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Pat McAfee retires from the NFL after a winding career that almost never was

McAfee's football career might never have happened if he hadn't won a poker game in high school.

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After announcing his retirement via an emotional letter on Twitter, punter Pat McAfee leaves the NFL at the top of his game. He was named a Pro Bowler in two of the past three seasons and holds an assortment of Indianapolis Colts franchise records. A decorated and entertaining career comes to close in unexpected fashion as McAfee revealed he was retiring to join Barstool Sports.

How McAfee reached the NFL, though, may be just as surprising.

How a poker game earned him a scholarship offer

After being crowned a Punt, Pass & Kick champion in high school, McAfee was invited off his high school soccer team to Penn State’s kicking camp despite never having played football before. As he recounted to the Indianapolis Star in 2014, McAfee was promised a scholarship after an impressive showing, and began to kick for his high school team. The next year, though, the Nittany Lions had invited competition for McAfee, and he eventually learned they had chosen to award a scholarship to another kicker.

McAfee was dejected and nearly quit the sport, but his father, Tim, had other plans. Tim sent his son’s highlight tapes to nearly every single Division I school. Pat was eventually invited to a kicking camp in South Florida — one he described on the Pardon My Take podcast as a “hustle” — but could not get his hands on the $1,500 fee to join. McAfee was determined, though. He borrowed $100 from a friend and managed to win enough in an illegal poker game to afford his trip. McAfee impressed at the camp, making a 65-yard field goal and coming close from 70 yards out, sailing just wide right.

After returning from the camp, McAfee received his first scholarship offer the next day from West Virginia. It was redemption for the high school soccer star, who had almost given up on football two years earlier.

The Cowboys nearly crushed his NFL dreams

McAfee took over as the full-time starter by his sophomore year, and went on to become the Mountaineers’ all-time leading scorer. He had his best opportunity to grab the attention of NFL scouts at West Virginia’s pro day, and had what he told the Indy Star was “the best day of my life.” The Dallas Cowboys promised him he was their guy after he caught their eye at a pre-draft workout, but when they used a late-round pick on kicker David Buehler, he feared his NFL dreams were all but over.

A blessing came in the form of a phone call from then-Colts GM Bill Polian. They had traded up to pick McAfee in the seventh round. To this point McAfee was only a field goal kicker, but the Colts surprisingly intended to use him as a punter. The next day he visited his high school’s football field with the intention of teaching himself how to actually punt a football, a task he was just employed to do on the nation’s biggest stage.

McAfee quickly became a fan favorite with the Colts

McAfee learned, and learned well. The All-Pro punter holds Colts franchise records for punting average (46.4) and net punting average (39.8). But his vibrant personality that he displayed both on and off the field is what made him so special.

From celebrating punts like they were touchdowns, to begging Antonio Brown for mercy on punt returns, his antics have made him a fan favorite. The punter even surprised many local families last holiday season by paying the electric bills for 115 households, totaling over $18,000.

As McAfee moves on from football, it’s incredible how close such an exciting and entertaining career came to never happening.

2016 was a good year for McAfee and NFL punters