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GOODWILL, PUNTING

Nov. 16, 2015
Nov. 16, 2015

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Nov. 16, 2015

INBOX
CAMPUS RUSH
THE COLQUITTS
THE REITER 50
Michael PHELPS
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GOODWILL, PUNTING

THE PEYTON AND ELI OF PUNTING, DUSTIN AND BRITTON COLQUITT HAVE TURNED THEIR SUPER BOWL--WINNING DAD'S CRAFT INTO A FAMILY BUSINESS. LIKE MANY FAMILY BUSINESSES, THIS ONE'S HAD SOME UPS AND DOWNS

This is an article from the Nov. 16, 2015 issue

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE, AND WHAT DO THEY HAVE AGAINST THIRD-DOWN CONVERSIONS?

This question will be posed often by Mile High stadium spectators seated near members of the extended Colquitt family at Sunday's AFC West game between the Broncos and the Chiefs. Dustin Colquitt, a one-time Pro Bowler at age 33, is in his 11th year punting for Kansas City. His younger brother, 30-year-old Britton—who took a more circuitous route to the league—is in his sixth full season booming punts for Denver. And looking on from the stands will be Anne Colquitt and her ex-husband, the boys' father, Craig, who punted six seasons for the Steelers, between 1978 and '84, earning a pair of Super Bowl rings.

In his final season with Pittsburgh, Craig's base salary was $95,000. Two years ago Britton signed a three-year, $11.7 million extension that made him, at the time, the NFL's highest-paid punter. The guy he bumped from the top spot? His big brother, who quipped upon hearing the news, "Now he can start picking up some tabs."

He was joking. Mostly. When immaturity and alcohol addiction threatened to derail the younger Colquitt's career before it even started, it was Dustin and his wife, Christia, who took him in and kicked his butt—in a loving way—back onto a righteous path.

The most remarkable punting dynasty in history would never haven taken flight, so to speak, if the Bearden High Bulldogs hadn't found themselves without a punter-kicker early in their 1999 season. It was then that Dustin was summoned from a classroom by Bill Young, coach of Bearden High, in Knoxville, Tenn. The team's specialist had broken his ankle. Could Dustin—a star soccer player who, despite his pedigree, had never played football—help out?

He'd practiced once before. But not for very long. After talking her son into giving the sport a try the previous spring, Anne arrived at the field to pick him up and found Dustin fuming. "Mom, I will never play football," he vowed. The problem? "These pants are skintight," hissed the self-conscious teen. He put an end to the football experiment that day.

... Only to revive it the following fall. When Dustin agreed to step into the breach, he had a fortnight to figure out how to punt. Early reviews were not promising. Left-footed but righthanded, he pioneered the coyote-ugly technique of reaching across his body and placing the ball on his left foot with his right palm. "Son," Craig fretted, "you're gonna break your hand." When Craig insisted that his progeny drop the ball lefthanded, Dustin objected: "I can't even pick my nose with my left hand!"

To improve dexterity, he was soon juggling, eating and brushing his teeth as a southpaw. Late in that first game, with Bearden nursing a 16--14 lead, Dustin lined up to punt from the back of Bearden's end zone. To Anne in the bleachers, Craig said, "What a way to start your career."

The snap was good, the drop clean. The ball came off Dustin's foot as if launched from Cape Canaveral. That 70-plus-yard punt helped the Bulldogs seal a victory and snagged the attention of coaches at nearby Tennessee, where his father had punted some three decades earlier.

THE PATERFAMILIAS of America's first family of punting didn't go directly from high school to college. Craig Colquitt's father, Lester, was a policeman, and higher education "wasn't a thing in our family," says Craig, who spent two years after high school working in Knoxville, first at Kern's Bakery, then at Miller's department store, shelving china. After Craig broke a number of plates and dishes, his manager at Miller's handed him an ad from the local paper: The Vols were looking for a punter.

"I'm a two-step punter, had a 74-yard punt in high school, and never had one blocked," Craig wrote to the Tennessee football office.

"I've never heard of a two-step punter," special teams coach George Cafego wrote back. "But 74 yards intrigues me." Craig was invited to try out and, soon after, to walk on. He started for three seasons in Knoxville. At a time when most punters took three steps and sought only to club the ball as far as they could, Colquitt took two, and—at the insistence of UT coach Johnny Majors—directed his punts. That is, he kicked the ball away from the returner, outside the numbers, toward the sideline. While not widespread at the time, it was a strategy favored by Chuck Noll, coach of the Steelers, who selected Colquitt in the third round of the 1978 draft.

Pittsburgh's incumbent punter was Bobby Walden, a stolid southerner who drawled, upon meeting the 6'1", 178-pound rookie, "You need to eat some corn bread an' beans." Colquitt beat him out and punted in the next two Super Bowls, both Steelers victories.

Between his second and third NFL seasons, Craig married Anne Davis, whom he'd met at Tennessee. An accomplished athlete herself (tennis, volleyball, track and swimming in high school), Anne also performed in the university's contemporary dance company. To see her sons' follow-through on a punt—both have jaw-dropping extension—is to be reminded that their athleticism and flexibility do not flow from just one parent.

CRAIG WAS standing in the Steelers' locker room after a 1984 home game, holding the one-and-a-half-year-old Dustin, when father and son were approached by a cigar-smoking, white-haired eminence. "And who is this?" inquired team owner Art Rooney Sr. Having been introduced, the Chief summoned Craig and Dustin to his office where, out of footballs, he handed the toddler a baseball on which he'd written, DUSTIN—YOU WILL BE A SUPERSTAR SOMEDAY. ART ROONEY SR.

