When Gary Barnett became coach at lowly Northwestern last December, he didn't expect to inherit someone who would become the nation's leading punt returner. Yet that's what he has in 5'9", 173-pound Lee Gissendaner, whose 25.00-yard average is 3.16 yards ahead of second-place James McMillion of Iowa State. If Gissendaner ends up No. 1, he'll become the first Wildcat football player to lead the nation in any statistical category.
Gissendaner grew up in Stow, Ohio, where he was not only an all-county running back but also a 13-foot pole vaulter. He was headed for Kent State—his father and brother had played for the Golden Flashes—until Northwestern offered him a scholarship. During his first two years in Evanston, Gissendaner, who's a junior, was a second-string receiver, but he led the Wildcats in punt returns last season, averaging 5.6 yards on 10 returns. "We were mainly going for the block then," says Gisscndaner.
Apparently the Northwestern special teams are now going for the return. In a 35-24 loss to Stanford on Sept. 19, Gissendaner returned three punts for a school-record 121 yards, including a 72-yarder for a touchdown.
Although Barnett is disappointed with the Wildcats' 2-7 record, he can take solace in the fact that Gissendaner, who's majoring in human development and social policy/organizational studies, will be returning kicks again next season. "Lee's got everything you want back there—courage and vision," says Barnett. "Now if we can just force the other teams to punt."