Kickin' It with Pat McAfee: A Celebrity Punter Unmasked
Pat McAfee won’t use urinals in public restrooms, and he always washes his hands. Because you never know who’s watching. He tells me this after coming out of a bathroom in the food court at Circle Centre, and it doesn’t really register; after an hour of ambling through a busy shopping center, the only person who seems to recognize the Colts punter is a kid working at the Finish Line, who pounces on McAfee and asks him to sign a sneaker they keep on hand for famous athletes. “Hey, Pat!” the kid hollers. “Look, guys, it’s Pat McAfee!” But McAfee downplays the fanfare afterward: “I was just in here last month.”
In fact, instead of strangers approaching McAfee, it happens the other way around. He walks up to three girls outside the candy shop wearing matching blue corduroy jackets from an FFA chapter in South Dakota. “Excuse me,” he says. “You guys mind if I ask what the jackets are about?” A gangly girl with glasses and dishwater hair says they are in town for the FFA convention. “I have a friend from South Dakota,” he tells them. The “friend” is teammate Adam Vinatieri, four-time Super Bowl champion and greatest clutch field-goal kicker of all time.
Before leaving, we hit a shop that sells board games, and McAfee scans the shelves looking for something he can play with his girlfriend, 2010 Miss Indiana USA Allison Biehle. He settles on Scrabble Deluxe and carries it to the counter, where he buys a harmonica as well, which he blows on as we leave the shop and ride down the escalator.
I expected McAfee to generate more buzz, some crowds and picture-takers. The guy’s mug has been everywhere lately—viral Web videos, TV interviews, a mock campaign commercial for Tire Barn. But aside from the shoe-store clerks, no one seems to notice he’s here. Or so I think.
“What usually happens is, people see me, and then tweet about it,” he says. Like that time a stranger tweeted a picture of him standing at a urinal. As we walk to the restaurant where he’s meeting some guys from a metal-recycling company about new McAfee billboards—another endorsement—he pulls up Twitter on his phone and lets me read the incoming tweets: “Saw @PatMcAfeeShow by Taco Bell in Circle Centre rocking an old-school MTV t-shirt. Awesome!” And another: “Just passed @PatMcAfeeShow playing a harmonica at the mall.”
It’s suddenly clear: Strangers have been watching us this whole time. When you share your life with a virtual audience as McAfee does—76,000 Twitter followers and counting—fans seem to feel more comfortable giving you an electronic shout-out than a handshake. This is celebrity in the social-media age—and if McAfee has his way, it will boot him into full-on stardom.
The Pat McAfee phenomenon isn’t easy to explain. Punting is not glamorous. In fact, it’s kind of a bummer: The punter only gets to do his thing when the offense has failed. Broadcasters say his name only a few times per telecast, and the camera might pull in close on his face if he nails a kick—or shanks one. It’s a position McAfee didn’t even get serious about until relatively late in his athletic career.
As a high-schooler in Plum, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, he starred in soccer and volleyball; the football coach let him skip practice and just show up at the games on Friday night to handle kicking duties. His senior year, his family scraped together enough money to send him to a national kicking competition in Florida, and he won. A coach from West Virginia University called him with a scholarship offer the next day.
» MORE: Punter’s Delight—Top 10 @PatMcAfee Tweets of 2012
To hear McAfee describe it, being a Mountaineer was one long party; he can still rattle off which Morgantown taverns had the best beer specials each night of the week. But after four years he managed to finish as one of the best punting and kicking prospects in college football. “Sometimes I think about how much better I would be now if I had worked harder,” he says. “But I guess it all turned out okay.” Ahead of the 2009 NFL draft, the Colts brought in McAfee for a workout. The Colts needed a punter, and McAfee was a value pick. He had a big leg (the “boomstick,” he calls it), and he could take over kickoffs, a nagging roster issue for years.
