on punting

One cold Sunday morning, my father took me to the Meadowlands to watch the Jets play. He never cared for professional sports, but his boss gave him the tickets and he didn’t want to seem ungrateful. It must’ve been torture for him to turn down all the scalpers as we approached the stadium.

“This will be over before you know it,” he said. While the coaches were drawing up plans to win, my dad was drawing up plans to leave at halftime. I’d follow his block, he’d fake going to the restroom, then boom we’re at the bottom of the escalator.

As we sat in our seats waiting for the stadium to fill, my father filled the silence by sharing football stories from his own youth, where his athletic prowess was nothing short of Olympic. Most of these tales involved defeating his brother, who was equally unathletic…  and several years his junior… and overweight. When he finished his story, my father laughed and told it again, as if an impartial bystander were corroborating his athletic heroism. I used this as an opportunity to leaf through the program we picked up at the concession stand.

“What does “offsides” mean, Dad?”

He had no idea, but was eager to pass down some kind of fatherly knowledge to his only son. So he reached deep into the knapsack full of snacks that my mother had prepared for us. There, next to a thermos full of hot chocolate, was a bottomless can of bullshit which he generously shared with me.

“There are two sides to the stadium, right? If the teams are offsides, one side of the stadium sees more action than the other. It’s not fair for the ticket holders.”

From my father, I inherited both his ignorance of the sport, and his lack of athleticism. This was a problem that became painfully obvious in gym class, when I was routinely chosen second-to-last for whatever game we were playing that day. Last place honors usually fell to the transfer student from India who didn’t understand English. There’s no faster way to learn a language than having it smacked into your head by a dodgeball.

A half-hour before the National Anthem, a man mildly resembling a football player took the field to warm up. This was the punter, and he wore a single bar across his face mask, which made his helmet look like it came with a scoop of ice cream inside.

“Do you think he could kick it out of the stadium?” I asked my father. 

“As long as he doesn’t break my windshield, I don’t give a shit what he does.” He was now holding binoculars to his eyes, looking everywhere but the field. “Huh, look at that. There’s an exit that’ll take us even closer to our car.”

On fourth down, the punter would jog onto the field to kick the ball to the opposing team. This is when real football fans booed. The punter represented capitulation. It meant that the offense had failed. But I didn’t boo. I applauded like a three year old watching clowns spill out of a tiny car. “Yay!  Do it again!” With a swing of his foot, the ball rocketed off his mismatched sneaker, high into the atmosphere. So what if the opposing team ran it back for a touchdown? I was enthralled.

When we returned home, I decided I’d try this punting thing myself. I found a football in the closet that my well-meaning, but sadly mistaken grandfather had given to me as a birthday gift. No doubt he gave the same gift to my father when he was a boy, disappointed with that outcome as well.

I brought the ball to the front lawn and mimicked the stance of a professional punter. I visualized the motions, and concentrated to drown out the roar of the crowd that I was also imagining. Then, just like a real punter, I wisely removed the ball from the box. I took a few steps, dropped the ball and swung my leg as hard as I could.

Before continuing, there’s an important detail that should be shared: if you kick the wrong part of the ball, you’ll collapse to the ground in pain, as shrieks of agony arise from deep within your lungs, ricocheting off your baby teeth, before pushing your lifeless tongue out of your mouth like a windsock at an airfield.

Naturally, I kicked the wrong part of the ball.

And that was the last time I ever punted a football… until my junior year of high school, when the ball cried out for me again.

I was watching Monday Night Football as background noise to my Monday night homework. The crowd was cheering, everyone was excited, then suddenly there was silence. It was the collective “who gives a shit” from the fans as the punter took the field. Well, I gave a shit. I watched as he boomed that football high into the air. It was just amazing. That’s when I decided to revisit this idea from my childhood, only this time, I wouldn’t let my lack of athleticism stop me.

