The football stadium at Fort Payne High School in Fort Payne, Alabama, sits right at the bottom of Lookout Mountain. It’s a town where the fan base travels to road games and the varsity players tour the local elementary schools before homecoming for pep rallies and autographs signings.
Before 2021, only one football player from Fort Payne had even been close to playing in the NFL. A few decades ago, a player whose name has been forgotten made it through the fourth preseason game, but the team cut him right before he would have made his NFL debut on Monday Night Football.
That’s a story that’s been told for years by former Fort Payne head coach Paul Ellis to his players. So when Evan McPherson made it to the NFL, about 25 friends, coaches and family piled in vans to drive to Cincinnati.
And they saw McPherson make a walk-off game-winning kick in Week 1 for the Cincinnati Bengals to beat the Minnesota Vikings.
“To share in a moment like that with them, it was all the people I grew up around,” McPherson said. “Not just my family, but my coaches as well. I was so happy for them to be here to experience it. They came to the right game.”
For years, there had been a soccer goal at the center of the backyard of the McPherson home. Logan, Evan and Alex were all star soccer players who traveled across the state to tournaments.
Then Logan, the oldest McPherson brother, started kicking on the Fort Payne High School football team. Evan wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps. When Evan was in the sixth grade, he took two PVC pipes and a bungee cord. He wrapped them together and stuck in on top of the soccer goal to create two field goal posts.
“Instead of kicking it into the goal,” McPherson says, “I’d kick it over it.”
Before long, a soccer family became a football family.
McPherson wanted to be a football player in a high school football town, and he ended up becoming the best player in the history of Fort Payne.
“The best thing I can say about Evan is that he’s always so even keeled,” Ellis said. “He doesn’t show high emotion, he doesn’t get down on himself or anything like that. He just does such a good job, and he has always been very mature for his age.”
McPherson is the same age as Ellis’ son, so Ellis tracked McPherson’s athletic career from the beginning. David Stanley, who was McPherson’s kicking coach, grew up with Evan’s parents.
Logan, the oldest brother, was a promising soccer player whose career changed when he had the opportunity to be Fort Payne’s kicker. The football team graduated its kicker, a former soccer player. Fort Payne’s coaching staff had the idea that Logan could make a similar transition.
Logan McPherson was a first team all-state honoree and played college football at Louisiana Tech. In one high school game, he made a 57-yard kick and received a standing ovation from the road crowd. At the time, Evan and Alex (an Auburn commit and the No. 1 kicker in the 2022 high school class) were still star soccer players.
When Evan was in eighth grade, Stanley invited him to work out with the varsity team at kicker. The McPherson parents thought Ellis was doing Evan a favor by teaching him how to kick, but really Ellis was looking for a future replacement for Logan.
Evan was interested in taking his brother’s spot after he graduated.
“He was a big reason why I did it,” Evan said. “I might have gotten into it on my own maybe, but I never thought about becoming the kicker until I saw him do it.”
Evan immediately showed leg strength and confidence that Ellis hadn’t seen.
“You know how brothers are,” Ellis said. “They’ve all put a positive type of pressure on the next one. It’s been that legacy where one has done it. That was Logan. And then Evan came along and wanted to do better than his brother. And now Alex has those same attributes.”
The first time Ellis put Evan in a high-pressure situation wasn’t for a field goal. Evan was both the kicker and the punter.
The year before Evan was a freshman, Fort Payne had lost a game due to a blocked punt. In that same matchup the next year, Ellis saw the same football player who blocked the punt the year before, and Ellis could tell that player was intent on blocking another punt.
Ellis called a fake punt from inside Fort Payne’s own end zone, and Evan McPherson threw a 32-yard pass for a first down.
“He’s like old Cool Hand Luke,” Ellis said. “Remember he was just a ninth grader. Nothing has ever been too big for him. That’s what I love about him.”
That same year, McPherson won the MVP award in the state soccer tournament. Fort Payne won 1-0 in the semifinals and 1-0 in the finals. McPherson scored both goals.
“Just contributing to the success of the team really helped me learn how to compete in those pressure packed moments,” McPherson said. “It made me grow up a lot quicker and learn how to handle myself.”
The bigger the moment got, the better McPherson performed. Later in his high school career, he broke his brother’s record with a 60-yard field goal. Again, a McPherson brother earned a standing ovation from a road crowd.
As McPherson pursued college kicking opportunities, he participated in the prestigious Kohl’s Kicking Camp in 2017. In two showcase camps, McPherson went 20-for-20 on kicks and was rated the top kicker in his high school class. He was then selected to participate in the 2018 Under Armour All-America Game, where he made both of his kicks and also executed an onside kick.
“He has been competing at high levels for quite a while by going to these camps,” Stanley said. “To see him kick these pressure kicks, it’s nothing for him.”
For most of McPherson’s friends and family who came to his NFL debut in Cincinnati, it was their first NFL game. Before the game, they stopped at a local sporting goods store so they could all wear Bengals gear. They sat just above the home tunnel in the right corner of the stadium.
When McPherson lined up for the game-winning kick, most of them took out their phones to record it. Except for Ellis, who said he was likely more nervous than McPherson was. Ellis repeated to himself, “It’s money, it’s money, it’s money.”
And then McPherson drilled the 33-yard field goal for the first walk-off kick of his entire football career.
“I didn’t have to hear him say that (he’s confident),” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “We’ve all seen it from every kick that’s left his foot — over the course of training camp to the preseason games to the regular season games. I’m glad he feels that confidence. He should.”