Everything was going according to plan – at least as much as possible when the plan is to become a professional athlete.
Brandon Aubrey, the 28-year-old NFL rookie who’s set to debut as the Dallas Cowboys' starting kicker this Sunday, was one of those rare high school athletes with the talent to play competitive sports beyond his senior year. A quick glance at his pre-collegiate accolades confirms as much: A four-star player, rated the third best at his position in Texas and the 24th-best recruit in the class of 2013 – all achievements that make a Division I scholarship a given, and the dream of playing professionally realistic.
But the sport wasn’t football. It was, as they say in some parts of Texas, fútbol – or, for most Americans, soccer.
Growing up in Plano, Texas, a footy hotbed where current MLS standouts Kellyn Acosta and Keaton Parks were born, Aubrey’s choice to pursue pro soccer was natural. And it didn’t hurt he played club ball for the Dallas Texans, an elite academy that had previously produced US men’s national team stars Clint Dempsey and Omar González.
“We had a lot of options and a lot of good soccer being played, and with that, a lot of coaches and individual skill coaches,” said Aubrey. “... [Soccer] was the one real sport where I went the extra mile and took the time to find the extra training. It was the sport that I enjoyed playing the most and, honestly, the one that I was the best at.”
That confidence led Aubrey to leave American football behind in middle school (where he mostly played as a wide receiver), a decision quickly validated by what came next: A scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, then one of the top soccer programs in the country.
His success only continued with the Fighting Irish. In his freshman year, Aubrey was one of the few underclassmen on his team to see minutes in the 2013 NCAA Championship, which Notre Dame won over the University of Maryland, 2-1. That match featured a litany of players who’d go on to have sustained pro careers in MLS and beyond – Zack Steffen, Harry Shipp, Patrick Mullins and Nick Besler, to name a few – so it stood to reason Aubrey, too, was on his way.
“At Notre Dame, we heavily played the upperclassmen,” said Aubrey. “It seemed like every year there'd be one or two freshmen that would get some playing time, and it always seemed those players would eventually go on to be drafted in the first or second round in MLS.”
A lonely road
Fast forward four years, and that’s exactly what happened for Aubrey, going 21st overall in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas to Toronto FC. But earning a first-round draft pick in MLS didn't carry the same cachet as it does in the NFL. In fact, by 2017, it didn’t even bear the same weight it once had earlier within the league (though top players, like Orlando City SC rookie Duncan McGuire, still emerge with some regularity through that pathway).
Aubrey's difficulties in Toronto were accentuated by the fact he was drafted at a time when many MLS clubs' heavy investments in their own academy systems were starting to bear fruit.
In other words, he wasn’t just competing against fellow draft picks and a few free agents for end-of-the-roster spots. He was competing against bright prospects from the Toronto area who'd trained under the same playing principles as the first team, were younger, and could cost less against the salary cap – all on an already star-laden roster that ended up making it to three MLS Cup Finals from 2016-19.
“[Toronto] tried to make it easy on me and mentioned that they were going to loan me full-time to the USL [lower-division] side so I could go out and get some experience leading a young core of players coming up through the academy,” said Aubrey. “And I kind of got lost in that transition, where I'm with the first team, I'm in that first team locker room, but I'm out to training with the second team before the first team gets there.
“And then while the first team is training, I'm going through my meetings and getting my food, and then I'm out of there. So it was kind of a weird one, a lonely one, one that I might not have been ready for the challenge of.”
Despite excelling in his rookie season with the club’s then-USL affiliate, Toronto FC II, Aubrey wasn’t brought back for a second season. He spent one more year in professional soccer with the Bethlehem Steel, the Philadelphia Union’s USL affiliate at the time, before retiring from professional soccer and putting his prestigious Notre Dame degree to use as a software engineer.
“You could do that”
By all rights, Aubrey’s story should have ended there – a short professional career followed by a successful transition to the so-called “real world.” The only reason it didn’t is because of four words his wife told him while they were watching an NFL game on TV together in early 2019 and saw the kicker miss an attempt – four words that, frankly, are uttered often by fans but are almost never true: “You could do that.”
But in Aubrey’s case, they were true. After a trip to a local field confirmed he could make 60-yarders (at least with a stand and no defenders), he decided to invest in a kicking coach and one last shot at becoming a professional athlete. He worked full-time, trained in the mornings and the evenings, and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in his garage.
Three years later, the Birmingham Stallions selected him to be the team’s starting kicker for the 2022 season (the USFL's inaugural year). Aubrey took more than a 50% pay cut to quit his life as a software engineer and join the team, determined to rewrite his former experience as a pro.
“I would say I wasn't fully prepared for that first opportunity in MLS, where you get on a superstar team, where you have the Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovincos that you've been watching your whole life. Where you followed it really closely and maybe have that feeling where you might not actually belong,” said Aubrey.
“So that was the biggest test for me, probably a thing I didn't get over quick enough in MLS, and by the time I had gotten over it and started to perform well in practices, the decision had already been made.”
Trust the process
Aubrey’s new approach paid dividends. Following two successful seasons with the Stallions, who play in the spring (opposite of the NFL’s calendar), he found his way to the Dallas Cowboys' 2023 summer training camp. Still competing for a roster spot in the team’s final preseason game, he had a chance to make a 59-yard field goal – an extreme distance even at the top levels – and likely cement his place on the team. He missed.
But, as in his life as a pro athlete, a second chance presented itself. Later in the game, with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, Aubrey attempted take two on a 59-yarder. He sailed that one through the uprights.
“As a kicker, you've got to have a very short-term memory. Even if you go out and make that first 59-yarder, you can't sit there and celebrate about it because you know you're going to have some more work to do, and it's very mentally taxing,” said Aubrey. “It's all in your mind. You've drilled it millions of times. You know what you need to do to make the kick. Now can you just go out there in the pressure-filled moment and do it?”
Asked if there’s one piece of advice he'll take to heart as he deals with that pressure in his NFL debut on Sunday, Aubrey harkens back to what, on paper, looked to be the least significant portion of his career: his final year as a soccer pro with the Bethlehem Steel.
“In my time in Philly, they always mentioned to ‘trust the process,’ and that's something that didn't really stick or hit home with me then. But as I got here, in the USFL and football, where the wandering mind can get you into trouble as a kicker, trusting the process has a completely different meaning for me,” said Aubrey.
“So that's the one thing, if I start to reflect, that I would remind myself. And it goes here as well, the Cowboys have the same saying, actually, which is kind of funny enough full circle. They have 'trust the process' up on the wall in the meeting room.”
Aubrey's first chance to "trust the process" at the highest level of his new sport comes in a primetime game against the Cowboy’s divisional rivals, the New York Giants.