KEARNEY — Brett Maher had aspirations of playing in the NFL since he was in elementary school. He said he always believed he’d be an NFL kicker but it didn’t become a realistic option until he was in high school.
Maher spent his senior year at Kearney High School in 2007-08 after transferring from Centennial High School in Utica. Although he only suited up for one season with the Bearcats, playing football, basketball and track and field, it was a memorable year that earned Maher the 2008 Kearney Hub Athlete of the Year award.
Maher played collegiately at the University of Nebraska before chasing a professional dream that’s consisted of him playing the last two years with the Dallas Cowboys.
“I’ve always had lofty expectations for myself,” said Maher in a phone interview. “But there have been a lot of moments that I’ve tried to sit back and soak in the memories I’ve had along the way. That helps especially when times are tough and that can help you push through the difficult times.”
Maher transferred to KHS after his father accepted the superintendent job at Kearney Public Schools.
The transition to a new school was an adjustment for Maher, he said. It didn’t take long for him to settle in, however, especially on the football field.
Maher was arguably the top kicker in the state when he joined the Bearcats. But his athleticism as a receiver caught his coaches and teammates by surprise.
In Maher’s first game with the Bearcats, he caught a 90-yard touchdown pass. It was the start of a productive senior season, as he hauled in 40 passes for 775 yards and 10 touchdowns. He led the 11-1 Bearcats in all three of those categories.
During his senior year, Maher went 41 for 46 on extra points and made 8 of 14 field goals. He also averaged 41.2 yards per punt.
“The group of guys I played football with were phenomenal,” Maher said. “That was my first experience with the people in Kearney. I remember coming up for a summer football camp and that was my first introduction to the team, coach (Brandon) Cool and the rest of the staff. That left the biggest impression on me.”
Maher started all 25 games for the state-tournament-qualifying Bearcats’ basketball team and averaged 11.5 points per game.
In track and field, he won the all-class gold medals in the long jump and pole vault. He set a state meet record and a Class A state record with his 16-foot, 2-inch pole vault.
The Bearcats won the 2008 boys track and field state championship his senior year. It was three years removed from the Bearcats’ string of 11 consecutive state titles. The 2008 title marked a stretch where the Bearcats won five championships in seven years from 2008 to 2014.
“There was definitely an aura about that place and about that program during that time,” Maher said. “It was very special to be apart of.”
After his one year as a Bearcat, Maher joined the Cornhuskers football program as a walk-on. He turned down scholarship offers from Colorado State and Ohio.
He redshirted his first year and then was the holder for two seasons on the field-goal unit for kicker Alex Henery, who played four years in the NFL.
Maher received his chance with the Huskers as a junior in 2011. He was one of the top place-kickers and punters in the Big Ten during his final two years, winning the Bakken-Andersen Big Ten Kicker of the Year each season.
He finished his collegiate career 39 of 50 on field goals and with a 43.2-yard average on 120 punts.
“That’s where I wanted to be since I can remember,” Maher said. “You grow up wanting to run out of that tunnel and wear the ‘N’ on your helmet.
“Most of my high school career was under the Bill Callahan regime and they didn’t have much interest in me. It was the winter of my senior year when coach Bo Pelini and his staff came in and started recruiting me. They didn’t have scholarships available but the communications were there. I felt like I was wanted still, so that’s what swayed my decision.”
After going undrafted in the 2013 NFL draft, Maher signed as a free agent with the New York Jets. The Jets waived him two months later, and he then signed with the Cowboys where he lasted about two weeks.
Maher played in the Canadian Football League for four seasons. He had a brief tryout with the Cleveland Browns in 2017 but returned to the CFL.
Despite the adversity, Maher didn’t give up on his dream of kicking in the NFL. He signed with the Cowboys in 2018 as a backup to limit the workload on starter Dan Bailey. Maher performed well in the preseason and the Cowboys kept him and instead released Bailey.
Maher made 32 of 33 extra points and 28 of 36 field goals, including a 62-yarder, in his first NFL season in 2018-19.
Last season, Maher didn’t have nearly the same success and was released in December. He struggled with his consistency, making 20 of 30 field goals.
He did become the only kicker in NFL history with three made field goals of at least 60 yards. He hit attempts of 62 and 63 yards last season.
“There’s not a lot of people that get that opportunity to kick a bunch of long ones like that,” Maher said. “To be able to make them and put yourself in the history books is very cool. That’s something that will be a part of my career forever.”
Maher lives near Dallas with his wife Jenna, who he met in Kearney, and their two daughters, ages 5 and 3. Although he spent one year at KHS, he said he follows the Bearcats and remains in contact with his high school coaches, especially football coach Brandon Cool.
With the coronavirus pandemic, Maher is practicing his kicking at a community soccer field. He also regularly touches base with his kicking, mental and strength coaches on what he’s working on this offseason to prepare for the upcoming season.
Maher signed with the Jets on Dec. 31, 2019. He will compete for the place-kicker job with incumbent Sam Ficken, who was 19 of 27 on field goals last season.
Although Maher is coming off a difficult season and will have to battle for a roster spot, he’s using his previous experiences to help him in his latest situation.
“For the longest time it was the dream of being in the NFL and that’s what kept me motivated after being cut multiple times and having a couple of different stints up in Canada,” Maher said. “Right now for me, I want to be the best I can be. It’s a great opportunity for me and my family and the future too, so that’s a motivating factor for me, too.”