ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — One of the last things Tyler Bass does before leaving the Buffalo Bills locker room for the opening kickoff is apply eye black over his left cheek.
It’s a ritual that provides the under-sized kicker a jolt of confidence. “It makes me feel like more than a kicker at times,” the 5-foot-10, 183-pound Bass said last season. More important, it’s also a tribute to his grandmother, or “MeeMaw,” as he refers to Rebecca Lusk, a breast cancer survivor.
If not for her, Bass wouldn’t have been gotten a shot to make Georgia Southern's roster as a walk-on in 2015. He wouldn’t have had the good fortune of developing his skills alongside Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo, who’s final two seasons overlapped at the Sun Belt Conference school.
And he most certainly wouldn’t have been selected in the sixth round of the 2020 draft by Buffalo, where Bass has quickly established himself as one of the team and NFL’s most prolific and reliable kickers. He’s hit 16 of 17 field-goal attempts this season.
Despite battling cancer, Lusk spent endless hours driving Bass to the local field with the crooked goal posts, where she would watch him practice and, when necessary, forge into the woods to search for balls that went astray.
“I didn’t want her to do that, but she insisted,” Bass recalled with a laugh of his high school days in Irma, South Carolina. “Just looking back on it now, yeah, I think it means a lot more to me now, and seeing how much she sacrificed.”
Wearing eye black is something Bass started in high school in her honor.
“It kind of takes me back to what got me here and kind of puts me in that headspace of being grateful for everything I’ve been through to get here,” he said.
In his short time in Buffalo, Bass has tied the franchise single-game record for hitting six field goals — he missed two — in an 18-10 win at the New York Jets last year. He then proceeded to set the team’s single-season scoring record with 141 points — one more than Steve Christie had in 1998.
Since 1950, he’s the NFL’s third player to score 212 or more points through 23 games.
And Bass’ booming and accurate leg was once again evident in a 26-11 win over Miami on Sunday, by hitting a 57-yard field goal, which ranks as the third-longest in the usually blustery elements of Highmark Stadium, and fourth-longest in team history. His 58-yard field goal at Arizona last season is tied as the team’s second longest. On Thursday, Bass was named the AFC's special teams player of the month.
“He’s unbelievable,” quarterback Josh Allen said.
“He’s got a confidence in himself, and when you got a kicker that has confidence in himself, everybody can feel it and everybody can see it,” Allen added. “The way he walks. The way he talks. How he holds himself. Press conferences. And then how he kicks.”
Bass isn’t sure how he displays it, but acknowledges his confidence has grown since what began as a rough start to his NFL career. He missed his first two field-goal attempts from 34 and 38 yards wide right, before finally rebounding to hit his next two in a 27-17 season-opening win at the New York Jets.
Bass would miss three more attempts in his first seven outings before finally finding his leg. His only miss this season was from 53 yards, and he's made 44 of 51 career attempts.
It’s a tribute to the Bills coaching staff for having patience in allowing Bass develop, as well as to the player, who said he never lost doubt.
“I had to really get down to just who I really was as a person, really get back to my basics,” Bass said. “But looking back on it, I wouldn’t trade anything because you know it shaped me into the person I am today.”
Good fortune led to the Bills discovering Bass. Buffalo’s Heath Farwell was the NFL’s only special teams coordinator to attend Georgia Southern’s pro day, which was held just before the NFL suspended travel as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bass first caught the coordinator’s attention at the Senior Bowl, and Farwell made the trip to Statesboro as confirmation.
“I remember getting out to the pro day, not a single person on the field, and then I hear it from outside the stadium,” Farwell recalled. “I hear a boom, and I go around the corner and realize he’s the only one out there warming up.”
Two months later, the Bills selected Bass. He celebrated with his family and friends, and particularly Lusk.
“For me it was super emotional, not having any schools interested in me but one, a walk-on. I still got student loans,” he said.
“And she was there for me through all the ups through all the downs,” Bass added. “Yeah, it’s something I’ll never forget and I’ll never forget that feeling. And I’m super thankful for it.”
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press