Every day after school, I’d stand in front of my home and spend an hour or so punting. We lived in a tall house, so attempting to kick the ball over the steep roof seemed like a good idea. If it cleared the roof, great. If not, the ball would bounce back to me, maybe bringing a shingle with it on the way down. Ordinarily, this is something my father would’ve killed me for, but my parents were divorced now and the house wasn’t his. With no one around to yell at me, I made the rules – a privilege that made me uncomfortable.

What started as a daily distraction, turned into an obsession. Eventually, that turned into something I really needed: a meditation. When I punted, there was room for only three thoughts:  Head down, drop it flat, follow through. Each piece was critical for getting that spiral, and I was capable of further breaking each motion into sub-motions. Thanks to my gift of overthinking, I had transformed the simple act of kicking a ball into orchestrating the moon landing.

I was always looking for ways to improve, and because this was long before the internet, instruction was hard to find. I watched high school football teams play, but their punters looked nothing like the professional punters on TV. These were just kids kicking a ball. They lacked majesty. Surprisingly, I found what I was looking for when I mistakenly wandered into a practice session for the girls gymnastics team. “Look how high she can kick!” I marveled.

I wanted to ask her for her secret, but that would’ve required conversing with a girl in a leotard and I was certain no one wanted to share that level of intimacy with me. But from the bleachers, I could watch her from afar, ignoring her occasional sneers of revulsion. “I’m not creeping on you,” I whispered, “I’m just admiring your thighs as they silently brush against your cheekbones.” I thought better of returning the next day with the binoculars my father left behind.

In the privacy of my home, I began a daily stretching routine so that I, too, could acquire the flexibility of a sixteen year old girl in a leotard. Over the following weeks, I began to notice major improvements and it wasn’t long before I could swing my foot high over my head. At full extension, I looked like I belonged on top of a music box.

One Sunday morning, while watching football on TV, the announcer mentioned that the punter preferred to kick barefoot because it gave him more control. Wow, now that’s a real man, even if he is just a punter. Ten minutes later, I was standing in front of my house, barefoot.

Before continuing, there’s a detail that should be shared: If you kick a football barefoot, and you hit it the wrong way, you’ll vomit from the pain.

Naturally, I hit it the wrong way. But I learned a valuable lesson. From then on, I was always careful to kick the ball with proper form, even when I started kicking with shoes again.

By the fall of my senior year in high school, I realized that although my punting skills had improved, I was nowhere as good as I wanted to be. I decided I needed formal instruction, and that meant joining the football team. Up until that point, I’d kept my punting a secret from everyone, and now I was going to try out for the football team?! Even to me, the idea sounded ridiculous. I was a geek. When I walked down the hallways, girls would shout, “Stop looking at me, you idiot.” Maybe they didn’t say it out loud, but if you read their diaries, I’m certain you’d find my name under the heading, “Dorks who think it’s okay to talk to me.” So when I told my friends I was trying out for the varsity football team, I was met with disbelief.

“How could you possibly think you’re a football player? Whenever we play, we say horrible things about you. We say it out loud. You hear them!”

I think they saw me as a fraud, trying to reinvent myself as an athlete, when butterfly would have been more attainable. Most surprised was my father. Since the divorce, I’d only see him once or twice a week, and he was keenly aware that he was missing the last few months of my childhood. Had he already missed so much that now I was a football player? The truth is, my friends were right. I did want to be someone else. Someone who didn’t have to console his crying mother all the time. Someone who didn’t feel guilty for not visiting his father more often. I just wanted to be a kid standing in front of his house, kicking a ball. So what if being as good as a pro seemed like a stupid goal. It was something to fixate on, now leave me alone.

If my friends thought I was crazy, the reception I got from the football players was even more hostile. Many of them teased me, and some wanted to beat the shit out of me. Fortunately, team decorum stipulated they were only allowed to beat the shit out of the other team, right? I wasn’t helping my case by using words like “decorum” and “stipulate.” At tryouts, not even the head coach could understand why I wanted to be the punter, so he made a counter-offer.

