- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2014

A little more than 14 months ago, Tress Way’s career as an NFL punter nearly ended before it even began.

He was 23 years old, working for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes between tryouts and living with his parents. After being released by the Chicago Bears in August 2013, a company in Oklahoma City had offered Way a job selling medical supplies. His soon-to-be-wife, Brianna, was attending nursing school there, and, for a recent college grad, it was a lot of money.

“So I thought about quitting football,” Way said. “Everybody’s got to hang up their cleats at some point.”

But Way’s parents, Leo and Debra, have a family rule: Before giving up on anything, you have to give it three good shots. “The three-strike rule,” Debra says. Being cut by the Bears was strike one.

When Way was released by Chicago again three weeks before the 2014 season-opener, it was a bit harder to stomach. “Mom, I think I just missed my shot,” he said over the phone, his voice crestfallen.

But she wasn’t worried. That was only strike two.

The next day, Way got a call from the Washington Redskins asking if his bags were still packed. They were going to claim him off waivers and give him 10 days to win the starting job.

Now, Way is nearing the end of his first professional season in Washington, with no strike three in sight. Entering Sunday’s season-finale against the Dallas Cowboys, he leads the NFL in gross punting average (47.7 yards) and is tied for ninth in net average (40.0). Last week, Redskins coach Jay Gruden called him “one of the best in the league, based on this year.”

After finishing third in the fan balloting with more than 104,000 votes, Way could even earn a trip to the Pro Bowl next month. The Pro Bowl rosters, which also take coach and player votes into account, will be unveiled Tuesday at 8 p.m.

For Way, Glendale, Arizona, would simply be another stop in an already remarkable journey.

“To get a chance with the Washington Redskins, to win the starting job, to now maybe going to the Pro Bowl?” he said. “It’s been crazy. It’s been a lot of fun, man.”

Workouts and doubt

When the Bears originally released Way, it wasn’t all bad. Over the first few weeks of the 2013 season, he had one workout after the next, making stops in Washington, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and others while drawing praise for his leg strength along the way.

But soon, Way began to notice a pattern: Every team offering him a workout was set to play a team with a left-footed punter that week.

“I was getting brought in almost like a JUGS machine,” Way explained, “just to punt balls down to returners so they could get used to seeing a left-footed spin.”

Way was a kicker at Union High School in Tulsa. He didn’t attempt a punt until his junior season there and only punted about 15 times in his high-school career. So when Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops paid a visit and told Way that he was being recruited as a punter, his parents were in shock.

“We kind of looked at each other like, really?” his mother said.

Way didn’t have the type of extended punter-specific experience that other NFL hopefuls had, so when teams told him at workouts that he was talented but raw, he believed them. He knew he wasn’t ready. The question in his mind was whether he ever would be.

Those doubts boiled over when Way was offered the job in Oklahoma City. Given the location, salary and work he’d be doing, “it was just kind of a perfect little setup.” So he nearly took it.

“He just thought it might be time to go ahead and focus on his career and family. And we understood that and supported him in that,” Way’s father, Leo, said. “But also the two of us thought he might out to give it one more try.”

Way’s parents saw how hard he worked and knew that he was talented, but hearing it from one’s parents is one thing. Hearing it from a nine-year veteran and All-Pro specialist, like Bears kicker Robbie Gould, was another.

Gould told Way that he belonged in this league, and those words stuck with him. Way says his conversation with Gould was what ultimately convinced him to turn down the job offer and keep pursuing his dream of winning a starting job.

“You have to keep in mind that Robbie Gould’s been my fantasy [football] kicker since eighth grade, so me even getting to be friends with him was pretty cool,” Way said. “And he’s telling me I’ve got the talent to not only be in this league, but to play a long time and be one of the best in this league. I guess I really just had to believe it for myself.”

Renewed confidence

Way says every punter has his ball. Not a physical ball, that you bring to practice in a bag, but a type of punt.

A punter’s ball is the kick that he can hit over and over again in practice. It’s the one he can produce every time in a game. It’s the ball that he’s comfortable with and has confidence in, the ball that defines him, whether it’s pinning an opponent inside the 10-yard-line or sailing 60 yards through the air.

“It’s the one you know that you’ve got,” Way said. “I didn’t have the mechanics for it, and I also didn’t even know what it looked like.”

When Way was re-signed by the Bears on Jan. 1, he set out to find his ball. At Oklahoma, he had played in constant wind and therefore developed a low drop, connecting with the ball closer to the ground in order to drive it through the wind. In Chicago, Gould encouraged him to raise his drop and allow his leg to swing up through the ball, adding both height and distance to his punts.

“You’re leaving some leg on the table. You’ve got to use it all,” Way recalls Gould telling him. “You can hit a 50-yard, five-second ball, and there’s not five guys in the league that can hit that ball over and over again.”

As Way’s mechanics improved, his confidence followed. Even when the Bears spent a sixth-round draft pick on Pat O’Donnell, a punter out of Miami, his spirit didn’t waver. “I was punting the ball better than I ever have in my entire life,” Way said.

That confidence took a dip when the Bears ended their punting competition Aug. 18, cutting Way a second time and handing the job to their prized rookie. But it returned two days later, when the Redskins picked up Way in the middle of the preseason to compete with Robert Malone.

“Confidence is something that I’m not sure he had before he got here. Being cut will do that to you,” long-snapper Nick Sundberg said. “So to be claimed off waivers here was just big. It helped him just kind of unleash, set everything else to the side and just go out and hit the way he knew he could — without holding back, without thinking.”

In the four months since, Way has gone from surprise starter to legitimate Pro Bowl candidate. Barely a year ago, his parents were flipping balls to him for practice punts and watching the family’s golden retriever chase them as they hit the ground. Now if Leo and Debra aren’t in the stands, they’ll watch Way’s games from Savastano’s Pizzeria in Tulsa, a Bears bar that has started hosting Redskins watch parties in support of its local star.

“It’s all happened so fast. I kid you not,” Way said. “I’m 24 years old and I’m a rookie in the NFL. I’m just thankful I made it through a full season.”

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