Sitting in a Georgia Dome training room after Sunday's 36-31
loss to the Raiders, the Falcons' Juran Bolden looked every bit
the part of a special-teamer. The 6'2", 200-pound Bolden, who
earned the nickname Big Stick with huge hits against the
Cowboys' Herschel Walker and the Seahawks' Ronnie Harris in
1996, was wearing a neck brace and appeared more than a little
Bolden, a second-year cornerback from Mississippi Delta Junior
College, sprained his neck after using his head as a battering
ram while trying to break up Oakland's wedge during a
third-quarter kickoff. He was knocked out briefly and had to be
carted off the field on a stretcher. "It gave me a bad
headache," Bolden said. "But headaches for special teams players
are part of the game." Desmond Howard returned that kick 38
yards, but on the three punts he handled, he had one muff and
two fair catches. Below, Bolden tells us what goes through his
mind when he covers a punt.
"I'm the front gunner, the guy who lines up wide to the right
and whose job it is to get to the return man first. We're all
headhunters on special teams. No question. The back gunner is on
the other side; he's coming all out too. The other eight guys
try to stay in their lanes. The main rule we use is, Don't
follow anybody wearing the same jersey. That's easier said than
done. Things can get crazy. We're all converging on the ball,
and one thing you have to look out for is smashing into your own
teammates. It gets congested out there, and everyone is moving
at a dangerous speed.
"I almost always get mugged by two defensive backs as soon as I
come off the line. Those DBs will do anything--grab your face
mask, hold on to your jersey, trip you or push you from
behind--to try to slow you down. My first few steps are the most
important. I go on instinct. If I look at the outside guy and
think I'm quicker, I'll take an outside release. If I think I
can fight past him, I go inside.
"Once I'm free, it's an all-out sprint to gain momentum and
launch myself at the return guy. Punts are never in the air for
more than four seconds or so, and you want to beat the ball
downfield. As I'm running, I think of the two things I can't do:
I can't overpursue and get a penalty [for interfering with the
catch], and I can't miss the hit. Because a guy like Howard will
find a crease and run it back. That would be a disaster.
"Most return guys are smart. They want career longevity, so they
fair catch the ball, and when they do that, you circle them and
taunt them, hoping they'll be dumb enough to try to run it next
time. Special teams guys will do anything to get that giant hit.
That's what we live for."
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Except for this 38-yard kickoff return, Bolden & Co. held Howard (80) in check. [Back view of Desmond Howard in game]