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#pounditTuesday, June 22, 2021

Punters and Kickers: They Never Get any Respect

Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a punter or kicker in football. The positions stand as the Rodney Dangerfield of the sport: no respect, no respect at all. They are the butt of every joke on the gridiron. What do you call the guy that hangs out with the team? The punter. How can you tell who the kicker is on the field? He’s the last guy the kick returner runs past on his way to a touchdown.

While the rest of the squad is grinding away at practice on speed and agility drills, tackling, and running routes, the kicker and the punter can be invariably seen jogging shoulder to shoulder around the practice field, their 40-yard times probably better suited to be clocked with a sundial. It’s presumably more difficult for a punter, since their presence on the field during a game signifies the team’s failure to advance the ball; the kicker, a symbol of the team’s capitulation: going for the three points instead of taking the risk of falling short in picking up a first down or touchdown.

But, why are the vestiges of football’s European roots so underappreciated? After all, in the Punt, Pass, and Kick competition, these guys represent 2/3 of the equation.

To understand the pedigree of football’s kickers, one must go back and peruse the great history of the game. Since I am no longer getting paid to write these articles in American currency, I choose not to. So, let’s just say some stodgy old guys back in the nineteenth century, wearing stovepipe hats and pantaloons, got fed up with kicking around a ball all day and decided to start using their hands. One can credit/blame Walter Camp for not putting the kibosh on the kicker all together (and also for his inability to foresee instant replay).

In the nascent days of American football, field goals counted as being more valuable than touchdowns — five points versus two and, later, four points — presumably making the game as exciting to watch as a chimney sweeping contest. Once the 1900s came along, football’s innovators, in an era where such staples as the dirigible and coat hanger were invented, decided that they would knock those overachieving Wright brothers off their pedestal by implementing the now-famous “vertical passing game.” (Note: I’ve never understood the expression. Pray tell what a horizontal passing game entails.) Afterwards, football reached a new period: one in which the quarterbacks began to achieve celebrity and the guys kicking the ball became perceived as glorified extras.

The recollection of the greatest plays in the history of football revolves around the skill positions.  The Drive. The Catch. The Immaculate Reception. Stop me if you’ve heard of “The Kick” because I’m pretty sure it has yet to make its way into legendary status. Every living, breathing football fan (and even some who aren’t) knows about Joe Namath’s guarantee that the Jets would win Super Bowl III; about Johnny Unitas’ role in the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played”; about the heroics of Joe Montana and Dwight Clark, John Elway, and David Tyree. But who ever thinks of the “freakin’ kicker”?

Perhaps one reason that kickers have gotten the shaft is for something as simple as superficial name recognition. Steve Young was an easy, two-syllable name to pronounce. Jan Stenerud encouraged generations of misspelling. Troy Aikman was America’s golden boy, a Cowboy no less. Morten Andersen conjured up images of disavowed, lost relatives. Though, he did spawn a Facebook page which recounts how he once defeated the Nazi army and stopped a run-away train using only his left leg. Once again, I’m not up for fact-checking so I am apt to believe it, since when has a social networking site steered people wrong?

Let’s face it, the only reason we remember Mike Vanderjagt (another spelling nightmare) is because another slice of quarterback Americana, Peyton Manning, and his diatribe on the “drunk idiot kicker.” Sure, Adam Vinatieri was clutch for the Patriots, but his biggest moments were two kicks that were overshadowed by the controversial events of the infamous Tuck Rule game against the Raiders in 2002.

The above makes no mention of any punters, who are less likely to score than your average sports blogger. Go to your nearest web browser and type in “Best punters in NFL history.” If your computer did not crash immediately after hitting “enter,” you might have come across some well-respected guys like Reggie Roby, Jeff Feagles, and Sean Landeta. For crying out loud, look at greats like Ray Guy and George Blanda. Their last names alone underscore the anonymity of the position. “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh’s name could be thrown — not kicked — into the mix, but the fact that, like Blanda, he was known more for the slingin’ than the kickin’ reminds people that kicking and punting at times has been viewed as such an ancillary part of the game that they didn’t even specialize a position for it. Heck, even Lou “The Toe” Groza was more likely to get turf toe from his duties as offensive tackle than as a kicker, a position which led him to top the NFL in field goals made five times.

Take one look at Sebastian Janikowski, and he probably doesn’t embody what one considers to be a professional athlete, unless your professional athlete partakes in professional darts. Take another look at him, and he’d probably crush you with 250-pound body. And, yes, the length of his rap sheet may rival the 63-yarder that booted through the uprights against Denverto start the season. But, The Polish Cannon could probably tee it up from Oaklandand hit an upright all the way over in Warsaw.

Kicking, like bird-watching, has its group of dedicated followers. There is actually a tear-jerking YouTube montage video dedicated to the top kickers, punters, and, yes, gunners in the history of the NFL, replete with Three Dog Night’s “Shambala” in the background, just the perfect blend of askew for such a film. I can remember my own youth spent watching guys like Rick Tuten (once the NFL’s strongest man, who was 10% man, 90% muscle), Eddie Murray (another guy lost in the phone book of time), and Al Del Greco (the only kicker who contributed a point for every word in his name). These were the guys who had the unheralded job of coming in to add the extra point that fans roundly assume will already be tacked on even before they set foot on the field; and the guys who take the flak when they pull a Scott Norwood.

For every heralded skill player to have ever graced the gridiron there are just as many seemingly forgotten kickers who once had to bear the indignity of having one bar on their helmet in lieu of a facemask: everyone with the name Zendejas (there were about 20) and guys whose names get confused for being members of the Hungarian national archery team: Garo, Xenon (not the noble gas), and Zoltan. But, why can’t these kick-savvy individuals deserve our idol worship? Sav Rocca? Shayne Edge? Those sound like the names of cool people. Why must they be like our nation’s sportswriters: consigned to the fringes of the back pages, good for a handful of points, but usually the ones most likely to be spending the majority of their adult life hanging from a locker by their underwear.


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