In the locker room, Vinatieri and long-snapper Justin Snow took the free-spirited rookie under their wings, and he came to be something like a goofy little bro to the two vets. McAfee ribs Vinatieri, calling him an “attractive older male” who looks like the actors on Just for Men commercials. McAfee and Snow, now with the Redskins, still trade trash talk. “Pat’s not a big weight-room guy,” says Snow. “He liked to go in and listen to his rap music and kick around the soccer ball, and laugh and tell jokes. So his arms are pretty small.” McAfee retorts that the long-snapper has a “little tiny bird chest.” But as much as McAfee’s shtick caught on with teammates, former Colts president Bill Polian’s policy of limiting media access to rookies meant he remained an unknown quantity to fans—just the kid with the big leg and long rock-and-roll hair.
Yet in just his fourth season, McAfee has become one of the most high-profile athletes in town. And for all his football ability, it was an off-the-field lowlight that kick-started his rise to fame—the one he calls, simply, “The Incident.”
Early in the morning of October 20, 2010, a woman in Broad Ripple called the police to report that a shirtless man had approached her vehicle. When the cops arrived, they found McAfee, drunk and soaking wet, fresh from swimming in the canal. The police charged him with public intoxication, and the story was all over the wire the next day, along with his mug shot. McAfee the jokester had become a punch line. And it hurt.
“[The media] really blew it out of proportion, tried to make it look like a murder almost,” he says. “All these people that really had no idea who I was were bashing me, and I just decided in those couple of weeks that they could all go to hell.
“I had a long evening, made a couple of bad decisions, and I understand that I embarrassed a lot of people,” he continues. “But I’m not a bad guy.”
As it turned out, The Incident might be the smartest dumb thing McAfee ever did. After a heartfelt public apology, he doubled down on the 15 minutes of infamy: He made a self-mocking YouTube video standing in the canal with water wings and sold “I swam with Pat McAfee” T-shirts on his website. McAfee’s stunt was endearing to a lot of Colts fans, many of them fun-loving dudes in their 20s (or guys who used to be). Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz summed up the sentiment: “Look. He’s 23 years old. He has the week off, more or less. He wasn’t behind the wheel of a car … McAfee is a good kid with a good heart and a bit of a wild streak.”
If The Incident helped establish McAfee’s good-time brand, his off-the-cuff humor made him a sought-after interview. “In the Colts locker room, anytime you got somebody that went off the script, you went toward that person to get sound bites,” says Michael Grady, co-host of The Grady and Big Joe Show on 1070 The Fan. “Pat was all over the map.”
McAfee has since crossed over from sports-talk to the top-rated Bob & Tom Show, and his endorsement spots are all over radio and television. His own zany, self-produced videos circulate widely on the Internet (including a dancing-in-drag spoof of the Sun Drop soda “Drop It Like It’s Hot” commercials). Colts management has seized on McAfee mania as well, making him the host of a weekly show that airs on the team’s website. McAfee, at least for the moment, is an “it” guy.
But the most effective medium for the McAfee brand is Twitter. He recently tweet-hinted that he would hold a cash giveaway when he hit 100,000 followers—not exactly Tim Tebow numbers (nearly 2 million), but for a primarily local figure, pretty darned good. Among Colts, McAfee is well ahead of the likes of perennial Pro Bowlers Dwight Freeney (55,000-plus) and Reggie Wayne (11,000-plus). This despite his clunky handle, @PatMcAfeeShow, which is a nod to both the sporadic Web series McAfee records in a spare bedroom and his vaudevillian lifestyle.
Although McAfee is a fine punter—he set a team record for gross yards per punt last year—few would call him the league’s best, at least not yet. Even so, until recently he had the highest Twitter following of anyone else at the position; Minnesota’s Chris Kluwe overtook him, McAfee admits ruefully, after the Viking voiced support for marriage equality. (“He picked up 60,000 followers overnight,” says McAfee. “Those might fade.”) Before the addition of new Colts cornerback Vontae Davis (175,000-plus followers) this season, McAfee held the distinction of being the only punter who led his own team in followers.
