Thomas Morstead's unlikely football journey from high school soccer star to NY Jets punter

Thomas Morstead's unlikely career has been defined by his will and determination
NY Jets, Thomas Morstead
NY Jets, Thomas Morstead / Jim McIsaac/GettyImages

Thomas Morstead didn't feel like he belonged on a football field. The young Texas native grew up playing every sport from soccer to basketball, but the idea of a 5-foot, 98-pound high school freshman playing football at the next level never seemed realistic.

Any hopes Morstead had of continuing to play football were seemingly shattered — both literally and figuratively — when he broke his leg in two places on the first play of the first scrimmage of his high school football career.

Morstead grew up in a sporting family. His father, John, was a professional cyclist who moved to England at a young age. His mother, Isobel, was born in the small English farming town of Lincolnshire Wolds — the same town in which Morstead's uncle, Charles Salmon, would one day introduce him to his future career path.

While Morstead would eventually make a living out of playing American football, his first love was soccer. He started playing soccer at the age of four all the way until his junior year of high school.

When Morstead broke his leg on that fateful summer day in ninth grade, it wasn't hard for him to make a decision on his future. He was done with football. Morstead decided to focus all of his energy and attention on soccer.

Sure, the memories of his uncle Charles teaching him the fundamentals of kicking with a rugby ball back in England were still fresh, but the sport clearly wasn't for him. He wasn't having fun.

"It was tough," Morstead later recalled. "I couldn't protect myself. I was getting hit a lot, and I was so small. I just wasn't enjoying it, so I stopped playing."

Morstead focused his efforts on his first love of soccer. The extra attention seemed to pay off, as Morstead was one of the leading scorers on his team as a junior. But one conversation with his soccer coach changed everything.

Morstead was cut from his soccer team entering his senior year of high school. To this day, he doesn't fully understand why, although he speculates it was due to an insignificant "conflict" he had with the coach.

Whatever the case, Morstead was now without direction. The sport he had loved and enjoyed since before kindergarten was now unattainable. With the guidance of his mother, Morstead decided to give football one more shot.

By this time, Morstead had grown quite a bit. This was no longer the same 5-foot-nothing, scrawny sub-100-pounder who had broken his leg a few years earlier. Morstead stood at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, in his senior year of high school.

That growth spurt, combined with his unexpected departure from the soccer team, is what gave him the confidence and motivation to return to football. The rest is history.

Or is it? Morstead's unlikely and unprecedented journey to the NFL wasn't complete after high school. After all, he had one year of tape to show colleges. The NFL wasn't calling. Heck, colleges weren't even calling.

"There was zero recruiting," Morstead told The Jet Press. "I had missed the boat on that. I was pretty unimpressive as far as what [schools] were looking for at that point."

Morstead may have grown in size, but his physicals were still lacking. He ran a 5.40 40-yard dash — something he chalks up to growing 16 inches in four years and his broken leg a few years earlier.

Despite this, his high school coach at the time, legendary Pearland football coach Tony Heath, told him that he believed Morstead had what it took to continue playing in college. After his senior season ended, Morstead had three different college coaches pull him out of class to talk to him about walking on at their respective schools.

There were no official offers from colleges. He wasn't getting recruited with scholarships. But the opportunity was there for Morstead to continue playing football in college if he wanted to.

Morstead was offered an opportunity to walk on at Southern Methodist University, about four hours north of Pearland just outside of Dallas, TX. In fact, it was his mother, Isobel, who opened the door for him to receive the opportunity.

Morstead was already accepted into SMU's engineering school with a scholarship offer. His mother called SMU's head football coach, Phil Bennett, and explained that her son simply wanted the opportunity to try out for the football team as a walk-on. The engineering scholarship helped make SMU, the most expensive private school in Texas at the time, affordable for the Morstead family.

Although he made the team as a freshman walk-on, Morstead didn't appear in a game until his third year at SMU. That may have been for the best, however.

"I knew how raw I was from a developmental side," Morstead said. "I just needed to keep getting stronger and more explosive."

Morstead cherished the two developmental years he had. He spent his free time in the weight room, appreciating the grind associated with it. He went from a 180-pound freshman to roughly 225 pounds ahead of his redshirt sophomore year.

When the opportunity finally arrived, Morstead took full advantage. He became SMU's primary placekicker and punter in 2006, his redshirt sophomore season. He remembers all 12 opposing punters that his team played that year. Morstead knew at the time that he was better than each of them.

That moment of realization is when the possibility of making this a career started to become a realistic goal for the Houston native.

