, before a preseason groin injury landed him on injured reserve. It was a minor injury, but the Raiders shut him down for the season, telling him to treat it like a redshirt year.

“It was an emotional experience because I knew I was good enough to play in the NFL,” he said. “Being put on IR was tough mentally for me too. Going through an injury and not playing and knowing I should be out there — but wasn’t out there.”

It kept Pineiro hungry. He added 10 pounds of muscle to his 167-pound frame.

“If you’re going to be the starter and you’re playing well, when something like that happens, it kinda knocks the breath out of you, takes your confidence away,” Townsend said. “But he handled it really well.”

Pineiro is never short on confidence. But after Daniel Carlson made 16 of 17 field goals for the Raiders, Pineiro became expendable. The day after their nine-man kicker derby ended in May, the Bears dealt a conditional 2021 seventh-round pick to the Raiders for Pineiro.

“The Raiders gave me up for pennies,” he said in training camp.

Pineiro already knew Bears kicking consultant Jamie Kohl, with whom he now works every day. Plus, he’d weathered a similar storm at Florida.

“We just knew he’d kill it there,” Townsend said. “Knowing what his confidence was like and what his ability was like and how he performed in big-time games.”

***

Pineiro had been to downtown Chicago only once when he decided to take his best friend, visiting from Miami, for a boat cruise earlier this week. Fans recognized him.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Everybody loves you now, but let’s see where everybody is at when you miss. We’ll determine that, hopefully never.”

Adulation can be fleeting in a town still scarred by Cody Parkey’s incompetence.

“I’m excited that he’s getting this, because it’s good attention,” coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s not the other type of attention.”

But that’s not what motivates Pineiro. He sends money home, but wants to further help his parents, older sister and 13-year-old brother, who wants to be a kicker, too.

“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 a day in their life,” he said. “That’s been my goal since Day 1.

“They’ve struggled so much and have given me everything. And now it’s time that I give them everything.”

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