Doc expects his punters to kick 200 or 300 punts a day. "You aren't going to hurt that great big muscle," he says, indicating the quadriceps of the thigh. This was the first point at which I had to disagree with Doc and his theories. I could punt 300 times in a session, but I couldn't chase 300 punted balls. Almost all of my kicks travel at least 60 yards in some direction. Chasing 300 punts would mean running more than 10 miles.
I informed Doc of this, and he nodded and asked why I didn't find myself a punt returner. Aha! The bane of all punters, the very reason punting is such a solitary pastime. Nobody likes to catch and return punts. In my several months of practicing I press-ganged exactly four returners into service.
The first was actually a group—a trio of medical students who were vacationing in Florida and sleeping on my living-room floor. Between beers and sessions of skin-peeling I forced them to catch my punts or find other lodging. The second returner was an overweight charter-boat captain who looked so wasted after a mere 30 punts that his wife forbade him to visit me in the afternoons. The third returner was an agile carpenter who did not sweat. He was forced to quit after he hit his thumb with a hammer.
The fourth returner was a man who had been sitting under a tree with his son, watching me kick. Occasionally the man would comment to the boy on my technique. After a time I asked the man if he'd like to catch some punts, and he said he certainly would.
He stood near one of the palm trees, and I kicked him 20 balls. He might have touched half of them on the fly, but he didn't catch any. He circled, stirred up dust clouds, fell down and complained about the sun and the wind and the earth. After the 20th punt I told him I was finished for the day. He dusted himself off and rounded up his son, and the two of them walked away, as silent as two people can be.
In late June I went with Doc to the kickers' camp at the University of Wisconsin's branch campus in River Falls. The camp is run by U.W.-River Falls Football Coach Mike Farley, but it is actually Doc's world. Doc has been the featured counselor for the last five years, and his name and face are highlighted on the camp's promotional brochures.
Perhaps the best and most helpful part about a kicking camp is that for several days 200 young men with 200 footballs get to spend all day kicking them. Kindred souls and ball returners are everywhere.
At River Falls we were all housed in one large dorm, and except for being a bit older than the other punters, I felt fine. Each morning after breakfast we'd go to the field for drills. Because of an arthritic condition in his hips. Doc made the journey in his "chariot," a white golf cart driven by Woody Umphrey, a five-year pupil at the camp and an outstanding punter for Alabama. In last year's Sugar Bowl, Umphrey helped the Crimson Tide upset Penn State by keeping State in the hole with his precise punting. "Doc taught me everything," Umphrey said. Together they made an interesting couple, whipping over sidewalks and up hills—Woody shirtless, goateed, sun-worshipping; Doc bespectacled, rotund, hanging on for his life.
Only 25 of the boys at camp were like me, strictly punters, and Doc put us through some unique drills. We dropped our footballs on the sidewalk to see if we could get them to bounce straight up. We punted blindfolded to develop our kinesthetic sense. We kicked with Doc standing in front of us and walked up and shook his hand to develop a natural follow-through. "Hi, Doc," I said. "Good afternoon," he said. "Keep walking."