Growing up, Dustin did star—in every sport but football. At the kicking camps his old man put on every summer at Maryville College, 18 miles south of Knoxville, he preferred the swimming pool and the surrounding woods to whatever was taking place on the field.

Britton was different. Keenly interested in his father's craft, he would dress up as Craig, in full Steelers uniform, for Halloween. So sound was his punting technique early on that, at football camp, his father used him as a model for the other boys.

Where her eldest son was "a pleaser," Anne recalls, Britton had a fairly wide contrarian streak. He didn't exactly throw himself at the Volunteers, even after his older brother was named an All-America at Tennessee. First Britton took unofficial visits to Georgia and Florida. Then the coaches at Marshall told him he'd start as a freshman, playing kicker and punter. The courtship had reached full boil by the time Craig finally called UT coach Phillip Fulmer. The following weekend Britton took his official visit. His apostasies—those visits to Athens and Gainesville—were forgiven. He committed on the spot.

Having arrived at Rocky Top with a technique far more polished than Dustin had, Britton made a smooth transition. On the field.

Off of it, he was a hot mess.

"When I [got to UT]," recalls the younger brother, "my name was known, even though I hadn't done anything yet. I took advantage of that, a lot of times in the wrong way." At least five times. That we know of. In March 2004, as a redshirt freshman, he was suspended after his fourth alcohol-related incident in six months. Four years later he was arrested for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident. Of the latter incident, Dustin, who was selected by the Chiefs in the third round of the '05 draft, says, "He could have called me. But he was fighting demons. He was thinking, 'I'm bigger than this. I'm invincible.'"

This time Fulmer suspended Britton for the first five games of his senior season and stripped him of his scholarship. At that point Britton knew he wouldn't be drafted. Many of the NFL scouts and coaches who'd kept an eye on him wrote him off.

But at least one didn't. Dustin's special teams coordinator in K.C. from 2006 through '08 was Mike Priefer, who'd spent some time around Britton and liked him. In '09, Priefer was with the Broncos, and he persuaded Denver's brass to bring Britton into camp, red flags and all, and let him compete for the job against the veteran Brett Kern.

It was a close battle, won by Kern. Unemployed and fearful that he'd blown his only shot, Britton called his brother. Dustin did not ask him so much as he told him: "O.K., bud, you're coming to Kansas City, and you're going to get it right."

THE COLQUITTS have strong legs, and stronger faith. They recognize the Corinthians verse that ends, "when I became a man, I put away childish things."

In 2009, Britton put away childish things—even as he spent most of his waking moments ... with children. In those days Dustin and Christia had two kids, Brinkley, then age three, and Colston, who was one. (They now have five children.) The boys became Britton's companions: He read books to them, drove them to play dates, changed their diapers. Rising early each morning—he slept on a mattress in the family's unfinished basement—he joined his brother and sister-in-law in a daily devotional. When Dustin went to work, so did Britton, lifting weights at a local fitness center and kicking footballs at a nearby community college.

"Watching Dustin do it, day in, day out, I was learning how to be a pro," says Britton. "But I was also learning what it was like to be a dad, have a family." His girlfriend at the time, Nikki Hairrell, was teaching school in Memphis. "I knew she was the one," he says. "But we weren't engaged yet." They were married in March 2011. Their third child is due in January.

Britton was happy and sober. At the same time, he was nagged by the fear that the NFL would never call again. But Dustin introduced his bro to "a really cool pastor" (Britton's words), who guided him to this epiphany: If it wasn't in the Almighty's plan for Britton to punt in the NFL, he needed to accept that. It took him a few days, but he got there. Britton even wrote a letter to God. "I told Him I was O.K. with not playing football," he says. "And as soon as I got to that point, it felt like a very real weight was lifted."

From Dustin's house, Britton drove a few miles into the countryside, where he spotted a large tree with a wide hollow in its trunk. He parked, walked across a field and put the letter in the hollow, as far down as it would go. "Then, I said, 'O.K., we're done here.'"

At 7:30 the next morning the Dolphins called, offering Britton a tryout. He made their practice squad. Eight days later, on Dec. 30, 2009, the Broncos signed him to their active roster.

In the cruel, Darwinian world of the NFL, where specialists seem to be a little more expendable than their teammates, the Colquitts are uncommonly secure in their jobs. Dustin's average net punt this season is 43.2 yards, fourth-best in the NFL. He's pinned foes inside their 20-yard line 17 times, fifth in the league. Britton is closer to the middle, averaging 40.0, with 12 punts inside the 20.

Numbers, of course, only tell part of the story. "What Dustin did for Britton," says their old man, his eyes misting just a little, "is not measurable."

Fearful he'd blown his last shot, Britton called his brother. "O.K., bud," Dustin told him, "you're coming to K.C., and you're going to get it right."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhotograph by Jamie Schwaberow for Sports IllustratedPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI PREMEDIABRITTON PHOTOPhotograph by Jeff Jacobsen for Sports IllustratedPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI PREMEDIADUSTIN PHOTOCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FOOTBALL)PHOTOERIC LARS BAKKE/APGETTING THE BOOT Craig (above, at UT) passed his killer leg on to Dustin and Britton, who shared the field with him (top) in 2014. PHOTOUNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE[See caption above] PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDKICK IN THE PANTS Up next, perhaps: Dustin's nine-year-old son, Brinkley, who, like Dad, favors his left leg.