SPARE A thought, as you read this poolside, perhaps, or in air-conditioned comfort, for the gladiators now toiling in all 32 NFL training camps, where the fields are hot but the business, as usual, is cold.
Teams invite up to 90 players to camp. On the day of final cuts, Aug. 31, that number must be whittled to 53. The grim truth for the guys on the bubble—late-round picks, undrafted free agents, Tim Tebow—is that coaches already have a fairly clear idea of who's going to make the club. Of those 53 spots, only a dozen or so are genuinely up for grabs. How to stand out, how to beat those odds, when veterans and early-round draft picks are bogarting the practice reps?
"Special teams can get you there," Danny McCray was saying as he walked off the Cowboys' practice field on July 23 in Oxnard, Calif. It got him there. An undrafted free agent out of LSU three years ago, McCray made the club for his prowess on "teams," then led Dallas with 28 special teams tackles as a rookie. Since then he's carved out an identity as a special teams specialist—a gunner, as the position is frequently called. Or, in less precise terms, a player whose plight it is to be folded, spindled and misunderstood. "Some people think all you have to do is run down the field and maybe get the tackle, or maybe not. But there's skill involved and technique and courage," McCray says.
What does a gunner do? Only the game's most thankless job. Boys fantasize about scoring touchdowns and making game-saving tackles. They do not think, When I grow up, I want to release from the line of scrimmage on punts, then get clubbed and grabbed by ill-tempered defensive backs who have a green light to mug me, then race into space to try to hit a return man whose primary job is to make the first tackler miss, then pursue him upfield through a thicket of flying and sometimes tremendously large blockers who'd like nothing more than to level me from the blindside.
But childhood daydreams must give way to adult realities—such was the message drilled into C.J. Spillman from the moment he arrived at Chargers training camp in 2009. Says the former Marshall safety, "They told me the only way I was gonna make the team was if I made an impact on special teams."
So he became a gunner. One team and three seasons later, in the second quarter of last January's NFC divisional round, Spillman took the field for the 49ers after their drive stalled just short of the 50. Spillman engaged Packers cornerback Casey Hayward in a footrace down the right side of the field. Tomahawking Hayward's hands off his body while cutting hard to the inside, he shed Hayward just as returner Jeremy Ross muffed the punt. Three plays after Spillman gobbled up that fumble, Colin Kaepernick tied the game at 14 with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree. The Niners were on their way to a 45--31 rout. Rather than bask in his timely takeaway, Spillman's thoughts ran toward the more mundane: They probably won't cut me this week.
THE DIRTIEST job in football is also one of its least secure, least compensated and least celebrated. (You most likely remember the name of the 49ers' returnman who fumbled twice in the NFC title game two years ago, costing San Francisco the win: Kyle Williams. But can you name the Giants' backup receiver who recovered both spills? That'd be Devin Thomas, whom New York let go after its Super Bowl XLVI victory.)
Gunners tend to be late-round picks—if they were picked at all. They are reserve defensive backs and wideouts, for the most part, although creative coaches have been known to supersize the position. Imagine the dismay of the cornerbacks lining up across from the Secretary of Defense himself, 6'3", 260-pound end Dexter Manley, who was a gunner for the Redskins in the early 1980s.
The job is as important as it is unglamorous. "Our Number 1 goal every week," says Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien, "is to put [opponents] on a long field." While our eyes may glaze over as earnest men hold forth on the importance of field position, there's nothing dull about the play that most often determines that field position. Not if you're the gunner, who has to motor 50-odd yards downfield while two of the better athletes in the stadium contest every inch of that ground with him. "They can grab you, hold you, maul you—and referees will tell you they're not going to call a penalty," says New England gunner Matt Slater. "It's like the Wild West."
"Unless you're literally getting beat up," agrees Spillman, "they're not going to throw a flag."
On punts from within the opposing team's territory the gunner's primary job is to prevent a touchback—to down the ball inside the five-yard line. On longer punts he hopes to force a fair catch, make a quick tackle or, better still, cause a fumble.
Failing that, his job is to "misdirect the returner," says Spillman, "to make him run east-west and buy time for the rest of our coverage guys."
"If your gunners can make tackles every time they're single-blocked," says Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg, "it forces the opponent to double-team them." That in turn eases congestion in the middle, making it easier for other members of the punt team to get downfield, and it reduces the threat of a blocked kick.
Good gunners share what O'Brien calls "a certain mental makeup"—an urgency and desire that border on desperation, as if their jobs hang in the balance. Which, come to think of it, they often do. "It's a production business," says O'Brien. "You're always trying to better your squad with guys that fit those roles and ... produce."
