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I started practicing five days a week, following Doc's instructions and keeping a chart to gauge my progress. The first heading on the chart was "Image Rehearsal." This was Doc's method for "implanting the brain with exactly what you want to do." What I wanted to implant in my brain was the perfect punt.
But what is a perfect punt? For many, it is Ray Guy winding up and blasting one 60 yards downfield. But Guy's punts, though things of beauty, often outstrip the Raiders' pursuit and are returned for good yardage. For example, against Kansas City this season his seven punts were run back for a total of 141 yards, including one 59-yard boomer that J. T. Smith returned 88 yards for a touchdown.
Four years ago the NFL added a net-yardage category (gross yardage minus return and touchback yardage) to its statistical evaluation of punters. This helps greatly in determining the overall effectiveness of a punter, but it still doesn't take into account such things as weather conditions, bad snaps, poor tackling and hang time.
The Jets, like most pro teams, have worked out their own evaluation system. They want their punts to average more than 40 yards and their coverage team to allow less than three yards per return. They want the center snap to take .7 second and the punter to get rid of the ball in 1.3 seconds, for a total of two seconds. "Your linemen should cover 40 yards in six seconds," says special teams Coach Joe Gardi. "If the punter gets the ball off in two seconds, a 4.0 hang time on a 40-yard punt should get the job done. Anything over that is great."
The second heading on my chart was "Plantar Extension." This entails pointing the kicking foot down forcefully 100 times in a row. It's a useful exercise because it ensures that when the ball strikes the ankle, the area will be as rigid and straight as possible. According to Doc, barefooted punters like Mississippi's Jim Miller or Arkansas' Ish Ordonez or Chuck Ramsey of the Jets (who wears only a sock) are not as crazy as they appear. "They're just making certain nothing interferes with that good contact," Doc says.
The third heading was "Stretching," a vital one for punters because they must enter games cold and immediately make a violent motion. Guy, who says he'd like to hit his nose with his knee on a punt—and nearly has—is probably the most limber of all NFL punters. He works constantly on his stretching.
Of all the muscles involved, hamstrings cause the most trouble, particularly on cold days or on a slick field. I came home from one practice session, flipped on the tube and watched Miami's George Roberts pull his hamstring while punting in sodden Shea Stadium. My exercises include three different hamstring stretchers.
The fourth heading was "Passing the Ball." To do this I placed the ball on my foot and "passed" it to a spot a few yards away. This was done to develop a feel for the ball on the foot, or what Doc calls a "kinesthetic sense." "All great punters have it," he says. "A good punt literally feels good."
The final category was "Punting." At a park near my home in Key West I measured the distance between two palm trees—52 yards—and used the area between them as my field. A good punt will go from tree to tree, roughly a 42-yarder—punters generally being 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage when they kick. My best efforts curved into the top fronds of the target tree, occasionally bringing down a coconut or a startled lizard.