One Monday evening in mid-September the owner of the Cue & Chalk Family Billiards parlor in West Seneca, N.Y. received a phone call during which he was told to catch the next plane from nearby Buffalo to New Orleans. Six days later John Leypoldt played a beautiful bank shot off the left upright from 27 yards away as time expired to give his newest NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, a 20-18 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. One week later, after missing a field goal and kicking off weakly against the Los Angeles Rams, Leypoldt was on the first plane out of New Orleans for Buffalo en route back to his pool hall in West Seneca.
Leypoldt was the second of six kickers the Saints have employed this season—seven, counting Rich Szaro's left and right feet. Like many NFL teams, the Saints have had difficulty settling on a kicker; since July, no fewer than 33 different placekickers and 16 punters have been released by the NFL's 28 teams.
Take the Philadelphia Eagles' situation. Rick Engles, who had punted for Seattle and Pittsburgh the last two years, started the season as the Eagles' No. 1 man, but after four games Coach Dick Vermeil put Engles on waivers. It was the second time this season that Engles had found himself on the waiver list. Philadelphia then signed Mitch Hoopes, the former Dallas, San Diego, St. Louis and Detroit punter, but he had such a poor week's practice that Vermeil cut him for the third time this season.
Engles, meanwhile, had flown home to Tulsa. On Friday night the Eagles phoned him and told him to stand by, that they might need him Sunday. The next morning they called again with a firm job offer. Moments before the weekly roster deadline Engles signed a new contract on the back of a refuse cart in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He then flew to Baltimore and punted for the Eagles the next day against the Colts.
Engles lasted one more game before he was waived for the third time and replaced by Mike Michel, who had been released by the Miami Dolphins. In the second quarter of Michel's debut against the Redskins, he unloaded one punt for nine yards, another for 26 yards and whiffed on a third. Missed it completely. "I couldn't do that again if I tried," he said.
Michel still punts for the Eagles, at least for now, but like all the men who put the foot into football, he is well aware that the unemployment office is only a bad kick away. Just seven kickers and four punters work for the same teams that employed them five years ago, and only five of the league's 28 placekickers still perform for the teams with which they originally signed. On the other hand, Buffalo's Tom Dempsey is kicking for his fifth NFL club; Errol Mann has gone from Denver to Cleveland to Green Bay to Detroit to Green Bay to Oakland to the unemployment office to Oakland to Buffalo to Oakland; and the Mike-Mayer brothers, Nick and Steve, have, between them, worked in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New Orleans.
There seem to be any number of reasons for this job insecurity. Kickers are inconsistent. Kickers do not get three downs in which to make good. Nobody knows how to coach soccer-style kickers, of which there are 22 at the moment. And while a kicker or punter might perform well in practice, when 50,000 people are yelling and stomping and 11 men are rushing at him in a game.... Well, it's definitely a buyer's market.
"You can always find a kicker," says Dallas Coach Tom Landry. "There are a lot of them around. We just bring them in and let them kick until we see one we like." Leypoldt, one of Landry's rejects, says, "Coaches treat us like cars. The old one is working perfectly fine, but they want a new one anyway. They think they'll enjoy it more." Hoopes, another Landry reject, who has had his hang time clocked by six different teams, says, "We go across the country knocking on doors and hoping to sell ourselves. I've only had my van a year, and I've already got 40,000 miles on it. Never, never buy a used van from a punter."
All this shuffling around has created a subculture of kickers and punters who write letters requesting tryouts and then wait by their phones. "Those calls have a special ring to them," says Leypoldt, who began to sit by the phone in August after Seattle cut him. Leypoldt returned to his pool hall, and the next day he was invited to attend a tryout in Dallas, where Landry was searching for a replacement for All-Pro Kicker Efren Herrera, who had demanded a rich new contract from the Cowboys. Hearing of this, Landry reportedly said, "Trade him," and Herrera was off to Seattle, where he took over Leypoldt's old job.
At Dallas, Leypoldt tried out against Rafael Septien and Tim Mazzetti; Septien, a Los Angeles reject, got the job. Then, when New England lost John Smith for the season with a leg injury, the Patriots had Leypoldt kick against Carson Long and Tony DiRienzo. New England told Leypoldt it would probably sign him in a few days, but in the meantime the Saints called and had Leypoldt compete against Mazzetti for the job left vacant when Szaro injured his groin. Leypoldt beat out Mazzetti, which turned out to be a break for Atlanta. Dissatisfied with Fred Steinfort, who had missed seven of 10 field-goal attempts and had two blocked field goals returned for touchdowns, Atlanta signed Mazzetti, and two weeks ago Mazzetti was canonized on Monday Night Football as he kicked five field goals in five tries to give the Falcons a 15-7 victory over the Rams.