Former TCU kicker forgoes the NFL to launch kicking academy

Former TCU kicker Jaden Oberkrom gave up his NFL career before it started because he decided to follow his passion and coach kids to be better kickers. But building a business takes skills he wasn't familiar with. So he took a second big risk -- hiring a group of five high school students to create a comprehensive marketing plan for him.

A little over two years ago, former TCU kicker Jaden Oberkrom stepped back from his holder and attempted a 37-yard field goal against West Virginia as time expired. The then-No. 7 Horned Frogs would lose if he missed it, and win over the No. 20 Mountaineers if he put it through the uprights as a bone-chilling wind whipped through the stadium.

What goes through your head as you approach the ball in that situation?

For Oberkrom, he reminded himself he didn’t care. It’s the same lesson he now conveys to the junior high and high school kickers he trains for a living.

"When my guys have a [high-pressure kick] on a Friday night, I like to tell them not to make it a big deal,” he said. “I feel like the number-one piece of advice is not to care."

Oberkrom took a similar approach to his picking a career after college.

He was certain to attract the eye of pro scouts -- he was invited to the NFL Combine after his senior season to work out in front of them. In his four years as TCU’s starting kicker, he scored 451 points for the Frogs, set a record for kicking points in a season (142), tied another for longest field goal (57 yards), and had 13 games with four or more field goals, including four in TCU’s Alamo Bowl win in January 2016.

He was signed after the 2016 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but was cut on May 17. As Oberkrom tells it, the Cleveland Browns picked him up off of waivers 24 hours later, "and 10 minutes after that, I was calling it quits."

Oberkrom had just returned home to Arlington when he received a call from his agent telling him he had been signed by Cleveland. He pulled to the side of the road to think.

Was this really what he wanted?

"Everyone was saying, ‘Why don't you go do it for a year and make a million dollars?’” Oberkrom said. “Number one, you don't. You make $260,000 after taxes, which is still great money, but if you're miserable and you feel like you would be a lot happier doing something else -- even if it's not as much -- I just decided to take that route."

He said the entire process that led to him potentially getting a job in the NFL was “other people telling him what to do.” He took back control of his life when he called his agent back and told him he was going to retire from his NFL career before it started, potentially leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table.

Not everyone was happy. In fact, “a lot of people got pissed,” Oberkrom said.

"Very relieving [for me], even though it made a lot of people mad and a lot of people said some hurtful things,” he said. “I mean, people close to me."

He persevered through the skepticism and Oberkrom's Kicking Academy was born weeks later, in June.

"The goal is to make as many kids better as I can," he said. "One, it's what I like to do. And two, getting a text from their parents on Friday night saying [my son] went 2-for-2 is pretty cool, y'know?"

But Oberkrom was a psychology major -- he didn’t know the first thing about marketing a business.

Which is why he made a second decision about his future that some may think is questionable, but to him, just felt right.

He put the promotion and online footprint of his new business idea in the hands of two 15 year olds, a 16 year old, and two 17 year olds.

Cody Parkey, the man who won the Browns’ kicking job, missed three field goals in the team’s season opener, an overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins. Oberkrom was not having second thoughts.

"I've never been to Ohio -- I'm sure it’s great,” he said. “But if it was Dallas, if it was the Patriots, it wouldn't matter."

Making the connection

To call Melissa Triebwasser simply a “TCU fan” is practically an insult. A regular fan doesn’t usually contribute to a team-themed blog (Frogs O’ War), in addition to recording a podcast about her team, and live tweeting games while in the stands on her Amon G. Carter Stadium-clad Twitter timeline.

So, it was no surprise a Fort Worth Business article in July about Oberkrom’s decision and new business venture caught her eye. It is a little surprising where her mind went from there. She wanted to get her students involved.

"The past couple of years, we've tried to focus on more real world opportunities to do work that kind of exceeds just class projects and do things that have an impact off-campus, as well," she said.

Triebwasser is in her fifth year as teacher at Oakridge School in Arlington, a private college preparatory school. She teaches integrated media, a program that began at the school this year when. It combines its video production class and digital production class into a single elective, offered to all high school students for as many semesters as they’d like to take it.

In the program, students work on projects for groups and teams within the school, but also on professional projects that they work on for free.

