An hour or so into kicking school, I realized some apologies might be in order.
Having failed, in numerous attempts, to kick a football farther than that Scotsman threw the caber at the beginning of the old ABC's Wide World of Sports, I began to regret the harshness with which I had treated certain kickers in the past. Gerry Thomas and Dan Mowrey of Florida State, Craig Fayak of Penn State and anyone else I've dumped on for missing key field goals, know this: I have an increased appreciation of the difficulty of your craft.
With their ridiculous unibar face masks and their certified-public-accountant physiques, kickers have long been tantalizing marks for scribes like me. While their teammates sweat and bleed and club one another, the kickers toss sprigs of grass into the air to gauge the wind. Their job: to boot the ball through two poles. How tough can that be?
Deceptively, maddeningly, humiliatingly tough. This is what I learned at a Professional Kicking Services camp run by Ray and Rob Pelfrey. In three days my longest kick was a 35-yarder that barely slithered over the crossbar.
"At the end of these three days," Ray told my 45 fellow campers and me at our orientation meeting, "you will be as tired as you've ever been." I smirked inwardly. I'd done plenty of running and biking. I wasn't too worried about a kicking school.
By the final day I was hobbling around like Quasimodo and begging for aspirin. I had kicked about 1,000 balls, straining every muscle in my right leg as I shanked, hooked and otherwise muffed scores of kicks while trying to master the Pelfreys' American Wedge, a hybrid of the straight-on (George Blanda) and soccer-style (Garo Yepremian) kicking techniques.
The camp I attended, at Arizona State in July, was one of 23 that the Pelfreys conduct every summer on college campuses across the country. Ray, a curmudgeonly bulldog of 65 who played halfback and wide receiver in the NFL for three seasons, has been running the camps for 18 years. Rob, his 28-year-old son, has helped out for the last five years and is now president of the company. Their camps, which cost $290 per student, are the best of their kind. Just don't plan on going out dancing the night you get home.
Looks like my fellow campers are mostly high school players. There are a handful of collegians and, at the other extreme, the Derdengers, Bryan and Tim, 13-year-old twins who are identical down to their matching orthodontia and wire-rim glasses. Bryan handles the placekicking and punting for their Pop Warner team in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Tim kicks off. Their behavior is angelic—right up until their parents get in the car and drive away.
On the field, under the lights, we take turns punting, then kicking, in front of a video camera. Having captured our wretched form on tape, the Pelfreys can later point out to us, frame by painful frame, the error of our ways.
I punt O.K., as I should. I punted, after all, at a major university. The kicking goes less smoothly. On my first kick I gouge out a toupee-sized divot that outdistances the ball. Jason Traut, a 17-year-old camper from Fullerton, Calif., materializes in line next to me, and I figure he's trying to get his picture in the magazine, but he sets me straight. "If I kick right after you," he says, "it'll make me look that much better."
At tonight's video session Ray deftly softens his constructive criticism of each camper by finding something—anything—nice to say about his kicking. "Son, look at your track to the ball; at that rate you'll run over your holder and kill him," Ray tells one camper. "But it'll take no more than 30 minutes to get you cleaned up. You watch, your kicking is going to explode."
My kick stumps him. The football rises feebly, then drops like a shot quail. "Well, boys, you see," Ray finally says, "this person is, uh, new to kicking."
Rob Pelfrey pounds on our doors at seven sharp. I am not completely rested, due to a wee-hours racket created by one Matt Bates, a 17-year-old camper from Mohave Valley, Ariz. Finding himself locked out of the dorm, Bates had climbed up to the third-floor ledge and pounded on his window, providing most of the camp with a 2 a.m. wake-up call.
"I hope you won't think it presumptuous of me," I tell Rob, "to recommend that Matt be sent home without a refund."
But Bates talks his way out of the jam. The Pelfreys rarely send campers home early. "Kids who come to a kicking camp are usually pretty serious about kicking," says Rob. Year in, year out, the only trouble spot for the Pelfreys is the camp at Southern Methodist, which coincides with a ballerina camp and a girls' high school drill-team camp. Four years ago Rob burst into the room of a kicker just as the fellow was about to lower himself out of a sixth-floor window with sheets he had tied together. His destination: the room of a drill-team camper two floors below. Two years ago Rob rousted a pair of ballerinas from a kicker's closet. Pack up, he told the kicker, you're going home. Once the blubbering boy was packed, Rob told him to unpack and go to bed.
