- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
If he intends to survive, the punter learns early on to take such treatment in stride, for he inhabits a small, isolated universe, and his ruination isn't usually his foot or his leg but rather his head. Punters obsess about mistakes like the boomerang (a kick that seems to make a U-turn and angle back in the wrong direction) and the ball hit too hard and driven into the end zone for a touchback when the defense was hoping to pin the opponent close to its goal line. A punter lives in terror of blocked punts returned for touchdowns and of having to make a tackle when he's the last defender between the return man and the end zone.
When such misfortunes occur, punters can unravel emotionally. "An offensive lineman misses a block, and it's not like he's going to need a sports psychologist," says Gary Zauner, a former NFL special teams coordinator who works as a kicking consultant. "But a punter hits it wrong and loses his confidence, and off to a therapist he goes."
Compounding their anxieties, punters are often treated like second-class citizens. At practice during the season most coaches dedicate only about 15 minutes to the punt team. This is true in the NFL and college, where punters, to add to the ignominy, are often given scout-squad duties. They hold dummies as the offense comes charging at them like bulls in the streets of Pamplona. "There aren't any practice fields at Cincinnati, so we practiced on the game field," Huber says. "During practice I'd have to stand around while everybody else was on the field getting their work in." To make sure he punted enough balls, Huber showed up early, but then "the rest of the guys would start coming out and have to demonstrate that they could punt too," he says. "Nobody could do it well, but they all thought they could."
Huber dreams of a long pro career and hopes to emulate Giants punter Jeff Feagles, who, at age 43, is in his 22nd season in the league. Feagles has played in an NFL-record 349 consecutive regular-season games and 11 postseason games, a streak that started in his rookie year, 1988. He also holds the mark for most career punting yards: 70,708, which translates to roughly 40 miles.
Like many other punters, Feagles fell into his career by filling a vacuum. In high school, at Gerard Catholic in Phoenix, he played baseball and basketball and didn't go out for football until his senior year. "It was a small school with only 58 or 60 kids in my graduating class," he says. "We didn't have a lot of kids on the team, so I went out to add another body. I tried quarterback but hardly played. There was a kicker, so I didn't kick. Finally the coach said, 'Who can punt?' And I got the job."
Feagles went on to play at Scottsdale Community College, which gave him a scholarship that amounted to course books and $50. Impressed that major colleges were recruiting his teammates, he dedicated himself to improving his game and enrolled at a kicking camp run by punting guru Ray Pelfrey. "I got noticed and ended up going to Miami," Feagles says. "Miami had recently come off a national championship, and all I'd had were two years of football—one in high school, one in junior college. So it's my sophomore year, and I'm lining up against the University of Florida. I go from 500 people in the stands to 75,000 in a stadium. It was a shock, but I did O.K." Feagles was a three-year starter at Miami and averaged 40.8 yards a punt in 1987 as a senior on the Hurricanes' 12--0 national title team. "I think this speaks to why I've done well as a professional," he says. "I've been able to block out distractions and not worry about the crowds and the pressure."
Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator before becoming head coach of the Rams last January, was one coach who appreciated what Feagles could do. "I used to tell Jeff he was our most valuable player on defense," Spagnuolo says. "He didn't worry about his yardage or net punt average. All he worried about was putting our defense in the best position. He's a tremendous directional punter. He was always trying to back the offense inside the 10, and nobody did it better."
Like Feagles, Shane Lechler never imagined a future as a punter. He was competing for the starting quarterback job during his sophomore year at Texas A&M when he tore a quadriceps muscle during two-a-days. His coach, R.C. Slocum, sat him down after practice. "He was like, 'You know what? You're not going to want to hear this, but I want you just to be a punter,'" says Lechler. "That was hard to stomach because, quite frankly, I found it boring. There just wasn't enough going on. You go out to practice and you kick, and then you call it a day."
Sometimes Coach knows best. Now in his 10th season with Oakland, Lechler is a hero to many other punters because he's demonstrated year after year that he might be the best player the Raiders have. In February he signed a deal that finally paid a punter real money: as much as $16 million over four years, $9 million of it guaranteed. In the first 13 games of the 2009 season, Lechler has justified the contract by averaging 44.3 net yards (tops in the league) and fattening career stats that should add fodder to the argument that a punter belongs in the Hall of Fame.