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Hang 'Em High
JOHN ED BRADLEY
December 21, 2009
Never, it seems, have punters been more valuable to NFL teams. So who are these guys—and why hasn't a single punter been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
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December 21, 2009

Hang 'em High

Never, it seems, have punters been more valuable to NFL teams. So who are these guys—and why hasn't a single punter been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

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Renner concluded that a punter could be taught how to get off a good kick every time. He titled his thesis The Relationship Between Selected Physical Performance Variables and Football Punting Ability, and he later expanded it into a book, Kicking the Football. "The book examines the importance of the right drill sequence—the drills a punter should do to strike a ball at the most efficient point in his swing with the most efficient technique, so that he has repeatable results," says Renner. "It's all very basic. Anybody can coach somebody how to punt."

But to succeed, the punter has always had tricks. "Some guys would put their kicking shoe in a bucket of water and walk around with it outside in the sun so the leather would shrink," says Gary Zauner. The tighter shoe provided a harder surface with which to strike the ball. To make their feet fit snugly in these shrunken shoes, some punters wore socks coated with motor oil or petroleum jelly. Still others ripped the tongues out of their shoes, not wanting anything soft or spongy to come in contact with the ball.

"The only trick I do is to work harder than the next guy," says Feagles. "My son C.J. is a punter in college, and I tell him this all the time. To be the best, you're going to have to do things you don't want to do. If that means going outside when it's cold and doing 100 drops, you do it." A drop is the simple act of releasing the ball from the hand to the foot, and most punters say it's the key to getting off a good kick. "Your hands will freeze, but they're going to be freezing in a game one day too," Feagles says. "It's the mind. The punter's mind is a lot more powerful than his leg."

Top Guy

In 1973 Raiders owner Al Davis and head coach John Madden did a remarkable thing. They selected a punter in the first round of the NFL draft, making Ray Guy the only pure punter ever chosen that early, a distinction he still holds. Guy's reputation was built on hang time—an ability to kick soaring punts that seemed to defy gravity and get caught in the ether. Guy quickly became a sensation. Fans arrived at stadiums early just to watch him punt before the game. Awed by the sight of his booming kicks, people accused him of filling the balls with helium. Davis and Madden told interviewers that Guy was as important to the team as any other defensive player.

Guy had learned how to punt by competing with his older brother Al, who enjoyed kicking the ball over Ray's head. "When I started, I was just trying to make the ball do what Al did with it," Ray says. "I'd experiment: how to hold the ball, how to drop it. I had no clue what the hell I was doing. I just knew that one day I was going to kick it over Al's head and make him go chase after it."

Despite his impact on the game, Guy doesn't hold any NFL punting records. In his day he was criticized for outdistancing his coverage with long, driving punts, thus making returns easier. But Guy says he always let the situation on the field dictate how he kicked the ball. "I was a position punter," he says. "Before the punt team would even go out on the field, we'd meet on the sideline on third down and talk about what I needed to do. There were times when I could've hit the ball 70 yards, but if that wasn't going to help us I wouldn't do it. I loved running out on the field and thinking, Yeah, we didn't make a first down, but I'm going to put your butt in a hole."

The NFL didn't start recording the number of times a punter planted the ball inside the 20 until Guy's fourth season in the league. "Oh, God, I won a lot of games doing that," says Guy, who punted for three Raiders Super Bowl winners (the seasons of '76, '80 and '83). "There was this day I remember when I had 11 or 12 punts—I think 10 of them were inside the 20, and I had six inside the 10."

Guy once spent hours talking about punting with Sammy Baugh, the late TCU and Redskins great. Guy was impressed by how much he and Baugh had in common. Baugh had grown up on a farm in central Texas, Guy on one in rural Georgia. Baugh told Guy he used to place a bedsheet on the field and practice dropping kicks on it. Most of Baugh's punts had come on third down when, as his team's quarterback, he quick-kicked after the safeties came up to defend against the run. Because the ball was rounder then, it covered more ground on the roll, and Baugh used the roll to pin opponents near their end zones.

Quick kicks are virtually extinct in today's game. Quarterbacks don't punt anymore, and the ball doesn't roll like the soft pumpkin of Baugh's era. Besides, coaches are too covetous of every offensive down to sacrifice possession with a third-down giveaway. "A coach has to trust his offense to get a first down," says Spagnuolo. "With the passing game now, you feel you can get those seven or eight yards."

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