"I'm always on the hunt for something I think is doable for us and interesting, and can attract the interest and attention of high school boys, which can be difficult to do, especially in the creative field," Triebwasser said.

Her integrated media students get a crash course in just about every common tool a media professional has in their arsenal today.

“First-year students learn all of the disciplines,” she said. “Graphic design, photography, the entire Adobe creative suite -- they're doing InDesign, Photoshop, Premiere, Illustrator, After Effects, the whole thing -- they learn storyboarding and storytelling, interview techniques, audio.”

While not all of her students are boys, in Oberkrom’s Kicking Academy, she saw an opportunity for five boys in two classes who had previously impressed her with a 30-second Gatorade commercial they had created for an assignment. She decided to reach out.

“I thought, 'Huh. I wonder if this a guy I can reach out to and see if maybe he needs some help,’” Triebwasser said. “And, frankly, after looking as his Twitter and his website and everything else, ‘Well, he definitely needs it.’ And so then I told him we could work for him for free, and he took us up on it."

“It was a bad start,” one of the students on the project said about looking at the Oberkrom's Kicking Academy’s Twitter and website before it became his elective project.

You can’t blame Oberkrom. He was a kicker at major college program and he’s not a fool. He was not interested in social media until his playing career was through.

"I've heard stories, I've had buddies who've experienced [harassment on social media],” Oberkrom said. “It's tough. You can put everything out there when you're doing good, but one bad game and you get to see what everyone else says."

He visited the campus and met the team who would be working on his project, a group of teenage sports junkies: sophomores Joey Petersen, who wants to be a sports broadcaster, Ben Broadus, who is on the golf team, and Carson Welch, who is also the starting quarterback for the varsity football team; junior Jeff Wright, who plays offense and defense on the football team and wrestles; and senior Michael Cendrick, who plays receiver and safety on the football team.

“Clients come in, they sit down, we have a professional meeting, [the students] take notes, set deadlines, figure out what the client's needs are and figure out the scope and sequence of the work,” Triebwasser said. “[... I]t really is a student-centered project."

Oberkrom was impressed.

"They're good at what they do, [Triebwasser] gave me some examples,” he said. “She said, ‘It helps you, it helps me, and it's free.’ So why not?"

The students take over

The teens who worked on the kicking academy project said they had signed up for integrated media as their lone non-athletic elective because it had the reputation of being fairly easy in middle school. But the merging of the two prior classes had given it more focus and with real-world results dependent on the students’ work.

Joey Petersen said he thought he had signed up for a blow-off class, "but I'm so happy that it hasn't turned into that."

Triebwasser said she had hoped the integrated media class would get five real-world projects this school year, as she looked for businesses like Oberkrom’s that could use a facelift while getting students accustomed to the pressures outside of the classroom.

"Whether they want to pursue it as careers or not is kind of irrelevant,” she said. “The experience is working in a professional environment with adults, on deadlines, where there is actual expectations, I think is so valuable to them."

The group of five was asked to create two promotional videos (a two-minute version, which you can see here or below, and a 45-second version you can see here), to give his website a complete redesign, and to carve out a presence for Oberkrom’s Kicking Academy on social media.

Sophomore Ben Broadus said the group shot video with Oberkrom at TCU for three hours in one afternoon, then much of the group set to work editing it up to professional-quality during their 45-minute periods. Meanwhile, junior Jeff Wright set about redesigning the website, even creating an original font and logo for it.

Senior Michael Cendrick headed up the social media strategy. As a player hoping to get noticed for a college scholarship himself, he focused in on Jaden's Twitter account because of its large numbers of college recruiters and high school coaches on the platform who could recommend Oberkrom to their kickers trying to get to the next level.

"I want every single kicker in this area, within his reach, to at least know about him," Cendrick said. "[...] It's our job to make people know that he's out there and a lot of kickers are doing great things with him."

Still, as the only senior in the group and looking to set up a future for himself, Cendrick realizes he's working on a business Oberkrom is depending on provide a him a living. Blowing off your homework may have an impact on his livelihood.

"I guess there definitely is some pressure. This is how he's making a living,” Cendrick said. “I want his business to do well, and for that to happen, some of that workload has to fall on me. [...] But it's kind of exciting, too. Because we're doing something counts -- like, past this classroom."

