An hour or so into kicking school, I realized some apologies might be in order.
Having failed, in numerous attempts, to kick a football farther than that Scotsman threw the caber at the beginning of the old ABC's Wide World of Sports, I began to regret the harshness with which I had treated certain kickers in the past. Gerry Thomas and Dan Mowrey of Florida State, Craig Fayak of Penn State and anyone else I've dumped on for missing key field goals, know this: I have an increased appreciation of the difficulty of your craft.
With their ridiculous unibar face masks and their certified-public-accountant physiques, kickers have long been tantalizing marks for scribes like me. While their teammates sweat and bleed and club one another, the kickers toss sprigs of grass into the air to gauge the wind. Their job: to boot the ball through two poles. How tough can that be?
Deceptively, maddeningly, humiliatingly tough. This is what I learned at a Professional Kicking Services camp run by Ray and Rob Pelfrey. In three days my longest kick was a 35-yarder that barely slithered over the crossbar.
"At the end of these three days," Ray told my 45 fellow campers and me at our orientation meeting, "you will be as tired as you've ever been." I smirked inwardly. I'd done plenty of running and biking. I wasn't too worried about a kicking school.
By the final day I was hobbling around like Quasimodo and begging for aspirin. I had kicked about 1,000 balls, straining every muscle in my right leg as I shanked, hooked and otherwise muffed scores of kicks while trying to master the Pelfreys' American Wedge, a hybrid of the straight-on (George Blanda) and soccer-style (Garo Yepremian) kicking techniques.
The camp I attended, at Arizona State in July, was one of 23 that the Pelfreys conduct every summer on college campuses across the country. Ray, a curmudgeonly bulldog of 65 who played halfback and wide receiver in the NFL for three seasons, has been running the camps for 18 years. Rob, his 28-year-old son, has helped out for the last five years and is now president of the company. Their camps, which cost $290 per student, are the best of their kind. Just don't plan on going out dancing the night you get home.
Looks like my fellow campers are mostly high school players. There are a handful of collegians and, at the other extreme, the Derdengers, Bryan and Tim, 13-year-old twins who are identical down to their matching orthodontia and wire-rim glasses. Bryan handles the placekicking and punting for their Pop Warner team in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Tim kicks off. Their behavior is angelic—right up until their parents get in the car and drive away.
On the field, under the lights, we take turns punting, then kicking, in front of a video camera. Having captured our wretched form on tape, the Pelfreys can later point out to us, frame by painful frame, the error of our ways.