This morning's session is devoted to "corrective techniques and drills" for kicking. Ray moves my plant foot up, makes my stance a shade wider. We work on my "plant and turn," my "inside quad pull" and my "leg lock"—the closing action of the leg, timed to occur at impact with the football. In five minutes Ray doubles my average distance... to 20 yards. He showers me with other technical pointers but extracts a vow that I will not pass them on to readers. The danger of industrial espionage cannot be underestimated.
I thought he was kidding, too. But competition among kicking camps is cutthroat. The Pelfreys say they've been victimized by unscrupulous rival instructors. Last year a boy showed up at a Pelfrey camp with a video put together for him by the instructor at another camp. The video included footage pirated from a Pelfrey video. Ray refuses to make a video on the American Wedge technique, even though "hardly a day goes by," he says, that someone does not request it. Ray isn't about to hand his livelihood over to the copycats.
When Ray splits us up for the "post accuracy drill," I go with the eighth-, ninth-and 10th-graders, in comparison with whom I suffer least. We form a line. The idea is to hit the upright 30 yards away. After botching a few kicks, I'm marshaling my wits for another try when Ray speaks.
"Flare your right foot out at a wider angle," he says. "Leave your hips and shoulders slightly open to the ball."
"Scoot out six inches," adds counselor Wayne Duplantis.
"Think about hitting the ball closer to the center," says Cole Ford, another counselor.
I say, "Thanks, guys." I think, Five or seven more helpful hints and I should have just enough to think about during this kick. Then, a miracle: My kick nails the upright with a deeply fulfilling plink, drawing astonished glances from my fellow campers. I consider low-keying the feat, as if to say, What's so surprising about that? Then I think, To hell with that. I clasp my hands together over my head. Later I will be glad I milked it. It will prove to have been my finest moment at kicking school.
I'm hot, I want to kick. To my annoyance, however, I find myself getting approximately a third as many repetitions as the Derdengers. This, I realize, is because they are so adept at a skill I once mastered but have since allowed to erode: cutting in line.
The twins are big Southern Cal fans, so they're thrilled to meet counselor Ford, USC's kicker. The Derdengers inform him that their sister, Kris, will attend USC this fall on a golf scholarship.
"Really?" says Ford. "What does she, uh...."
"Look like?" finishes Bryan.
"She's 5'7" and blonde," says Tim. "Go for it."
We are not alone. Quartered in a nearby dorm is a group of slight, bespectacled students, many of them Asian-American. I ask one of them, a girl of about 14, what group they are with. "CAP," she says. "It's an acronym for the Center for Academic Precocity. What group are you with?"
"Kicking school," I say. "We have no acronym."
After lunch today a couple of CAP dudes have the temerity to come over and use our pool table. Think they would try something like that at nosetackle camp? Of course not. But we're kickers, so they think they can push us around.
When Bates—the fellow we met out on the ledge—asks them if he can play the winner, they refuse. A debate breaks out, which Bates loses, leaving him with no recourse but to wreck their game, scattering some balls and stuffing others into the pockets. The intruders return to their dorm. The incident has a galvanizing effect, bringing us closer together as kickers.
We are a wild and crazy bunch ... for kickers. At the afternoon session, for instance, some lunatic sneaks up behind counselor Daron Alcorn, who is teeing up a 45-yarder, and "depantses" him, yanking his shorts to his ankles. Alcorn set several kicking records at the University of Akron and was selected 224th—and last—by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1993 NFL draft. He calmly steps out of his shorts and proceeds with his kick. Nails it, too. Afterward he speaks of the "incredibly liberating" feeling of kicking with no pants.
It is 105° on the field. We drink a lot of water, swallowing some, spouting the rest at one another. At one point Rob hits Alcorn with a stream. Alcorn retaliates, but Rob ducks, causing Alcorn to expectorate cold water onto the back of the neck of Ray, who bellows, "I wish I could find a grown-up goddam staff!"