“How about punter and tight end? That could be fun.”

But I stood firm. It was punter, and nothing else. “Make sure this one wears a helmet at all times,” he joked, and everyone laughed. I smiled politely, fully aware that I didn’t belong.

During practice, while my teammates killed themselves running drills, I punted in an adjacent field, kicking then retrieving my ball like a dog playing fetch with himself. Sometimes I’d stop to admire an oddly shaped cloud, or just smell the freshly cut grass as the evening wind blew in. All in all, being a football player was more relaxing than I thought it would be. But, of course, I wasn’t part of the team and that was my own doing. I didn’t join to be part of something bigger than myself. And whether we won or lost really didn’t matter to me. I was in search of something else.

My father, who hated watching football, came to every game. After every loss, and there were lots of them, he felt the need to pick up my spirits, as if the final score was somehow tied to my identity. But the disappointment he picked up on had nothing to do with that. Afterwards, we’d go to lunch and talk about everything he had missed during that week.

“You really crushed a few of those kicks,” he’d say over his Spanish omelet. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. But my heart was warmed to see that, despite the divorce, he was still carrying around the bottomless can of bullshit my mom packed for him all those years ago.

By season’s end, I was no closer to my goal but I wasn’t ready to quit. I had no choice but to continue this search by trying out for my college football team. Yeah, college football. Sure, Princeton wasn’t exactly Texas A&M, but the players were still a lot bigger than high school kids. I tried out as a walk-on, meaning I wasn’t recruited, and I made the team as back-up punter. Having two punters on your team is like having two spare tires in your trunk. In truth, you don’t need either one. But I kept that to myself.

I was surprised to learn how well the college football players were treated. They provided us with free cleats, which I instantly modified to be more punter friendly. And I got a football jacket with my name on it. They even washed our uniforms, although mine never got dirty. At the end of every practice, you would’ve thought I just returned from my job in a NASA clean room, building satellite parts. “Light starch, please,” I’d say to the equipment manager as I handed him my pants. He shook his head in disgust.

My daily routine at college was pretty similar to high school. I’d find a practice field, take some balls, and punt for a few hours. One day, the coach interrupted my daydreaming. They needed an extra body for a drill, and he wanted me to play tight end. Why was everyone trying to get me to play tight end? Isn’t this kind of insulting to tight ends?

This was first time I had ever been in a huddle, and it was tighter than I expected. Too many guys sweating, bleeding and spitting. Hardly the place for polite company. “I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be doing,” I said. The quarterback pointed to a linebacker and told me to block him. “You mean like, “Block him on Facebook?” This was a good twenty years before Facebook was invented, so I didn’t actually say that. But I thought it.

The linebacker they wanted me to hit was a guy named Darnell and he was built like Apollo’s better looking brother. My locker was next to his, so I’d often see him without his shirt on. Chiseled abs, rock hard pecs. It was almost surprising not to see dollar bills sticking out of his underwear. Laying a hit on this guy didn’t sound like a good idea, but the quarterback wouldn’t listen to reason. “What if I just run a passing route over the middle? You can throw the ball at my head like a metal duck in a carnival game.”

Someone yelled “hike” (I was almost certain it was the quarterback) and I quickly reset my mind to “angry determination.” I steamed downfield like a torpedo seeking its target. Torpedos aren’t meant for land travel, so it’s a pretty good analogy. There was Darnell, just a few feet in front of me. “Two seconds to impact!” shouted a voice in my head. If I caused Darnell irreparable harm, it was the coach’s fault for putting me in.

“One second to impact!”  Goodbye Darnell. Please forgive me.

I was about to slam into Darnell, when with the lightest touch, he extended his arms and gently swatted me away, like a horse’s tail might instinctively do to a fly. I was amazed at how gentle he was. People handle Waterford crystal more roughly. I fell to the ground, tumbling and tumbling, eventually rolling to a stop somewhere near the goal post. “Wow! So this is what it’s like to get a uniform dirty.”