Oberkrom's Kicking Academy is off to a strong start, in large part thanks to word-of-mouth. Oberkrom says he now has around 40 clients who have taken one or multiple lessons from him. He has at least one lesson most days after school lets out and says weekends are “packed.” He even has a few out-of-town kickers who have come into town from Oklahoma and from the Austin and Houston areas.

The Oakridge students finished the the video portion project at the end of October. Wright is wrapping up his work on the website and should be finished in a week or two. A project usually takes one of the groups in the four integrated media classes two-to-six weeks to complete. They came up with "the idea, the concept, the storyboards, they're working on the logo, the marketing campaign -- everything," Triebwasser said.

On Thursday, Oberkrom was out on the field at Sam Houston High School with one of the players he’s training, Juan Vargas.

After finishing up practice with his team, Vargas walked over to Oberkrom, who retrieved a large black bag stuffed with footballs from the trunk of his car and a small tee. As a light rain began to fall, he closely watched Vargas’ plant foot from the right hash mark as his kicking foot swung down and launched the ball through the uprights 50 yards away.

"He boomed it!" a teammate said as he ran under the ball to catch it behind the endzone.

They backed up to 55 yards out. Once more, he nailed it. Then he did it again from 57 yards.

Sam Houston High Football Coach Anthony Criss piped in. He's one of several high school coaching connections Oberkrom has made around North Texas. They let him use their fields to train -- Oberkrom's Kicking Academy may have to grow a bit before it gets a physical location.

Former TCU football place kicker Jaden Oberkrom has launched a kicking academy for junior high and high school kickers in Texas. We went to visit a lesson with he and one of his clients to get some tips.

"Hey, Jaden kicked [a] 60[-yard field goal], Vargas, against your old coach -- I wanted to let you know," Criss said with a laugh. "And he gave me a thumbs up after he made it."

"I think I hit it right here, actually," Oberkrom said, pointing to a spot on the field.

"No, no, you were going this way," Coach Criss responded. "Oh, I remember. You remember 60."

Now Vargas, a senior, kept backing up. He was now 61 yards away from the goalposts.

“Everybody looks good with a 25-mile-per-hour wind behind them,” another coach joked.

“I don’t feel a whole lot of wind,” Oberkrom said with a smile.

Vargas ended his quick post-practice lesson by kicking a field goal clean and true from 61 yards away. It would’ve been good from 65.

It wasn't a live game situation, like his trainer's personal-record kick on the same field years before, but the Sam Houston High kicker looked like he, too, might draw the attention of pro scouts some day.

When in doubt, don't care

Oberkrom’s business’ future is hinging on word of mouth through the network of junior high, high school, and college coaches he’s met, and the work of five teenagers who worked to change his image online into something more appealing to those he hasn’t met in person.

He is thrilled with the results so far. A Facebook with one of the group's videos reached more than 25,000 people and the 0:45 second Twitter video has been watched more than 5,000 times, both just days after they were posted.

"Working with Melissa's class at Oakridge has been a huge blessing," Oberkrom said. "[... The students'] creativity is staggering and has really helped my business' productivity. It's safe to say that without her and her students, my business would not be as successful."

There’s a lot of pressure in being an entrepreneur and one-man business. There’s even more when you pass up the potential of the possible riches of an NFL career for it. But Oberkrom is pretty easy going about the whole thing.

He got a surprise $1,000 bill to get his older-model Acura repaired recently. It would be a drop in the bucket of an NFL salary to get it fixed. It'll take 12 or 13 lessons -- about a week's work -- to pay it off as the founder of Oberkrom's Kicking Academy.

But, he’s doing what he loves on his terms, and to him, that's all that matters.

"You have to make a living doing it,” he said. “But do I have to make a million dollars? No."

After all, he guesses he hit seven game-winning field goals in his college career. Pressure is nothing new.

"I can't tell you not to think about it. It's like telling you not to think of a polar bear," Oberkrom said. "Now, you're thinking of a polar bear."

For him, launching his business has been a lot like preparing for that game-winning kick in Morgantown, West Virginia:

Tell yourself it’s not a big deal.

Don’t care about what are people are going to think, whether you miss it or not.

Take a deep breath, and kick the ball.

If you're a business owner and you're interested in meeting with students in the integrated media program at Oakridge School about a project, contact Melissa Triebwasser at melissatrieb@gmail.com.

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