"I can hear myself breathing," says Burleson of the tense moments of waiting 50 yards downfield for the punter to call for the snap. "I'm not nervous, but I'm not calm either. It'll be complete chaos out there, and you're just trying to drown out everything and focus." Burleson, who through Week 11 was eighth in the NFL with an 11.4-yard-per-return average and who took a punt 94 yards for a TD against the Browns on Nov. 4, says he "hated it" when he was asked to return punts at Seattle's O'Dea High, and so developed an unusual style: He let the ball bounce before scooping it up. "I was scared I was going to get hit," says Burleson (right), who admits he has never enjoyed returning punts. "Every time you saw a highlight of a punt returner, it was usually a guy getting blasted."
Woodson has also been doing the deed since high school (in Fremont, Ohio) "because I was the best athlete," he explains. After shutting out the noise of opposing fans and players ("You don't really know what they're saying but you know it's directed at you") Woodson prepares for the punt by gauging the wind—sometimes by dropping a handful of grass—and the kicker's angle. Once the ball's up, Woodson, like most returners, watches it about half the time. "Short intervals. You're looking to the ball, then at the rush, to the ball, then back to the rush." And when the ball's caught? "Make the first man miss and take it from there," says Woodson. "If you run side to side, you won't get yards. You need to attack the openings and take the ball upfield."
College crowds can be especially nasty to opposing punt returners. "The funniest thing anybody ever said to me was at Louisiana-Lafayette," says McKelvin, who leads the NCAA with three punt return TDs and ranks fourth with 18.3 yards per return. "Somebody yelled, 'Your Mama doesn't love you.'" For McKelvin, the jeering is worth the thrill that punt returning provides. "When I was little, I used to do a flip jumping off the roof of a cabin," says McKelvin. "It's the same kind of feeling of excitement running back a punt." Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal, the ACC's top return man (15.1-yard average), believes that scoring on a punt return is football's greatest joy—and he approaches each return with a swagger. "You've got to have the attitude that you can score every time," he says, "and your worst nightmare is to get tackled by the punter."
What's the golden rule for returning a punt? "Catch the ball," says Hall, who through Week 11 is second alltime with 12 punt and kickoff returns for TDs. "The Number 1 reason some athletic and fast guys don't [return punts] is they don't have the skill to catch." It takes more to unnerve Hall (below) than the prospect of being leveled by a guy with a 50-yard running start. "I have no fear," he says, "I just have respect." At 5'8" and 187 pounds, Hall is an easy verbal target as he waits for the ball—"Fans will say, 'You're too small, stand up'"—as is the Jets' 5'8" Leon Washington, who likens punt returning to mathematics: "You're dealing with trajectory ... you're dealing with potential and kinetic energy." All well and good, but don't you need to be a little crazy to enjoy returning punts? "Definitely," Washington says.
KIRBY LEE/US PRESSWIRE (BURLESON HEAD SHOT)
OTTO GRUELE JR./GETTY IMAGES (BURLESON ACTION)
GREG MCWILLIAMS/ICON SMI (MCKELVIN)
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (HALL HEAD SHOT)
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (HALL ACTION)
JOHN BIEVER (WOODSON)