SPILLMAN SURE seemed to fit that role. An undrafted free agent in 2009, he blew up numerous ballcarriers while covering kicks in his rookie training camp with the Chargers—to no avail. On the day of final cuts he was summoned by coach Norv Turner, who told Spillman he wanted to keep him, he really did, but it was a numbers game. That's why they were releasing him.
Two hours later Spillman got the call: The Chargers changed their minds because they feared Spillman would not clear waivers. He made the 53-man roster. "So," says Spillman, "they cut me, uncut me, then cut me for real the next season."
One day after that second cut he was snapped up by the 49ers, for whom he's become a special teams ace, recovering that playoff fumble as well as a crucial spill that set up a TD against the Dolphins in Week 14 last year. Before last season, he signed a three-year, $6 million contract extension, with $1.8 million guaranteed. Did that fill him with a sense of security? "Doesn't mean anything," he says. "If you're not a starter, it's that much harder to keep your job."
Gunners live on the edge—of the field, of the rules, of employment. An undrafted free agent out of San Diego State in 2003, Kassim Osgood fractured his thumb early in his rookie training camp with the Chargers. He couldn't play receiver, but he could cover kicks. Before a kickoff during San Diego's final exhibition game, Marty Schottenheimer, the coach at the time, told the rookie, "If you don't make this tackle, you're not gonna be on the team."
He made the tackle, and the team. Was Schottenheimer serious? Osgood believes he was. A decade after that ultimatum, Osgood is still in the league, his prowess as a gunner having earned him three trips to Hawaii. He goes 6'5", 220 and practices capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. He is less inclined to juke a cornerback than to simply run the fellow over. It's good that every so often the guys in the vise get a taste of their own medicine.
Gunners are the only players on the punt team permitted to release at the snap of the ball; everyone else has to wait until he hears the thump of foot on ball. The price of this privilege: These guys must then contend with the defensive back or, more often, defensive backs lined up across from them, a kind of bad-cop-worse-cop duo whose job it is to squeeze, torment and impede. They don't have special license to clutch and grab and hold. It only looks that way.
The vise squad can hold the gunner until he gets between or "even with," the two players blocking him, wrote NFL vice president of communications Michael Signora in response to SI's question, Is there anything these guys can't do to the poor gunner? "Once he gets even with the blockers, they have to let him go, and they can never take him to the ground," though that latter prohibition, Signora admits, is "more of a philosophy than a rule."
"There are basically no rules," says Houston special teams coordinator Joe Marciano, who notes that the official monitoring vise-on-gunner violence is often 50 yards downfield. (The zebra at the line of scrimmage, just a few yards from the gunner, focuses on the interior line the moment the ball is snapped.) The only way for the defenders to get flagged, Marciano says, is if they pull the gunner to the ground, "but if it's two guys on one," he adds, "there's no need to pull him to the ground, 'cause you can cheat like hell with your hands inside."
Like pass rushers, gunners employ an arsenal of techniques to get off the line of scrimmage. "You need a go-to move, a countermove and a backup or two," says the Colts' Joe Lefeged, "or you're going to get embarrassed." And pure speed is instrumental. "Going against a double team, no amount of shaking and baking is going to work," says Marlon Moore, an ex-Dolphin who, like Osgood, signed with the 49ers this off-season. "You need to run, run, run and not slow down."
Many gunners go with a speed release—taking the outside edge as fast as they can—toward the sideline, beyond which lies one of the more surreal experiences in sports. The NFL has rules to control the minor bedlam that ensues when a gunner is forced out-of-bounds, into an obstacle course of coolers, chain gangs, team chaplains, NFL Film cameramen and, depending on the month, misting fans or heaters. But those rules are subjective—more of a philosophy—and sometimes just add to the confusion.
The gunner, it bears noting, can't just seek the (sometimes) safe harbor of the sideline—beyond which the vise must cease and desist—straightaway. He must be driven from the field of play. Just as Dementors may not enter the grounds of Hogwarts, the vise squad cannot follow gunners out-of-bounds. (Zebras at the Raiders-Chiefs game last Oct. 28 missed Oakland's gunner being blocked 15 yards out-of-bounds, then deposited on the bench. "We watched that play about 10 times," marvels Ravens gunner Corey Graham. "I couldn't believe the dude got away with it.")
Time was when the gunner could use the sideline as a sidewalk, reentering the field of play at his leisure. But the NFL outlawed that practice in the late 1990s. Gunners now must attempt to get back inbounds "within a reasonable amount of time," according to the NFL rule book. That rather elastic decree is often called the Tasker Rule, an unintentional homage to the best gunner in NFL history.