Truth be told, though, McAfee’s Twitter success probably has less to do with football than it does his tweeting, which is random, raw, and, at times, a riot. It’s difficult to imagine a face-of-the-franchise quarterback emitting this gem: “Just a little heads up … GREAT piss test this morning.” Or this one: “Just got followed to my room by security … He eyeballed me coming out of the elevator with the ‘That little cracker isn’t on the team’ look.”
Truth be told, though, McAfee’s Twitter success probably has less to do with football than it does his tweeting, which is random, raw, and, at times, a riot.
“It’s really simple,” he says. “You tweet something entertaining, informative, motivational—or you have a big name.” McAfee has found some magic combination of the first and last options, with an everyman quality that fans dig. “I’m a normal dude,” he says. “I just happen to have one of the best jobs on the planet. Being in the NFL has allowed me to do a lot of things that I would have never done, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it. I’m enjoying the ride.”
While McAfee the wild child still flourishes on Twitter, in private he seems more like a young man who’s starting to settle down. When he agrees to meet me for dinner, instead of suggesting a baller NFL hangout like St. Elmo or Ruth’s Chris, he opts for a restaurant near his neighborhood, a little family-owned place in a Brownsburg strip mall that serves spaghetti, tacos, and country-fried steak. McAfee sits at a booth with Biehle, his girlfriend. “We’re usually the only ones in here,” he says, and I get the feeling that’s why they like it. Here, at least, McAfee doesn’t have to worry about strangers tweeting pictures of him using the bathroom or making a mess with his hot wings.
McAfee tells the story of how the two met. She was at Howl at the Moon piano bar with friends after returning from the 2010 Miss USA pageant; he was there with some teammates. McAfee told the pretty brunette he was the Colts’ water boy. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, is it fun?’” she recalls. “I didn’t know who he was.” They ran into one another several months later and exchanged phone numbers.
“I was hesitant at first,” she says. “He was always so nice. So funny—that obviously caught my eye. And he is a great-looking guy. But I didn’t know if I wanted to go down that route, because he is a professional athlete.”
Sitting at the restaurant with Biehle, talking about their life together in a little house in the suburbs, an introspective McAfee emerges. “My persona sometimes can camouflage the type of person I am,” he says. “I like to learn as much as possible. I do things that people would never guess that I do. I write poems about feelings and stuff like that.” He pauses for a moment and takes a sip of his Sprite. “I don’t know. This is awkward.”
This McAfee isn’t exactly the guy Biehle encountered on their first meeting. Sometime between then and the second run-in, McAfee came of age. As Snow told me the day before, The Incident was “a wake-up call.” When I share what else Snow told me—that he thinks Biehle, now in dental school, “has been a great part of making Pat into the man that he is,” she lets loose a long aaaawwww, and McAfee blushes.
“We couldn’t have got together when we first started talking,” says McAfee, “because I was still—I was partying pretty hard.”
Tuesday is McAfee’s day off, but he has a full schedule. I am supposed to be at his house by 9:15 a.m. so we can make the Bob & Tom Show before 10, and I’m running late. When I pull up, the garage door is open, and we jump into his black Escalade (the 24-inch black mag rims were a gift from Tire Barn). “What the fuck?” he asks, only half-joking.
We roll up to the station with just minutes to spare. McAfee doesn’t want to get out of the SUV because it’s pouring down rain, and he’s wearing a brand-new pair of Adidas high-tops. A handler from the station meets him on the driver’s side and holds an umbrella over him as we walk to the front door. The star treatment.
This regular Tuesday gig on Bob & Tom used to belong to former Colts center Jeff Saturday. When Saturday left the team, cohost Tom Griswold offered the spot to McAfee, who’d been on with Saturday before. Initially, McAfee worried that his college-age humor might not fly with the show’s older, classic-rock crowd. “It wasn’t my demo,” he says. But Griswold, citing the program’s huge audience and mainstream popularity, told McAfee he would be stupid not to do it.
