- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

It was the longest field goal in NFL history. Naturally, the involvement of a kicker made it suspect from the start.
In the waning moments of a 1970 Detroit-New Orleans game, Saints kicker Tom Dempsey uncorked an unthinkable 63-yard blast unthinkable, that is, until the ball dropped just over the crossbar, giving the Saints a 19-17 win and Dempsey a prominent spot in the league record book.
Yet while teammates and opponents alike marveled at the Bob Beamon-esque boot Lions coach Joe Schmidt called it a "[expletive] miracle" Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm was less impressed, lambasting Dempsey's specially made, $200 kicking shoe as having "the head of a golf club with a sledgehammer surface."
Of course, Schramm downplayed the reason Dempsey needed a special shoe: The kicker was born with a nub for a right hand and a toeless right foot, making his mere participation in professional athletics rather remarkable.
"They used to question me, too," said former Washington Redskins kicker Mark Moseley, winner of the 1982 league MVP award. "They couldn't believe how far I could kick the ball without cheating. They used to have me take off my shoe so the officials could inspect it. One year in Dallas, I had to take my shoe off six times during a single game. They thought I was putting lead in there."
It's only fitting that Charlie Brown was a kicker. After all, no one in football is more mocked, misunderstood, put down or put upon than the men who prevent the sport from becoming wholly oxymoronic.
Like the perpetually downtrodden character in "Peanuts," kickers and punters suffer constant derision. They have job security yanked away from them with alarming regularity. And all the while, they wait patiently for a Valentine of help and understanding that never, ever comes.
"Our position is kind of looked down upon sometimes," said Redskins punter Tommy Barnhardt. "It's like, 'Oh, he's just going to kick the ball and run off the field.' That's a tough cliche to break."

Dissed and dismissed

Start with respect or more appropriately, a galling lack thereof. While few would assert that booming a 60-yard punt or making a 45-yard field goal is easy, kickers and punters are seldom (read: never) given credit for athletic prowess.
Instead, they're seen as undersized, overprotected soccer castoffs, leg-swinging idiot savants who are judged less on what they bring to the game (steely nerves, coordination, low golf handicaps) than what they don't (hitting, foaming at the mouth, dirty uniforms).
"Football is a tough sport, but what we do is equivalent to what a golfer does," said Virginia Tech kicker Carter Warley. "We're going out there and kicking the ball without a lot of contact, blood, sweat. And we're a lot smaller than the other guys out there. Maybe that's why we get no respect."
Take kickoff returns. Hardly a week goes by without some poor punter being forced to make (well, make that attempt) a one-on-one, touchdown-saving tackle against a fleet return specialist.
Likewise, hardly a week goes by without some smart-aleck sportscaster poking fun at said punter loudly, repeatedly, in full-color slow-mo for doing so. Never mind that the NFL's return corps is staffed by speedsters like Carolina's Michael Bates, a 100-meter bronze medalist at the 1992 Olympics.
"Everybody thinks that's easy," Barnhardt said. "But if you put our best defensive player at the 40-yard line and put our best offensive player at the other 40-yard line, nine times out of 10 the defensive guy isn't going to make the tackle. So if [people] want to make fun of it, that's fine."
Problem is, the laughs don't stop there. For the comically inclined, there's the funny face masks (Matt Bahr's single-bar model was particularly choice), the funnier-sounding last names (Stoyanovich, Zendejas, Gramatica), the inescapable image of former Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian picking up a blocked field goal attempt in Super Bowl VII, then flinging the league's all-time feeblest pass into the waiting arms of Redskin Mike Bass.
"That's been the mystique of the kicker for years and years," Moseley said of the Cypriot tie-maker's ill-conceived toss, which produced Washington's only touchdown in a 14-7 loss. "It only takes one play to give the position a real bad image."
How bad? "Saturday Night Live" has spawned not one but two paeans to kicking and punting. The first, a video parody of the "Super Bowl Shuffle," portrayed the position as a refuge for immigrant soccer stars; the second, a song entitled "Lonesome Kicker," can be found on a comedy album by former cast member Adam Sandler and includes the following lyrics:
And I hope that the cameras don't come in too close,
'Cause they might see the tears in my eyes,
As I sit on this bench made of cold-hearted wood,
And the splinters go deep in my thighs.
And the towel boy snickers as he walks by,
The Lonesome Kicker … "
"It comes with the territory," said Maryland kicker Brian Kopka. "As a kicker, you have to have thick skin after all, it's not hard to pick one of us out among 100 football players."
Even teammates get in on the act. Witness the distress of Arizona State's Brian Forth, a diminutive wide receiver who once was mistaken for a kicker.
"My freshman year, I'm hanging out in the dorm with some girls," Forth told ESPN magazine. "I'm 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, so I know no one looks at me and says 'football player.' But one of the girls says to me, 'So, you play football. Are you a kicker?' It was so emotionally damaging, the worst thing she could have said."

