After five years in the National Football League, Mountain Ridge graduate Jeff Locke is focused on a return while playing for the Alliance of American Football’s Arizona Hotshots during their inaugural season.
Locke, 28, was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft and played four years with the Vikings before playing one year in Detroit. He also had brief time with the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers but was released before the start of the 2018 season.
He said punting was an accident that fell in his lap just before attending Mountain Ridge High School (MRHS).
“Punting kind of picked me,” Locke said while standing next to State Farm Stadium after the Hotshots practice. “I was always the big-legged soccer kid and my friends from middle school got me to try out for freshman football and that was it.”
Mountain Ridge Mountain Lions Locke, whose father was in the military, was born in Germany and moved to Glendale when his father completed his military career at Luke Air Force Base. He attended MRHS because his parents wanted him to attend a better school.
“My parents knew Mountain Ridge was a good school and my older brother was starting high school, so we moved to Glendale,” Locke said. “I loved my time as a Mountain Lion.”
When he got to MRHS, Locke was a star soccer player before friends told him to try out for football because of his strong leg.
“The first football game I ever attended was the first game I played in on the fresh- man team,” Locke said. “I had never been to a game, even as a fan, before that game because I was always playing soccer.”
After that first freshman game, he was not hooked, but was so strong he quickly moved up.
“I don’t really remember, but I must have done pretty well because I was on the varsity team the following week,” Locke said.
During high school, Locke was a kicker most of the time, connecting on 20 of 39 field goal attempts, including a 63- yarder against Tucson Sunnyside August 8, 2007 — still the longest in Mountain Ridge history.
During his time on the soccer team, Locke helped the Mountain Lions to their first Regional Championship during his junior season while he was still playing both soccer and football.
After joining the varsity football team, Locke was the kicker, punter and wide receiver before taking up punting full time his sophomore year.
“Towards the second half of my sophomore year, I realized I was a better punter than a kicker, but kicked field goals my entire high school career,” Locke said. “I realized the scholarships were lining up for punting and realized I had a big leg and could play college as a punter.”
Locke averaged 40.7 yards on 63 punts with 15 inside the 20-yard line in high school and also kicked 97 touchbacks on 183 kickoffs. He still holds school records for most field goals in a season (11), longest punt (71 yards), and longest field goal (63 yards, a state record).
University of California Los Angeles
After going through the recruitment process, and visiting 10 schools, Locke chose to attend UCLA to further his play and education, playing for then head coach Rick Neuheisel.
“I was a good student in high school and planned to major in science in college, and UCLA was the best of the offers for science at that time,” Locke said.
While redshirting his freshman year, an exam changed his mind about his major and he changed quickly.
“I had an exam on a Sunday morning after the University of Southern California (USC) game and I got together with my academic advisor and asked him if that was how it was going to be in science and he said, yes,” Locke said. “I decided to change to the science of money, economics, and fell in love with it and that was it.”
Locke earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from UCLA, while shining on the field for four years with the Bruins.
He started 53 games with a punting average of 44.23, No. 2 in UCLA history. Locke also had a 42.54-percent touchback rate on kickoffs. During his senior year, Locke was named first-team All-Pac-12, when he led the league in yards per punt (45.8) and earned first-team all-conference academic team honors. He was also selected to play in the Senior Bowl college all-star game, and earned the Captain’s Award.
National Football League
After his four years at UCLA, Locke said his agent told him he was predicted to be drafted anywhere from the fourth through seventh round.
“My agent got a report and that is what it said, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, my family and I were at a wedding in California and sitting in a hotel room during the second day of the draft,” Locke said. “My dad had all these cards on a table with every possibility of where I could wind up when the phone rang.”
Locke said the number was a Minnesota number and he answered and was told the Vikings were drafting him in the fifth round.
“I got the call and in a few minutes it showed up on the television, so it became real then,” Locke said. “I got on a plane and headed to Minnesota a couple days later.”
When he landed in Minnesota and stepped off the plane, there was snow everywhere and he was shocked.
“I had grown up in Arizona and then Los Angeles, so it was a shock to see all the snow,” Locke said. “I thought this was
interesting, but I loved Minneapolis, it is an amazing town.”
He said when he joined the team, he worked hard but said he made mistakes that he wishes he could change on the field.
“My biggest mistake was I didn’t focus on directional punting, I went the comfort- able route and would kick the ball down the middle of the field because I had done it my entire career,” Locke said. “That put me behind the eight ball and I was playing catch up when the league began moving towards directional punting.”
He said he finally began focusing on directional punting midway through his third year but struggled with the cold.
“Playing outside then (at the old TCF Stadium) and it was tough playing in those conditions,” Locke said. “I struggled with that and didn’t finish strong at the end of my contract and heading into free agency.”
As he is part of the inaugural Arizona Hotshots, he says he is honored to be playing for head coach Neuheisel again.
“I loved playing for coach at UCLA and we had a good laugh my first day out here when he looked at me and (former UCLA and current Hotshots assistant coach Tim) Hundley and said, ‘I can’t believe we got Jeff Locke out here punting for us again’ and we all laughed,” Locke said. “This really has been a great experience so far and I can’t wait to get rolling.”
Locke said fans should check out the league, especially the Hotshots, because he said, “In terms of on the field, there really is not a big difference between the AAF and the NFL.”
There are no kickoffs in the AAF and there are no extra points as each team must go for two-point conversions after touchdowns.
“That is weird still, but it is good because we all know the kickoff is the most dangerous play in football,” Locke said. I haven’t heard of guys complaining about it so far and it actually makes guys want to be part of the punt team more.”
The league also has teams start at the 20-yard line as there are no kickoffs and in a scrimmage before the season began, Locke said starting kicker Nick Folk was barely part of the team.
“There was a drive when the offense got inside the red zone and we started preparing for a field goal when the offense scored,” Locke said. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘I guess we should put our hats back on and sit down.’ I don’t think (Folk) even had a kick that game and that was really weird.”
Locke said he is focused on the AAF and believes the league can be a great football alternative during the NFL offseason.
“I believe this league can be like a G- League in the National Basketball Association or Minor League Baseball,” Locke said. “There are too many guys that don’t get drafted and then don’t make their first camp and don’t get a second chance. This league has the chance to be that second chance.”
After the season, Locke said he will then focus on a future attempt at making an NFL roster.
“My agent just said come in here and make the best 10-game highlight video and that is what I am focused on right now.
Life after football After getting his economics degree,
Locke said he has worked on internships during college and some work after college, on helping people improve their financial stability.
“I love the financial education side of things and I don’t think it is addressed enough to help people move forward,” Locke said. “I don’t think it is addressed enough as early as middle school, and I would love to start talking to middle, high school and college kids about things like getting their first mortgage or car loan because it is not taught enough.”
He said he is leaning toward the possibility of starting his own financial advising company after his playing days.
While interning during college, he knew about the problem of NFL players going broke and decided to try to make a change to help them.
He did a presentation during his intern- ship to his colleagues — all of whom knew more about finance than Locke did — and he said every intern does this at the end of the program.
Locke created a 45-minute PowerPoint package in which he believed he found the causes of the problem. He thought he found a way, through his research, to stop it. The executives were impressed.
It gave Locke the template for what he wanted to do next: take the presentation and bring it to the Vikings. After refining it throughout 2015, Locke gave his seminar to Vikings rookies in 2016 and Indianapolis Colts rookies during the 2018 preseason. “I had a number of advisors reach out to me and it opened my eyes for my future,” Locke said. “I have had a couple of NFL players contact me, and I am not licensed so I can’t really do much, but it really opened my eyes on what may be needed so I am looking at that after football.”