EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Blair Walsh's right foot has been a launching point to open games and a focal point to end them during his three seasons with the Vikings.
There have been kickoffs, depending on decisions after coin tosses, and field goals that have decided fates in close games with thousands of eyes watching those clutch kicks.
Walsh has given his right foot and left foot equal treatment during his offseason and regular season training regimen this year. Right in front of left, left in front of right, Walsh creates a rhythmic repeat when he runs on the treadmill.
"I decided to run a lot more to get in better shape, lost about 10 pounds and got a little bit stronger too in the process," Walsh said. "I feel like my stamina is better now than it ever has been."
The strength of Walsh's leg has been on display in the NFL since he was drafted in the sixth round out of Georgia. He's already set a franchise record with 16 field goals of 50 or more yards, which is the most in the NFL during that span. Walsh's 80 percent accuracy on field goals (16-for-20) from such lengths gives him a shot at adding to that record each week. He is 4-for-5 on kicks from 50 or more yards this season, including two from 55 yards.
"I'm more confident than I have been in my first two years," Walsh said. "I feel like I'm striking the ball well, and my offseason preparation this year was a little bit different. I got in better shape and just wanted to make sure I would be healthier throughout the season."
Walsh had every reason to be confident as a rookie. He was 10-for-10 on field goals from 50 or more yards, tied a franchise record and led the NFL with 35 field goals made (on 38 attempts), and set a team record with 53 touchbacks on kickoffs in 2012. Walsh made a 55-yarder to force overtime and the game-winner from 38 yards in his NFL debut, and kicked five field goals at St. Louis (50, 38, 42, 53 and 51), earning First-Team AP All-Pro and selection to the Pro Bowl.
"It was an awesome experience, and something that's going to make you want to go back each and every year," said Walsh, who realizes how special the opportunity is to be a kicker in the NFL.
"It's nice you will always have on your name, 'Hey, he was a Pro Bowler back in 2012,' but you'd love to add to that," Walsh said. "You'd love to be a two-time, three-time and keep that continuing. Also, I think those awards come with how you do as a team as well. I think if you're a good kicker on a good team, it's always going to help, so the wins are first for me right now."
This season, Walsh is 18-for-22 on field goals, including 10-of-13 from 40 or more yards. He helped finish off Atlanta with a pair of field goals in the fourth quarter, hit a 46-yarder to end the first half at Tampa Bay and added a 38-yarder at the end of regulation to force overtime in the Vikings win against the Bucs. Click here to vote for Walsh for the 2015 Pro Bowl.
While success is part physical, the mental component of handling pressure is important before powering through the football.
"A lot of preparation is mental," Walsh said. "You're out there trying to prepare yourself for any situations you're going to be put in. A lot of the time, the game comes down to your kick or your performance on the field and you're out there trying to do your job.
"(Kicking in pressure situations is) part of the job description," Walsh said. "You have to embrace it. People always ask me how I deal with the pressure and how I deal with the fourth-quarter kicks or game winners. I say you have to embrace the situation you're in. Don't fool yourself into something that it's not. Go out there and enjoy the moment. Be in the moment and perform."
Walsh also has shown strength on kickoffs this season, reaching the end zone on 37 of his 43 qualifying kickoffs and forcing touchbacks on 30 of those. The distances and solid hang times have helped Minnesota rank seventh in the NFL in average starting position by an opponent after a kickoff (20.4-yard line).
Walsh's minutes of play may not be many, but the moments he is on the field matter, and he values every opportunity.
"I think one of the biggest keys to my success is I enjoy what I do a lot," Walsh said. "I'm very passionate about what I do and take it seriously but at the same time, I love every minute of it. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else."