Morstead is a realist. He's aware of the absurd longshot odds every college athlete faces of reaching the professional level. That's especially true for someone like him, who had barely even played the sport before his senior year of high school.

But he also knows himself. He knows there are few people who can match his will and determination. When he devotes his time to something, nothing is going to stand in the way of his goals.

"I remember thinking I could play pro ball in my second year before I had even earned my scholarship," Morstead proclaimed. "I was last on the depth chart, and I had not gotten any reps."

It's that confidence and determination that allowed Morstead to receive All-Conference honors in his first year as a starter. By the end of his junior season, Morstead had the second-highest net punt average in college football. He figured he had to be one of the better punters in the nation.

The summer before his senior year, Morstead learned about the National and BLESTO Scouting Services. NFL teams use these independent scouting services as a guideline for prospects in the upcoming draft. Both scouting reports had Morstead listed as the No. 1 specialist in the country.

He remembers being taken aback by this realization. He knew he was good, sure, but here was concrete evidence that NFL teams had taken notice. Morstead was on the NFL's radar — a pro career was in sight.

"That gave me a lot of confidence," Morstead recalls. "I felt like I was going to be a guy, but you never know. Seeing that validated how I was feeling."

The NFL was waiting.

Morstead worked out for a number of teams prior to the 2009 NFL Draft, including the Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, and Philadelphia Eagles. His agent at the time, former NFL safety Vann McElroy, sat down with him one day before the draft and laid out all the information he had received.

McElroy told Morstead that he was likely going to be drafted in the fourth or fifth round by either the New Orleans Saints or the Indianapolis Colts. Sure enough, Morstead would end up being drafted by the Saints in the fifth round. The Colts selected future All-Pro punter Pat McAfee two rounds later.

When Morstead received the phone call from the 504 area code he would one day become very familiar with, he had no idea it was Saints general manager Mickey Loomis on the other end. The Eagles were actually on the clock when Morstead got that call, and knowing that they had four fifth-round picks that year, he was sure he was on his way to Philadelphia.

Of course, Morstead would end up with the Saints, where he would spend the first 12 years of his NFL career. New Orleans is a city that will forever hold a place in Morstead's heart. His impact on that organization and in that community cannot be understated.

Much like Morstead's entire football journey, his first season with the Saints was far from typical. While most NFL players have to wait years or their entire careers to reach a Super Bowl, Morstead played for and won the Lombardi Trophy in his very first year in the league.

"That whole season was magic," Morstead said. "It's impossible to appreciate it the way you should when you get thrust right into it in your first year. I tried my best to soak it in and appreciate it, but you really can't."

Morstead recalls seeing multiple teammates and fellow specialists who had to grind for years, if not decades, in the NFL to reach this milestone. This was the pinnacle of their careers — the climax of 20+ years of their professional lives.

There was backup quarterback and field-goal holder Mark Brunell, who was in his 17th season in the NFL. Long snapper Jason Kyle was in his 15th year in the league. Kicker John Carney, who had been brought in to replace the suspended Garrett Hartley earlier in the year, made his NFL debut all the way back in 1987. Over the course of his 24 years in the NFL, this was his only Super Bowl ring.

Morstead paused for a moment as he reflected on his team's accomplishment. He thought about what that achievement would feel like in the present day — how much has changed in his life between then and now. He's a husband and a father of four children. He's played 15 years in the NFL. Maybe now he could appreciate it the way he wasn't able to some 15 years ago.

Morstead was involved in one of Super Bowl XLIV's most important and famous plays. In fact, you could argue it's one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history.

With his team trailing to the Colts, the team that nearly drafted him less than a year earlier, 10-6 at the half, Saints head coach Sean Payton opted for one of the gutsiest calls in NFL history. Payton dialed up an onside kick to start the second half. He trusted his rookie punter, Morstead, with the responsibility of a lifetime.

But wait, why was Morstead kicking off in the first place? It's rare to see punters as the designated kickoff specialists in the NFL, and Morstead was never really asked to be a kickoff guy in college. How did this happen?

Once again, much like Morstead's entire football career, his insertion into one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history came about due to a combination of chance and dedication.

Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley was suspended for the first four games of the 2009 season, prompting the team to sign the well-traveled John Carney as his replacement. At 45 years old, the Saints weren't too keen on Carney pulling double duty as a kicker and kickoff specialist.

That's when Morstead, still a rookie entering his first season at the time, volunteered for the job. Morstead was looking for another role aside from punting (Brunell was the team's holder) to increase his job security, and this was a golden opportunity for him.