Musical kickers

Though the comic slings and arrows can be demeaning, they're hardly a kicker's primary concern.
"There is no job security," Barnhardt said. "Everybody else gets 70 plays, can have 10 bad ones and be OK. [A kicker] can have one bad play and be gone tomorrow."
Even by the throwaway, what-have-you-done-for-me-in-the-last-minute standards of pro football, kicking specialists are more disposable than used handi-wipes. Minnesota's Gary Anderson, the league's all-time scoring leader, is with his fourth team. Washington is on its fourth field goal kicker in as many months.
Like Larry King, the Redskins just can't find a stable relationship. The injured Brett Conway begat Michael Husted, who begat rookie Kris Heppner, who in a curious bit of reverse genealogy begat 44-year-old Eddie Murray, who only had to be coaxed out of retirement.
"I hope they keep going through guys," said Virginia Tech's Warley, a sophomore. "Maybe I'll be able to get a job in a few years."
Why the high turnover? For some teams, it's a matter of economics: Paid a pittance, kickers and punters make tempting targets for teams strapped by the salary cap. Just ask Morten Andersen, who in 1995 was let go by the Saints after 13 years of top-notch service.
His crime? Too many zeros on his paycheck.
"When the front office is looking to save a dollar or two, the first place they look is toward us," Barnhardt said.
Yet while teams regularly turn their backs on kickers who become too proficient hence too expensive none of them, not even the $100 million ones, can afford to field second-rate specialists. Field goal gaffes have cost the Redskins at least three games this season, and in an era of close contests and league-wide parity, patience with the kicking game is anything but a virtue.
"You don't have a lot of time to get it right," Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick told The Washington Times in October. "You don't have time to put a warm, fuzzy arm around them and say, 'That's OK, son, that we lost three games in a row because you can't make a PAT. Do you think you can work yourself through it?'"
The result is what Pete Stoyanovich dubbed "the throwaway kicker" a player with one foot on the ball and the other out the door. And forget about confidence. Like the starting quarterback who takes his signals from a strong-armed, high-priced backup, kickers are constantly looking over their downsized shoulder pads.
According to veteran NFL writer Len Pasquarelli, every team in the league keeps a "ready list" of unemployed, available kickers. When the Redskins released Husted, they auditioned four potential replacements the next day giving each scoring attempt a touch of "Gladiator"-esque gravitas.
Through the uprights? Thumbs up. Wide right? Thumbs down.
Way, way down.
"A lot of the young guys are scared of those big kicks because their jobs are on the line," Moseley said. "That's one of the problems here in Washington. You just can't be holding the ax like that."
'K' is the loneliest letter
Given the unique slights and pressures of the job, who can kickers and punters turn to? A friendly coach? A supportive teammate? A well-meaning waterboy?
"There's no one else that understands, really," said the Redskins' Murray. "Just like I don't understand how a quarterback puts up with the pressures of their position. Unless you kick a ball, you can't know."
Coaches aren't much help. Because kickers pack an inordinate amount of job-killing power in the confines of a single shoe see Turner, Norv coaches tend to view them the way the Bush campaign views additional Florida recounts: With suspicion and mistrust.
"Most coaches have been players, and they've been involved in games where they were beating their heads against each other for 59 minutes," Moseley said. "Then in the last four seconds of a game, a kicker came in and kicked a winning field goal to beat them.
"Plus, a lot of coaches are afraid to deal with the kickers. [Former Redskins coach] Joe Gibbs and I are better friends now than when I was playing and he was coaching because kickers have a reputation for being flaky, and he didn't want to say anything to change my psyche."
Likewise, kickers and punters receive scant sympathy from position players. During the average team practice, kickers can have up to an hour of down time which means that while the rest of the team sweats through drills, the kickers are busy doing very little.
At the University of Nebraska, kickers reportedly play catch, throw footballs into garbage cans and even take to an adjacent pitcher's mound to play baseball with a makeshift ball of athletic tape. ("We're either hanging out or being stupid," kicker Chase Long told a student reporter. "Yeah, being stupid is a good way to put it.")
"It's hard for them to see us standing around doing nothing, then come over to us in the locker room and talk to us like we're just one more player on the team," Warley said.
At the professional level, even the league piles on. For every rule that helps kickers such as roughing, a penalty conspicuously absent from the XFL charter there's one that hurts them, like pushing back the kickoff tee.
Take the recent "K" ball controversy. For decades, punters and kickers have been breaking in footballs with a variety of methods overinflating them, pounding them with free weights, throwing them in a sauna that go above and beyond the league-issued wire brush. (Why the extra effort? The softer the ball, the more it compresses and the farther it travels).
Perturbed, the NFL decreed last season that kickers would no longer be allowed to handle game-day footballs before games or even during contests, unless they were kicking them. Instead, special "K" balls are distributed to officiating crews before game time, and the officials are charged with rubbing them down.
"It didn't give us an opportunity to hit a decent ball," Barnhardt said of the "K" balls, which feature a special mark and are delivered in a sealed plastic bag. "Punters and kickers have gotten better over the years, and we felt that all they were trying to do was make us look bad."
What else is new? For football's Charlie Browns, it's a Lucy world. And if the great equalizer of modern athletics the golf course is any indication, that's not going to change anytime soon.
A year before capturing this summer's American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, Tennessee kicker Al Del Greco logged on to an NFL.com chat. A five-time winner of the NFL players' golf championship, Del Greco discussed his success on the links.
"Kickers may not be 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds and run a 4.5 40-yard dash," he wrote in the summer of 1999. "But we can smoke [other players] on the golf course."
Flash forward to June's American Century tournament in Lake Tahoe, Calif., where second-place finisher and former Dolphins safety Dick Anderson was less than awed by Del Greco's performance. Informed that five of the tournament's top six finishers were football players, he delivered a cutting and telling reply.
"Yeah," Anderson told reporters. "But Al's just a kicker."

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