On the air, a recap of the weekend’s game veers off into whether McAfee has any tattoos (no); which other teammates don’t have tattoos (“guess you haven’t seen the tattoo on my left butt cheek,” tight end Coby Fleener will tweet him after the show); how McAfee knows because he takes showers with all of them (“eyes up,” he says); and how he once considered getting a tattoo of Elmer Fudd (“get out of the hole, you varmint!”).
Next, McAfee pulls out his phone and reads something called “Pat’s Twitter Tale,” a story about his first groupie, a woman of low morals who asked if he’d like to “put a little cream in my coffee.” (He tested the material on Twitter the day before, and it was a wildly re-tweeted hit.) The Bob & Tom gang loves it. This is what they’re paying for.
McAfee does have a filter, though. “There’s a bunch of tweets that I haven’t sent out—that I’ve typed up and read, and thought, ‘Ooh, I can’t do this one.’” One he did send, in July, was directed at Pacer Roy Hibbert, who was fielding free-agent offers. Pat tweeted some advice: “Hey @Hoya2aPacer… You can’t get this in Portland bud.” Attached was a photo of McAfee kicked back on a sofa in a pair of Speedos, his arms stretched around former Playmate Kendra Wilkinson and three other bikini-clad knockouts. One of the women appears to have her hand on McAfee’s junk.
The picture, taken in Las Vegas, didn’t cause much of a stir. But his graphic account of an earlier Vegas trip, tweeted this fall as another Twitter Tale, did. After granting McAfee a long leash, Colts PR took issue with his dropping of the F-bomb and politely asked him to rein it in. So he pulled down the story, along with the original Tale, and issued a my bad.
It wasn’t the first time “keeping it real,” as McAfee calls it, had gotten him into trouble.For Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, NBC offered to let McAfee man its Twitter feed as a social-media correspondent, a huge gig. But a few weeks before the game, the media circulated a video of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. Amid widespread public outcry, McAfee, who started the Pat McAfee Foundation to assist military families, tweeted, “Soooo people are pissed about our marines peeing on dead taliban??? #WhoCares #ThoseDudesTriedToKillOurDudes.” The network dropped him. “I didn’t condone the peeing,” he says, “but I was against people bashing our soldiers. That’s something I’ve never apologized for. In a business sense, I picked up more followers from that than I would have tweeting from NBC.”
That sort of shrewd thinking is part and parcel of the former party boy’s brand strategy now. “Before Twitter,” McAfee says, “the media picked who were the stars, who really had a voice, what side of somebody they wanted to show. The media got a chance to choose everything. Twitter has given us a chance to say listen, this is how we are, this is what I like, these are my interests.”
And it’s paying off: He says he inherited the Moore Restoration endorsement, which had gone to traditional Colts stars like Saturday, because the company wanted to “see what this Internet kid is like.”
Ultimately, though, Twitter is a platform from which McAfee hopes to launch a career in entertainment. He spent the offseason taping a reality show, which, among other stunts, had him hunting for a relative of Bigfoot in Georgia. (“We’re shopping it around,” he says.) He’s planning a stand-up comedy tour, and he says he’d like to be a talk-show host someday—late night, so he can use “sex jokes.”
“People look and see what I’ve done on Twitter,” he says, “and I don’t want to say it’s a hot commodity, but people do want to know what the power of Twitter really is.” The #ChuckStrong movement, which McAfee conceived in recognition of head coach Chuck Pagano’s fight with leukemia, might give some indication: It spurred more than $150,000 in donations for cancer research in a week and a half.
All of which explains why, as McAfee admits later, he initially balked at being the subject of a magazine profile, and agreed only after Colts PR talked him into it. He doesn’t need a magazine to tell you who he is. He can tell you everything you need to know—all you have to do is click “follow.”
Photos by Wil Foster; hair and makeup by Amanda Schroeder