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The situation was under control. I was standing at our 35, loose-limbed, waiting for the snap. I was punting for the Florida Sun of the Florida Football League, a 12-team semi-pro league in which some players get paid but a lot—including our entire team—don't.
I had been practicing for months, hammering footballs over trees, houses and light poles, all the while keeping in mind the words my mentor, a spry 78-year-old from Fort Lauderdale named Dr. Edward J. (Doc) Storey, had borrowed from Knute Rockne: when in doubt, punt. This was no gimmick, no look-at-the-poor-writer-making-a-fool-of-himself experiment in participatory journalism. To the members of the Sun, I was their punter, no more, no less. I'd punted in college. As a junior at Northwestern in 1969 I set a 10-game, single-season school record for most punts (77) and total yardage (2,860). I'd punted in high school and grade school and in several touch-and flag-football leagues after college. All told, I estimated, I'd punted about 600 times in competition.
And yet I remembered so little of it. There were a few crystalline moments that stuck out: a high, arcing, perfectly spiraling 58-yarder against Purdue at West Lafayette, Ind.; a nauseatingly low line-drive 32-yarder against Notre Dame at South Bend being returned in front of 59,075 greenhatted lunatics for a touchdown (with me missing the final tackle). But the rest was blurred.
Punting was something I did as a sideline while playing football. I never practiced. Nobody practiced punting. I don't even know how I came to punt in the first place. Undoubtedly, at each level of my career there was a coach who said, "Who can punt?" And I'd raise my hand and be handed a ball. I'd kick and the coach would say, "O.K., you punt. Now, who can kick off?"
The line was set. Everyone was still. The center snapped, and as the ball climbed at an unnatural angle, I thought briefly of my father.
H. R. Telander, a modest, good-humored, successful businessman, started when I was at an early age to imbue me with maxims he felt might prove beneficial in life. One of those, "Own nothing, control everything," speaks for itself. Another, "Don't let the bastards get you down," proved uplifting during my adolescence. The third one diverged from the others in that it was metaphorical and reflected a viewpoint at once playful and profound.
"When in doubt, punt," my father would say to me as we motored along a flat Illinois highway or when he passed a platter of corn. The adage was seldom spoken with football in mind. Two years ago, when to all appearances my punting days were long gone and this story wasn't conceived, my father sent me a T shirt with the words WHEN IN DOUBT, PUNT emblazoned across the chest. No mere slogan, these were words to live by.
When the ball reached its zenith, a good four feet above my head, I stopped thinking of my father. In all his monologues he'd said nothing that could help me now.
The word "punt," which comes from rugby, is onomatopoeic. That is, a good punt—solid leather hitting at a 20-degree angle across the navicular and cuneiforms of the foot before spiraling off the metatarsals—sounds like itself: punt. In the NFL, punting is done primarily on fourth down, when a team feels that it's too risky to go for a first down and that it is out of field-goal range.