By: Chris Dagonas
Perhaps only in football there are “important” positions, and “less important” positions. In baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer, players who play different positions are valued for the unique skill set they bring to the team. In football, and particularly the NFL, you have your marquee positions; quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end. You also have some positions with unique skill sets, like tight ends and cornerbacks. Then there are your kickers. Then there are your punters.
A punter’s job seems outrageously easy. “OK, we’ll block for you, you kick this ball as far as you can. If anyone touches you, fall down as violently as you can fake, and we’ll get the ball back and you can get right off the field again.” In fact, the punter is a player that teams want to use as infrequently as possible. If a punter never sets foot on a field, that is a huge success for his team. But, surely there must be some value in them, right?
Absolutely. At his best, a punter is the main weapon for controlling field position. A solid punt means that the opposing team has a longer field in front of them before scoring. Punts inside the 20 yard line are ideal, and inside the 10 yard line are superb. Touchbacks, when the punted ball goes into the end zone, are best avoided, as they give the returning team 20 free yards. So having a good, strong, accurate punter can be very important.
In 1973, the Oakland Raiders used a first round draft pick to select Ray Guy, a safety from Southern Mississippi. Guy had recorded 8 interceptions with Southern Miss. in his senior year. He could also play a little bit of quarterback, and wound up being the Raiders’ emergency QB.
Oh, and he could also punt a ball so high and far, it would leave hapless punt returners no choice but to call a fair catch. And if you needed a coffin corner punt (a punt that goes out of bounds inside the 10 yard line, giving the return team 90-something yards to traverse in order to score), Guy could do that too.
Guy once kicked a 93 yard punt. That’s basically the entire distance of a football field, minus 7 yards, and needless to say a ridiculous feat. Even in today’s NFL, punters are maxed out at about 70 yards. He once kicked a punt in the Louisiana Superdome that touched the video screen, more than 100 feet above the playing surface. If he played for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys, he’d be hitting that monstrosity of a screen at Cowboys Stadium regularly.
He was the best at his position back in the 1970s and 1980s, and many (almost everyone) say he is still the best punter to ever play the game. Even though he has been eligible for selection since 1994, he has not been named in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Think about it: He is not “among the best”, not “had a few good years”, or “part of a great team”. He was, and still is, the best punter of all time. But the Hall of Fame voters have not recognized him, yet.
Ray Guy retired from football in 1986, and his 12 year career saw him accumulate many impressive stats and records. He had more coffin corner punts than touchbacks, and had a streak of 619 consecutive punts before having one blocked. Not one of his over 1,000 punts were ever returned for a touchdown. He was a 7-time pro bowl choice, and won three Super Bowls.
The best punter in the NCAA is awarded the Ray Guy Award, so the NCAA has recognized his contributions to the sport. He has organized punting and kicking camps for young football players across the United States, so he continues to help improve the position.
Much has been made of the NFL’s callous treatment of its retired players. Many suffer from long term health issues, their bodies and minds damaged, their bank accounts depleted. More often than not, the NFL turns its back on such players, and in a way, it is doing the same to Ray Guy, who helped change the sport of football by making the punt a legitimate defensive strategy, and paving the way for international players (a few recent NFL punters have come from Australia, for example).
Guy has never griped about his station. He probably understands that he played an unglamorous position, and few athletes begin their careers, or end them, with the Hall of Fame in mind. It would be one thing if Guy was a punter coach with an NFL or NCAA team, making a decent income and living comfortably, involved in the sport he loves.
But in 2011, Guy filed for bankruptcy. Likely, the cost of running the camps did not match the income they were generating (how many kids can you think of that want to be punters, after all?) Guy was ordered by a judge to sell his Super Bowl Rings for just under $100,000. He went to work with Southern Mississippi as an alumni and recruitment official, and will likely live out his days in anonymity.
Unless this recent movement, by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and others, to have Guy enshrined in the Hall Of Fame actually gains some momentum.
Unless the voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame decide to add to Guy’s already impressive list of Hall of Fame honours. Guy is currently a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, National High School Sports Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.
Unless we, the fans and consumers of football culture, demand that being the best at any position, even one as “unimportant” as the punter, is worthy of inclusion with the other giants of the sport.
A big thanks to the WordPress Team for selecting last week’s article, a piece on Jovan Belcher and Emotional Health, for its Freshly Pressed page.