Punting requires only modest coordination. I am not downgrading it—punting is my business—but I have always considered it remarkable that with so many boys in the country playing football, so few know how to kick a ball for distance and accuracy. There is. in fact, an acute shortage of good kickers. Often pro teams pay big salaries to players who merely run in, kick the ball and come out five or six times a game. In my case this is not entirely true since I double as a defensive halfback.
Punting is basically a composite of small skills, each requiring much practice, and the total even more. Many players become discouraged trying to adapt to some prescribed punting form. This is a mistake. Each man should alter the orthodox to fit his physical makeup. Below and on the following pages you will find that I frequently differ from accepted punting procedures. For example, the way I stand—with my nonkicking foot forward—is a puzzle to football coaches, most of whom advocate 1½ steps as opposed to my three-step method. Well, I may be wrong and they may be right, but with all the things I do wrong I still have led the National Football League in punting or have been among the top four for the last four years. If you are not punting successfully or feel uncomfortable punting, then you should modify the rules to fit your needs.
Personally, I am short for a punter—5 foot 11. The tall, rangy man is the one most likely to have the excellent leg snap so vital to producing long, booming kicks. But punting is an unnatural art, and I have never found size nearly as important as an ability to adjust to the difficult and sometimes even painful technique of exercising violently while standing tiptoe on one leg.
When I first report to training camp, it is almost like learning to kick all over again. My muscles are stiff and unyielding, and I begin a slow steady routine. Spreading my legs far apart, I lock my hands around the right knee and pull my forehead to it to loosen the hamstring muscle of my right (kicking) leg. Rotating my hips from an erect position, I loosen the groin muscles. For general muscle tone I run and do sit-ups, and begin my kicking, first without a ball, going through the kicking motion gingerly, so as not to cause a tightening in my thighs. I repeat a rapid-fire sequence of these exercises before every game. During the first two weeks of training I kick the ball lightly, only for form, and do not begin to use full power until the third week, by which time I am kicking effortlessly and with complete control. The secret of effortless control is to make the exact same moves every time.
Still, a kicker, like a baseball player, experiences slumps and sometimes must resort to movies to find the flaw in his timing or action. Everybody can learn to kick the ball well, using the examples that follow. The persons who will kick best, though, will be the ones who practice longest.
READY FOR THE SNAP
From the time I settle into position until the ball is kicked, my eyes are on the ball. (Never mind the rushers; you're supposed to kick, not run.) At Detroit the center is on his own, no signals are called, so I must always be ready for the snap. I stand 14 yards behind the center, slightly bent at the waist, my weight evenly distributed, knees flexed and my left foot about six inches forward but not anchored. I must be balanced for the unexpected. Passes go awry, even in this league. Not to be alert is intolerable; remember you usually punt uncomfortably close to your goal. As a safeguard, I find that by touching my little ringers together, my hands spread to form a cup, I am less likely to fumble the snap (on the few occasions that I dropped the ball, I recalled later that I didn't have my fingers together). Already I have looked to see if the defense is overloading (concentrating their linemen on one side or the other). I will kick away from the concentration. That way, defenders flaring in have small chance to affect the play. By the time they reach you, the ball is gone.
HOLDING THE BALL
When the ball reaches me, I quickly bring it into position in front of and across my body at the level of my right hip. The heel of the ball is covered by the palm of my right hand, the thumb at the midseam. The nose is cradled in my left. With two seconds to get the kick off, I fix the ball as I take my first step.
STEPPING OFF A KICK
Probably 95% of all bad kicks are due to poor drops. My right hand controls the ball and is responsible for the release. The left acts as a gentle guide and never exerts pressure. I take what amounts to three steps before making contact with the ball. The first, a jab or half step with my left foot, points in the direction I hope the ball will go. My hands bring the ball into position as I take a second step, on my right foot. On the third step, I cock my kicking leg (third drawing) and lock my ankle with the toes turned down and in. For an ordinary kick (middle ball), I release the ball just below the waist level and meet it slightly above the knee. For a towering kick, I incline the nose of the ball up, then release it above the waist (top ball) and hit it at thigh level. For a low kick, I drop the ball at the thigh, hit it just below the knee (bottom hall). This last kick is especially helpful when punting against the wind, the lower arc allowing it to cut the air for greater distance.
