Boca Raton native Blair Walsh makes big impact as rookie kicker with Minnesota Vikings

Boca Raton native Blair Walsh doesn’t want to make a big deal of the 29-yard field goal he kicked as time expired Sunday to give the Minnesota Vikings a 37-34 victory over Green Bay and their first playoff berth since the 2009 season.

“It was pretty routine,” Walsh said. “Good snap, good hold. One of those kicks you have to make.”

But there was nothing routine about his rookie season. Walsh, a sixth-round pick after becoming the SEC’s all-time leading scorer at Georgia, was 35-for-38 on field goals, including a remarkable 10-of-10 from beyond 50 yards. He was so good he was named to the Pro Bowl.

All season, most of the attention on the Vikings went to Adrian Peterson and his quest to break Eric Dickerson’s NFL rushing record (Peterson fell nine yards short with a total of 2,097 yards). But all the while Walsh was quietly playing his part in Minnesota’s success.

On Sunday he hit from 54 and 37 yards as Minnesota opened an early 13-0 lead, then kicked the game-winner after the Packers had stormed back to tie.

All of which set up a rematch in Saturday’s wild-card game at Lambeau Field (8 p.m., NBC).

“We know they’re out for revenge against us,” Walsh said. “Now both teams’ seasons are on the line. I couldn’t think of a better matchup for a wild-card game.”

A product of the Boca Raton youth soccer program, Walsh’s journey to NFL stardom started a scant eight years ago when he was a freshman soccer player at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale and teammate Brett Swinson invited him to join him in kicking some footballs.

“One of the football coaches came over and asked him how long he’d been kicking, and he said, ‘Five minutes,’ ” said Walsh’s father, Joe Walsh, a Boca dentist. “He said, ‘No, really. How long?’ ”

Invited to join the team, Walsh was penciled in as the junior varsity kicker, then got promoted to varsity as a sophomore when Swinson transferred across town to St. Thomas Aquinas. Walsh’s father hooked him up with former Penn State kicker Nick Gancitano as a tutor and he was soon a two-time All-American.

“He was contacted by about 60 schools,” Joe Walsh said. “One day he looked at me and said, ‘I know I’m good, but I want to be the best, so I want to go to the best conference, and that’s the SEC.’ He narrowed his choices down to Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and (Georgia coach) Mark Richt had a reputation as a great kicker-oriented coach.”

Walsh’s biggest accomplishment as a Bulldog might have come in his worst game. In last year’s Outback Bowl, he set the SEC career scoring record of 412 points but also missed from 42 yards and had a 47-yarder blocked, both in overtime, as Georgia fell to Michigan State 33-30.

His fortunes improved three weeks later at the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg. Chuck Priefer, a special-teams coach in the NFL for 16 years, was on Bobby Ross’ staff and was so impressed with Walsh that he told his son, Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer, that he need to check him out.

“I watched every kick he took his senior year,” Mike Priefer said, “then went and had dinner with him, worked him out and got to know him. What I saw was a guy who’s not only very intelligent but also humble and hard-working. There were things he had to fix, but the big thing I could see was he would be coachable.”

In his father’s words, Walsh “killed it” at the NFL Scouting Combine last February and the Vikings made him the second kicker selected, taking him four picks after St. Louis chose Greg Zuerlein.

It wasn’t long before Walsh was pressed into action. The Vikings trailed Jacksonville 23-20 with four seconds left in their opener when Walsh was sent out to try a 55-yarder. He made it, then made a 38-yarder in overtime for the win.

Of his 10 makes beyond 50 yards, Priefer said, “Coach (Leslie) Frazier has that much confidence in him.”

The Vikings are a 7 1/2-point underdog Saturday night, but Walsh said they welcome that role.

“It’s appropriate for us, because nobody’s given us a chance all year,” he said.