One Monday evening in mid-September the owner of the Cue & Chalk Family Billiards parlor in West Seneca, N.Y. received a phone call during which he was told to catch the next plane from nearby Buffalo to New Orleans. Six days later John Leypoldt played a beautiful bank shot off the left upright from 27 yards away as time expired to give his newest NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, a 20-18 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. One week later, after missing a field goal and kicking off weakly against the Los Angeles Rams, Leypoldt was on the first plane out of New Orleans for Buffalo en route back to his pool hall in West Seneca.
Leypoldt was the second of six kickers the Saints have employed this season—seven, counting Rich Szaro's left and right feet. Like many NFL teams, the Saints have had difficulty settling on a kicker; since July, no fewer than 33 different placekickers and 16 punters have been released by the NFL's 28 teams.
Take the Philadelphia Eagles' situation. Rick Engles, who had punted for Seattle and Pittsburgh the last two years, started the season as the Eagles' No. 1 man, but after four games Coach Dick Vermeil put Engles on waivers. It was the second time this season that Engles had found himself on the waiver list. Philadelphia then signed Mitch Hoopes, the former Dallas, San Diego, St. Louis and Detroit punter, but he had such a poor week's practice that Vermeil cut him for the third time this season.
Engles, meanwhile, had flown home to Tulsa. On Friday night the Eagles phoned him and told him to stand by, that they might need him Sunday. The next morning they called again with a firm job offer. Moments before the weekly roster deadline Engles signed a new contract on the back of a refuse cart in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He then flew to Baltimore and punted for the Eagles the next day against the Colts.
Engles lasted one more game before he was waived for the third time and replaced by Mike Michel, who had been released by the Miami Dolphins. In the second quarter of Michel's debut against the Redskins, he unloaded one punt for nine yards, another for 26 yards and whiffed on a third. Missed it completely. "I couldn't do that again if I tried," he said.
Michel still punts for the Eagles, at least for now, but like all the men who put the foot into football, he is well aware that the unemployment office is only a bad kick away. Just seven kickers and four punters work for the same teams that employed them five years ago, and only five of the league's 28 placekickers still perform for the teams with which they originally signed. On the other hand, Buffalo's Tom Dempsey is kicking for his fifth NFL club; Errol Mann has gone from Denver to Cleveland to Green Bay to Detroit to Green Bay to Oakland to the unemployment office to Oakland to Buffalo to Oakland; and the Mike-Mayer brothers, Nick and Steve, have, between them, worked in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New Orleans.
There seem to be any number of reasons for this job insecurity. Kickers are inconsistent. Kickers do not get three downs in which to make good. Nobody knows how to coach soccer-style kickers, of which there are 22 at the moment. And while a kicker or punter might perform well in practice, when 50,000 people are yelling and stomping and 11 men are rushing at him in a game.... Well, it's definitely a buyer's market.
"You can always find a kicker," says Dallas Coach Tom Landry. "There are a lot of them around. We just bring them in and let them kick until we see one we like." Leypoldt, one of Landry's rejects, says, "Coaches treat us like cars. The old one is working perfectly fine, but they want a new one anyway. They think they'll enjoy it more." Hoopes, another Landry reject, who has had his hang time clocked by six different teams, says, "We go across the country knocking on doors and hoping to sell ourselves. I've only had my van a year, and I've already got 40,000 miles on it. Never, never buy a used van from a punter."
All this shuffling around has created a subculture of kickers and punters who write letters requesting tryouts and then wait by their phones. "Those calls have a special ring to them," says Leypoldt, who began to sit by the phone in August after Seattle cut him. Leypoldt returned to his pool hall, and the next day he was invited to attend a tryout in Dallas, where Landry was searching for a replacement for All-Pro Kicker Efren Herrera, who had demanded a rich new contract from the Cowboys. Hearing of this, Landry reportedly said, "Trade him," and Herrera was off to Seattle, where he took over Leypoldt's old job.
At Dallas, Leypoldt tried out against Rafael Septien and Tim Mazzetti; Septien, a Los Angeles reject, got the job. Then, when New England lost John Smith for the season with a leg injury, the Patriots had Leypoldt kick against Carson Long and Tony DiRienzo. New England told Leypoldt it would probably sign him in a few days, but in the meantime the Saints called and had Leypoldt compete against Mazzetti for the job left vacant when Szaro injured his groin. Leypoldt beat out Mazzetti, which turned out to be a break for Atlanta. Dissatisfied with Fred Steinfort, who had missed seven of 10 field-goal attempts and had two blocked field goals returned for touchdowns, Atlanta signed Mazzetti, and two weeks ago Mazzetti was canonized on Monday Night Football as he kicked five field goals in five tries to give the Falcons a 15-7 victory over the Rams.
Before Atlanta, Mazzetti had flunked tryouts with the Patriots, Eagles, Jets, Cowboys and Saints, and was happy to be clearing $200 a week while working the 10-to-2 graveyard shift at Smokey Joe's, a joint near the campus of his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. "After I failed in Dallas, I decided the hell with it," Mazzetti says. "I started concentrating on becoming a derelict again. Then I got the call from New Orleans. The coach [Dick Nolan] told me I had a good foot but that I was out of shape. That woke me up. When Atlanta called I was ready. And when they told me I had the job, I just freaked."
Mazzetti outkicked Long and Hans Nielsen to win the Falcons' job. He had his first field-goal attempt blocked by the 49ers but kicked a game-winning 29-yarder on the next to last play, earning a game ball. Against the Rams he connected from 21, 37, 30, 26 and 37 yards. "Even if I do fade into oblivion, they can never take these two games away from me," Mazzetti says.
Nick Lowery was waiting on tables at The Bull's Eye Restaurant and Tavern in Hanover, N.H. when he heard about the Patriots' kicking problems. (In one game, New England had to use its second punter of the year, Jerrel Wilson, as a placekicker; perhaps predictably, Wilson had an extra-point attempt blocked.) Lowery, who had kicked for Dartmouth and was cut by the Jets in August, borrowed a friend's car, drove to Foxboro and asked for a tryout. The holders had all gone home, so Coach Chuck Fairbanks held the ball for Lowery. He got the job. So far, a wonderful story. But after two games, with Lowery 7 for 7 on extra points and 0 for 1 on field-goal attempts, the Patriots dropped him because of his short kickoffs. His replacement was David Posey, late of the 49ers, Falcons and Lions and almost of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. Posey canceled a job interview with the brokerage firm to answer his true calling.
Szaro, a Harvard graduate, was New Orleans' regular kicker at the beginning of the season, but when he pulled a groin muscle the Saints summoned Leypoldt. After two games, for which he was paid $3,000 apiece, Leypoldt, who had been 4 for 5 on extra points and 2 for 3 on field-goal attempts, was told by Nolan that he "hadn't worked out." The next contestant was Steve Mike-Mayer, but on the Thursday before his first game as a Saint, Mike-Mayer pulled a back muscle. Nolan had to use Running Back Tony Galbreath for one point-after attempt, but Galbreath missed so badly that he didn't get a second chance. So Szaro, who couldn't swing his regular kicking foot, the left, kicked with his right foot. He made a 20-yard field goal, but after the game he was placed on the injured reserve list. New Orleans later tried Tom Jurich, who had been cut by the Steelers, but he missed three field goals in his first game, against the 49ers. Exit Jurich. Enter Steve Mike-Mayer again.
Meanwhile, in West Seneca, Leypoldt sits at the counter of the Cue & Chalk, making change. "I'll be in somebody's camp next year," he says.