"They kicked like that all day, and they beat us 20-6. Now I'm a curious man, and I knew I had to get to the bottom of this. So after the game I talked to the Mount Vernon coach and asked him who was teaching their kickers. He said Mr. Leroy Mills, a local lawyer. That was the beginning of my relationship with Mr. Mills."
In 1932 Leroy Mills, a pipe-smoking former punter for Princeton, wrote Kicking the American Football, the first full-length book on the subject. Mills and Doc became good friends, and Doc's teams prospered because of it. "We never had another punt blocked, and we won many games just by putting balls out in the coffin corners." It was Mills, in fact, who coined the phrase "coffin corner" to describe the sideline inside an opponent's 10, an area where the opposition could effectively be "buried."
Doc developed a number of good punters at Mamaroneck, including Bill Van Heusen, who played for the Denver Broncos from 1968 to 1976. But the best of them all, according to Doc, was a boy named Joe De Palma who graduated in 1935. "Joe could make the ball do anything he wanted: spiral, go end over end, roll forward, backward or sideways. I'd blindfold him, and he'd kick and tell me within five yards where the ball landed.
De Palma, now a retired Long Island school superintendent, recalls that Doc stressed the kicking game but that there was nothing mystical about his approach. "Really, there's no reason why you can't almost hit a blanket every time," he says. "It's all balance and practicing till you're like a blind man reacting in the dark. I'll tell you, all these runbacks today really bother me."
After practicing Doc's techniques for a month I visited him at his Fort Lauderdale home, where he lives with Helen, his wife of 47 years. One of the first things he showed me was a copy of Mills' book, inscribed "To my old friend, Edward J. Storey" and dated Aug. 8,1936. Next Doc showed me a copy of his own book, Secrets of Kicking the Football, which was printed in 1971 and has sold more than 10,000 copies. Thumbing casually through it, I came to a portentous paragraph: "One good reason for learning to kick on the run is that it is very good practice for other kicking. You can never tell when the skill will come in handy." Indeed, indeed.
We sat down and Doc launched into a winding monologue that centered around punting but included bits of history, physics, anthropology and, of course, opinion. Doc explained that momentum equals mass times velocity, particularly when you're dealing with a heavy leg and a 15-ounce ball, and that punters should not leave the ground when they punt. "Do you realize that if a 200-pound kicker leaves the ground by six inches, he's used 100 pounds of energy that can't be transferred to the ball?"
It is dizzying to talk with a man like Doc, whose career spans athletic generations, who has pen pals and confidants who are 18 years old, yet who was a friend of Rockne. Doc was midway through a long spiel about a turn-of-the-century field goal, which dropped on the crossbar and for which the kicking team was awarded 1� points, when the phone rang. It was an assistant coach at Kentucky, Bill Glaser, and he wanted some advice.
"That's right," said Doc after listening for a time. "I don't believe in giving the safetyman an even break.... Let the ball bounce up and hit him in the mush.... Just send $4.50, and we'll get the book out to you."
Doc hung up and thought for a moment. "You see, you've got to take every advantage you can," he said. "I'd have my own safeties catch 100 punts a day, from the worst punter on our team. That way they were ready for anything. In 1934, when Columbia was going to the Rose Bowl, I was helping my friend, Coach Lou Little, with his kickers. I told Lou, 'It might rain out there, you know,' so we had the punter practice some with a ball soaked in a pail of water. Sure enough, it poured in Pasadena, and Stanford's punter had all kinds of trouble. But the Columbia kid kept the ball in the corners all day, and Columbia won 7-0."
Doc patted the football he'd been cradling in his arm and looked at my right foot. "As for you, let's go out to the park and take a look at that form."