The Saints let him attempt a kickoff in the final preseason game, and he was told just days before his regular-season debut that he would be the team's kickoff specialist to start the year. He did so well in the role that even upon Hartley's return, he never surrendered the job.

That's why Morstead, a rookie punter on a team that employed two kickers that season, was the man Payton trusted with the most important kickoff in Super Bowl history. Mortsead's kick was recovered by backup safety Chris Reis. The Saints would score a touchdown to take the lead, and his team would go on to win the game by a final score of 31-17, thus cementing his place in franchise history.

Morstead later admitted to being "terrified" before the play. He knew he had the opportunity to be the hero. But the anxiety associated with being entrusted with such a responsibility was a lot to handle for a rookie punter, who just seven years earlier was a high school soccer player with little football experience.

But this is Thomas Morstead we're talking about. His will and determination are what got him to this point. No one who had followed his football career should've been surprised by the outcome.

Morstead would play 12 seasons in New Orleans, establishing himself as one of the most iconic players in franchise history. While his NFL career is stunningly void of much national recognition, the 2012 season remains a career highlight for Morstead, at least on a personal level.

It was a weird season for Morstead and the Saints. Sean Payton was suspended due to his part in the Bountygate scandal, and a Saints team that had won 11 or more games in each of the last three seasons finished with a disappointing 7-9 record. It was the first time in Morstead's NFL career that he had missed the playoffs.

On an individual level, however, it was a rewarding year for the young punter. Morstead received a hefty six-year, $21.9 million extension that summer, making him the second-highest-paid punter in the NFL behind only Shane Lechler of the Oakland Raiders.

He wasted little time rewarding the Saints for their faith, earning the first (and so far only) Pro Bowl nod of his career en route to being named second-team All-Pro. Though Morstead has put together an excellent NFL career, he's somehow never been able to reach those heights since.

If you ask Morstead, though, he should've made it the year before — and the year after. And the year after that. And the year after that. And get the point. He believes he's been consistently snubbed throughout his career, and the numbers support that argument.

Morstead speculates the fact that he played in a dome in New Orleans for the majority of his career has something to do with it. Whatever the case, Morstead isn't resentful. Again, he's a realist. He understands that it's extremely difficult to make the Pro Bowl. After all, they only take one punter from each conference every year.

Morstead's career resurgence with the New York Jets has been gratifying for the veteran punter. He reminisces on the day he was released by the Saints three years ago.

"Nobody would sign me because they thought I was washed up," Morstead explained. "To be able to get back to where I'm at now, I'm really proud of that."

The Jets were the first team to give Morstead an opportunity after he was released by the Saints in 2021. With the incumbent Braden Mann nursing an injury, the Jets called up Morstead to fill in while his younger counterpart was sidelined.

Although Morstead played well in seven games with the Jets that year, the team made it clear that his stint was only temporary. He was released once Mann was cleared to return. But that opportunity helped prove that Morstead wasn't "washed up," as many teams seemed to believe.

Stints with the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins only solidified that notion, so when the Jets came calling back in the spring of 2023, Joe Douglas and company knew exactly what they were getting. Morstead was the only punter on the Jets' roster that summer. He was the guy — ironically brought in to replace Mann again.

This time, his position wasn't temporary.

Morstead is proud of what he's accomplished in his NFL career. He's proud to be able to say he played 15+ years at the highest level of the sport — a sport he never dreamed of playing beyond a recreational level growing up. He's won a Super Bowl. He's made a Pro Bowl and been named to an All-Pro team.

But perhaps what Morstead is most proud of is his ability to scratch and claw his way back to the position he's in now. The same will and determination that allowed him to return to the sport three years after breaking his leg in high school — and that allowed him to harness and perfect his craft in college — is why he's still playing in the NFL today.

It's why, despite everyone telling him he was over the hill and washed up after he was sent packing from his home of 12 years, he set out to prove everyone wrong and bounce back better than ever.

Morstead doesn't need another Pro Bowl trip to serve as validation for his comeback. Again, the man is a realist. He knows how good he is. He's aware that he's still one of the very best punters in the world. He doesn't need national recognition to substantiate that claim. But it sure would be nice.

"The result of making the Pro Bowl would be the cherry on top," Morstead insists. "It would be a cool honor, for sure."

*This feature story is based on an interview we conducted with Thomas Morstead on The Jet Press YouTube channel. To see the full interview in its entirety, you can click this link or the video below.

*Be sure to vote for Thomas Morstead for the 2024 Pro Bowl by clicking this link*