POINT OF CONTACT
It is the low thud, not the big boom, that signals the tight, spiraling 60-yard punt. To get a spiral (and better distance), the laces must be pointed up and to the outside. When they are pointed straight up, the ball will travel end over end. Most punters try to kick low on the instep, the ball at a slight, 20° angle to the shoe (upper sketch). I strike unusually high on the instep (bottom), the ball at almost right angles with the line of the shoe. This is extreme.
It is essential that I maintain my balance in the follow-through. If I fall back or to the side, I limit both the direction and the distance of the kick. Stability is always a problem for punters, but it is even more difficult for me because of my extremely high kick and a violent whipping leg motion that ends with my right foot on a level with my left ear. These conflicting motions—the foot coming up and across the falling ball—give me long, spiraling punts. My arms act as balance weights and allow me to come down at the spot where I started the kick. This is extremely important, since I must move quickly back into my zone of defensive coverage—opposite to the direction of the punt.
BAD SNAP FROM CENTER
A punter has to be ready for anything: there is no quicker way to lose a ball game than to have a kick blocked. Since I constantly keep my eye on the ball, I can see in advance when the pass is going wrong. This gives me time—not much, but enough—to prevent a disaster. If the pass is low, I drop down on my right knee like an outfielder, my body in position to block the ball if it should take a bad bounce. Grabbing the ball, I rise up and begin my normal sequence, only much faster. I never reach for a wide pass. To do this would twist my body out of position and invite trouble. Instead, I sidestep, always keeping my body facing downfield, blocking the path of the ball and at the same time positioning myself to begin my punting pattern.
THE QUICK KICK
I have never used the quick kick in the NFL. Few teams in the league do, although the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers are effective exceptions. Still, it is a useful device to learn. Its purpose is to surprise the defense, catching the safety man in close and virtually eliminating his chance of a runback. On a quick kick where you stand only six yards behind the line of scrimmage, the problem is to get the ball away high enough to clear the rushing linemen but not so high as to allow the blockers time to gather and the safety to get under the punt. Of several quick-kicking methods, I prefer one called the rocker. In lining up, I appear to be in a normal running posture. As I receive the ball, I rock my left foot backward quickly, then stride forward on the same foot and release the ball at about thigh height, lower than usual. My right foot strikes the ball just below knee level, and the ball's laces are almost on a line with the laces of my shoe. The effect is a low trajectory kick with lots of roll and a tricky bounce.
FAKE KICK AND RUN
It is hard to fool the defense, which is practiced in reading the intention of plays. This is one reason why, whether I intend to kick, run or pass, I always take the same jab step illustrated on the preceding pages. With no sign or tip-off to guide them, defensive linemen generally can be expected to rush a punt and the secondary to drop back to catch the ball and/or block. Even the 250-pound tackles have surprising mobility, so I want them to take the bait before they can change the direction of their charge. Altering no details from my ordinary kick, I step off on my left foot, then instantly change directions. The trick is not to waste an instant. Pivoting on my left foot, I usually run to the right, pulling the ball in and tucking it under my arm. I run toward the sideline for five or six steps, then turn quickly downfield and run for my life. Often when I am going to fake a run, I don't tell my teammates. I do this to make the fake more convincing. Against the Dallas Cowboys in a recent exhibition, though a kick had been called for, I fooled my own team and the Cowboys and ran 12 yards for a first down.
FAKE KICK AND PASS
Faking a kick and passing is not very difficult except that you have to be able to pass. This limitation rules out the fake pass for a number of punters. Since I am a much better runner than passer, I have attempted to pass from a fake kick only four times during my pro career. I am frequently on my own when it comes to a fake run—this I imagine will last only as long as I am successful. But on a fake pass the team must always know of the punter's intention because the receivers have to look for the ball and the linemen are not permitted to go downfield. The secondary is fast to react to any change in punting coverage and this makes it less likely that a pass will succeed than a fake kick and run—unless the punter also is the star passer. When I do pass, I take my jab step with my left foot, rise up quickly and throw. I look for either of the two halfbacks moving in the flats or the split end down 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and turning inside. Remember, I am already 13 yards behind the scrimmage line, so the pass is bound to test my questionable arm and its questionable accuracy.
BY YALE LARY OF THE DETROIT LIONS
WITH MORTON SHARNIK