But Ray can't stay angry at Alcorn. The Pelfreys have been working with him since he was an awkward ninth-grader. Now he has evolved into the John Daly of placekicking. I sit with Ray while his pet booms mammoth rainbows, eliciting OOOOoooh's from the campers. Ray, the professional picker of nits, can only marvel, "That boy has no idea how well he's kicking." (Alas, a month later he won't kick well enough to make the Bucs' roster.)
Another stud kicker, whom I had mistaken for a counselor, is Brandon Najarian, a high school senior out of Lake Havasu City, Ariz. This morning a coach from Arizona Western, a junior college in Yuma, drove up to watch Najarian and offered him a scholarship on the spot, increasing to 175 the number of kickers the Pelfreys have helped obtain partial or full rides in the last four years. (Najarian turned down Arizona Western and will enroll at TCU.) The Pelfreys have also worked with 21 current NFL kickers and punters.
I have noticed a subtle shift in attitude toward the twins. In the beginning they were the camp mascots. Everyone liked them. Familiarity, however, has bred a desire in some of the campers to beat them severely about the head and shoulders. This is evident when the Derdengers rout two older campers in a game of eight ball, then rub it in.
"Shut up, punk," a camper named Dustin tells one of the twins. "I've been playing pool since before you were born."
Derdenger backlash is also evident in a comment made by Shawn Sharp, a high school junior from Las Vegas with an encyclopedic knowledge of the MTV cartoon Beavis and Butt-Head. Says Sharp, "I kicked better than those guys when I was their age."
I don't believe him. What the twins lack in distance, they make up for in accuracy. They are terrific students, interrupting lectures with intelligent questions. On the field they instantly incorporate coaching tips. Their notes are as voluminous as those of a professional reporter—with the added advantage of being legible.
A punting-intensive night ensues. Despite not having played college football, Rob has made himself an oracle of punting knowledge. He lectures passionately on "the ball-foot marriage," the clear superiority of the underhand release, the desirability of "dual hip-lift." He takes special pleasure in roasting some old punting chestnuts. There is no such thing as "the drop," he says. "What you want is ball float-away." Momentum is overrated. Follow through? Who cares about it? "Nothing you do after impact has any influence on the ball," he declares.
He makes sense. As he puts us through drills, I can't help thinking that if I had met him earlier, I might not have spent so much of my life as a practice punter.
Did I say I punted for a major university? I meant a major I-AA university. Once. In an emergency. For the junior varsity. The fact is, punting has mocked me since I was Derdenger-sized.
As the second-string punter in ninth grade, I had only one kick all season, and it was blocked—a debacle captured on Ektachrome by my grandmother Lennie and frequently reenacted for the amusement of relatives and friends. Fast-forward to my freshman year at Colgate. To add to my limited worth as a drop-prone wide receiver, I volunteered to punt. Though I had never actually punted in a high school game, it had been my privilege, as a three-year backup, to boot 2,000-or-so practice punts. In the first week of fall camp at Colgate, I shanked a ball during punt-team drills, triggering near apoplexy in coach Red Kelin. "Murphy, you just wasted 22 guys' time!" screamed Kelin, who then quickly corrected himself: "Twenty-one—you don't count."
It is a testament to Rob's teaching skill that by the time he has taken us through his drills, I'm dying to punt. Applying what I've learned, I'm getting some nice spirals, getting a few balls to turn over. At one point, noticing that Rob is watching, I try to punt a bomb. The ball glances off my shin and goes 45 degrees to the left, over a 10-foot fence and into the cab of a pickup.
People are on edge today. The distance-kicking competition looms. My right leg feels as if it has been through a grain thresher. Ignore the pain, I tell myself. Acquit yourself nobly.
The competition starts at 30 yards. This is within my range—I popped from 35 yesterday. Now, with everyone watching, I forget everything I've learned. I lunge at the ball. At its zenith my kick reaches a height of five feet, spinning on a vertical axis like a plunging dirigible. It is the homeliest, ignoblest kick of the week.
Before bidding us goodbye, Ray hawks the kicking shoes and videos with which he supplements his income. Then he asks us to evaluate the camp in writing.
My evaluation is a question and a compliment: "Where were you guys when I needed you?"