Since childhood, I have been afflicted by a disorder whose only symptom is the uncontrolled impulse to punt. The object normally employed for the satisfaction of this desire is a football, although I've stooped to pick up and punt anything from discarded beer cans to old dinner rolls. Each punt is usually accompanied by a fantasy, the most common being that I'm Ray Guy unloading a 60-yarder from my own end zone.
I'm often seized by the urge to kick footballs with little respect for appropriateness. I've been known, when bored, to punt indoors, casually spiraling the ball into an armchair or sofa. After chasing down incomplete passes in touch football games, I impulsively punt—rather than pass—the ball back toward the line of scrimmage. Since accuracy is seldom a virtue of my kicking game, I usually have to retrieve my punt before play can resume. Meanwhile, both teams regard me with the patient contempt reserved for the unruly children of close friends.
Most of my punts have been launched in playgrounds and parks. Given the thousands of them that I have sailed, it's surprising that I haven't gotten better. Had I combined my devotion to this strange hobby with some expert guidance, I doubtless could have been the punter for some semipro team in a medium-sized industrial city. I've experimented with various approach steps, grips, drops, shoes and leg motions; I've read up on punting; and I've studied NFL punters closely. Still, my modest skills seem impervious to self-improvement.
But the act itself captivates me. Consider the parabolic beauty of a well-punted football, and then the homeliness of the foot. In this alone there is a kind of poetic justice—that the abused, inarticulate foot could be called upon for a task of such precision and grace as a long, perfectly revolving punt.
June 21, 1981
Then consider the difficulty of the punting art. The difference between a towering 55-yard spiral and a feeble, knuckling 30-yarder is literally a fraction of an inch on top of the foot. Met in the wrong place, the football behaves erratically, but met properly, the ball acquires a lyrical life of its own. While almost anyone can learn to throw a spiral, to punt even a perfect 20-yarder requires both technical exactitude and a metaphysical sense of the chore.
The only way I can explain my continued pursuit of perfect punts in the face of repeated failure is to convince myself that there's something noble in my attempt to master a virtually useless art. Of course, there are therapeutic elements, too. Punting is a good way to siphon off excess aggression, though it doesn't escape me that there is something odd about a grown man kicking imperfectly to no one on an empty, open field.
But I have had my shining moments, too, each one recorded in my memory. When I was a college freshman, I was punting with another student near the varsity football team practice. One of the coaches went by just as I happened to launch a rare spiraling punt that seemed to pause suspended at its apex before nosing slowly downward. The coach watched as the ball finally landed 60 yards away, and then called out, "Sign him up!" But when I looked over to acknowledge the compliment, he was already gone.
Years later I stumbled upon the local high school team's practice. The coach asked me if I wanted to punt to his boys, who needed work returning kicks. I felt silly yet grateful, as if I were the kid being asked to play with the grown-ups. For half an hour, I looped lazy spirals into the arms of frail high school juniors, who rewarded me after good kicks by addressing me as "Ray Guy."
And just a few weeks ago, after reading Dr. Edward Storey's seminal Secrets of Kicking the Football, I went out with a friend to apply my new knowledge. After shanking and slicing several pitiful punts, I felt Dr. Storey's book take effect. The next dozen kicks looked like something out of an instructional film. My elation is hard to describe; if only Bobby Joe Green, the Chicago Bears' punter who shaped my punting aspirations 15 years ago, could have seen me. I had found the secret.
But I had not found the secret. The next time out, my punts returned to their normal, stunted dimensions. My right foot had betrayed me again. A man with a less profound love for the practice would be discouraged and would quit.
But I was born to punt. On the very day, not long ago, when a good friend underwent surgery on his knee, I spent an hour at solitary kicking. It was the dominance of desire over common sense. Every time I shanked the ball, a ligament in my right knee cried out. Maybe there are only so many punts in that right leg of mine, but I'm afraid that I'm destined to kick every one of them.