Having successfully dodged my block, Darnell went on to make the tackle. When I returned to the huddle, the coach was furious.

“I told you to put a hit on him!”

“And I told you I’m not a football player, you fucking idiot!” Again, I didn’t actually say that. What I really said was somewhat less heroic. I’m not proud of this, but I may have apologized for getting my uniform dirty.

Needless to say, I was sent back to the small punting field, where the fairies and woodland creatures greeted my safe return. There I hid for a few more weeks, still improving but not enough to be anything but the back-up punter. Ironically, the starting punter was actually the back-up quarterback, and he almost never practiced punting. Despite this, his natural athleticism made him just as good as me. I have to say, it was little humiliating to be no better than the guy who couldn’t give a shit.

Then one day, everything changed. For some reason, one of the assistant coaches called me in to punt during a special teams scrimmage. I was impressed that he realized I was part of the team, and not some middle schooler out Trick or Treating. With my heart pounding, I jogged onto the field, taking my place twelve yards behind the center. I licked my fingers, because that’s something I had seen real punters do on TV, then extended my arms. A light rain was starting to fall, which added to my nervousness. The ball would be slick, and my planting foot would be less secure. Just two more things for me to worry about as I mentally rehearsed the motions of my kick. Head down, drop it flat, follow through. I felt the eyes of all my teammates bearing down on me. After a full season of watching me on the sidelines swing my leg like a wrecking ball, they were eager to see what I was all about. Humiliation awaited.

I nodded to the center, and in an instant, the ball came whizzing at my face. Holy shit, these college players really know how to snap. I caught the football…

head down

…then two took steps forward while quickly rotating the laces into position…

drop it flat

…as two hungry players raced to block me.

All those hours of punting on adjacent fields… the teasing from other kids… the teasing from adults…  Everything fell away. This was me in front of my house on a cold winter’s day just after my father had moved out. The yelling, the tears, the anger and the sadness.

I swung my leg into the ball…

Follow through. 

Over the years, I had kicked thousands of footballs. But this was the only one that felt like my foot never touched it. “Keep your head down,” I thought. “You don’t need to see where it’s going.” When my foot had reached its highest point, way above my head, I finally looked up. And there it was. The ball was screaming through the air, higher and higher, its perfect spiral pulling it towards the sky. It was beautiful.

I looked at the player who was set to receive the punt. He quickly backpedalled, as the ball was going farther than everyone expected. Realizing that even this still wouldn’t be enough, he completely turned around and began sprinting. This kick was unlike anything that had ever left my foot. It was perfect. And when it finally fell to earth, it was a good 55 yards from the line of scrimmage, exactly what a pro would kick.

Then it all stopped. Whatever had been driving me all those years had finally released me from its grip, and a wave of relief mixed with the raindrops as they rolled down my face.

There were a few moments of silence, as the head coaches conferred. I stood in shock, taking in the enormity of what had just happened. Finally the head coach yelled, “Who kicked that?”

A hand raised into the air, and I was as surprised as everyone else to discover it belonged to me. “Jamin,” I said. Suddenly, everyone burst into applause. The same guys who had justifiably thrown me out of their huddle were now screaming with pride.

“You’re going to be our coffin corner guy,” said the coach, and there were even more cheers. A coffin corner is a kind of punt that’s used in rare circumstances when you need to pin the opposing team back. With only two games left in the season, I doubted my services would ever be called upon, and I was right. But still, for the last few weeks of my football career, I was the coffin corner guy.

On a cold winter morning, just like the one when my father first took me to see the Jets play, my football jacket was stolen from the dining hall. Years of practice, and gone was the only proof that I ever played college football. Truthfully, it didn’t seem right that I had one in the first place.

Today, a bag of footballs hangs in my garage, right next to the same shoes I used to wear. I’m thirty years older now. Thirty years slower and grayer. But every now and then, I drag them to an empty field and search for the kid who set me free.