At times, particularly when the wind was blowing and our drops were off by a critical fraction of an inch, we punters enviously watched the place-kickers as they crunched their footballs through the goalposts scattered around camp. How simple and rewarding their job seemed. In our hearts, of course, we knew the truth. Place-kicking is one of the grimmest businesses going.
Punting seldom holds such horrors—or joys—for its practitioners. Punters don't score points or win games. They are largely faceless and can hide behind their anonymity if they wish. Punting pressure is a private thing.
Gary Zauner is a coaching assistant at Brigham Young University and a counselor at the camp. At the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse he was a good punter, and after graduation he tried out with the Vikings and was cut. He played semi-pro ball, made all-conference, quit two jobs to continue practicing, tried out with Houston and Green Bay and was cut each time. He is a good teacher, verbal and coherent, but a sadness lingers over him, as though the details of his art have beaten him down.
"I think that punting is the single most difficult thing in athletics," he would say with a sigh verging on bitterness.
To make use of my reborn skills I had to have a team to play on. Doc and I toyed with the idea of an NFL tryout but quickly discarded it and, facing reality, settled on the Miami-based semi-pro Florida Sun. The team practiced three times a week at Miami Lakes High School and played its games on Sunday afternoons. Over the phone the Sun's coach, Kenny Copeland, gave me a brief rundown on what to expect, but I'd played semi-pro football before, and I knew that all teams are the same—somewhat disorganized, somewhat fanatical, composed of the overweight and the undersized, the aging, the mean and the dreaming.
At the first practice I met the other kickers. The place-kicker was Shawn Hale, a cocky 19-year-old high school grad who wore a baseball cap under his helmet and said the colleges didn't know what they were missing by not signing him. I would be his holder. The two other punters were Danny Sapp, a clean-cut Eastern Airlines flight attendant who would have to miss most of the games because of his schedule, and Kevin Burnett, a 25-year-old 200-pounder who had spent 4� years in the Coast Guard.
Burnett punted for the team last year, led the league in punting and would leave soon for California State University, Fullerton, from which he'd just earned a scholarship. To let schools know of his availability, Burnett had posed as a high school coach and had begun calling college coaches around the country.
"I put on this hick accent and told the coaches I knew this kid who averaged 43 yards a punt," he said. "Well, in punting you can tell somebody whatever you want, but they've got to see you do it. So I flew out to Fullerton at my own expense, kicked 20 balls, pounded them, and the coach said, 'O.K., you've got a scholarship.' "
Unlike other football skills, punting expertise can be determined in controlled drills. Three years ago when the Jets were displeased with Punter Duane Carrell, they held a "Kick-a-thon" and invited a number of prospects. After all the punters had kicked, Gardi retreated to the clubhouse to tabulate his findings. He emerged half an hour later and announced to the assembled sportswriters that the winner was Chuck Ramsey. He is the Jets' current punter.