THE YEAR was 1986, and Steve Tasker had been claimed off waivers from the Houston Oilers to the Bills earlier that season. Covering a punt against the Jets, he was forced out-of-bounds. "I'm running through the bench area," recalls Tasker, now a broadcaster for CBS Sports, "and no one touches me. The Jets farther up the sideline are watching the return—they don't even know I'm there. So I run past the bench, pop back onto the field and make the tackle."
I might be on to something here, Tasker thought. He started making more frequent use of the sideline. While league officials may not have noticed—the Tasker Rule wasn't passed for another 13 years—opponents did. Tasker remembers running under a punt against the Giants on a frigid December day in 1990. Taking his now customary detour, he noticed kicker Matt Bahr and punter Sean Landeta standing in front of New York's bench, "wearing these big, hooded capes." The next thing he knew, he was skidding along on his face mask. "Landeta stuck his foot out and tripped me," says Tasker, laughing at the recollection. "If I'd been on the sideline, I'd probably do the same thing." (Landeta has denied this happened.)
Tasker was less outraged than many when Jets strength coach Sal Alosi notoriously stuck out his left knee to trip Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll in December 2010. "I was thinking, Hey, welcome to the club," Tasker recalls. "It happens."
Unlike in Tasker's day, however, that act was analyzed, criticized and dissected. Alosi had stood in a line with five inactive players at the outer edge of the white, six-foot stripe surrounding the field, intent on impeding the gunner's progress. The Jets had apparently used the "human wall" all season. Alosi fell on his sword, claiming—implausibly—that the idea had been his alone. Coach Rex Ryan and then special teams coach Mike Westhoff channeled Sergeant Schultz: They knew nothing. In the end Alosi was suspended for the season and later resigned.
Tripgate having shone a spotlight on human walls, gunners are seeing fewer of them. Yet plenty of obstacles remain. While working his way up the Jets' sideline, Osgood can count on a farrago of profanities from Ryan, with whom he has engaged in a years-long war of words. "If I get knocked anywhere near that sideline, he's over there cussing me, calling me all kinds of different names," says Osgood, who recounts with relish the time he was motoring past the New York bench when "Ryan didn't see me, and I got a good piece of him."
Osgood's virtuosity as a gunner has earned him three Pro Bowl berths. The path to Hawaii was cleared for him, and all other special teams selections, by Tasker, a ninth-round pick in 1985 who became a vital contributor on Buffalo's four straight AFC-champion teams to start the '90s. He was the first player to achieve stardom based on kick and punt coverage alone (nominally a receiver, he had 51 catches over a 12-year career), and he went to his first Pro Bowl in 1987. Tasker played in seven of those All-Star games but was never more excited than he was at his first.
That excitement lasted until he took the field to cover his first punt. "I line up and I'm looking across at Darrell Green and Ronnie Lott. I'm thinking, Great, I'll just beat the crap out of Ronnie Lott, then outrun Darrell Green."
So how'd it go?
"Actually, I got down the field and downed the kick or forced a fair catch." He can't recall. "The thing was, Darrell and Ronnie didn't play special teams. They didn't really know what they were doing."
"They can grab you, hold you, maul you—and referees will tell you they're not going to call a penalty," says one gunner.
A Swift Kick to the NFL
How a club soccer player from Norway with a strong left leg used a video camera and a few trick shots to become a contract player with the Lions
NORWEGIAN YOUTUBE sensation H√•vard Rugland is a child-protective-services officer, club soccer player and ardent UFC fan from the town of √Ölg√•rd (pop. 10,000), 265 miles southwest of Oslo. He is also the most unlikely player in any NFL training camp. Kick, as he has been dubbed by Lions coach Jim Schwartz, is short for Kickalicious, the title of Rugland's four-minute YouTube montage of trick kicks that debuted last September and is now up to 4.5 million hits. The video earned the 28-year-old a tryout with the Browns, Jets and Lions.
Last October, Jets then assistant G.M. Scott Cohen e-mailed Rugland and invited him to try out for the club—and, no, not for quarterback. The Jets were intrigued but didn't sign him. He then worked out for the Lions, who did.
Sure Rugland has a powerful left leg, but could he be accurate from the same approach—three steps back, two over—time after time? He murdered the ball when booting it from a tee, but could he work with a center and a holder? "He pretty much answered that call," said Schwartz at the end of the Lions' June minicamp. "The next step for him will be doing it under duress, in a preseason game."
Barring injury or a meltdown by Detroit kicker David Akers, a six-time Pro Bowler, Rugland probably won't earn the starting job. That said, the 38-year-old Akers showed signs of aging last season, making just 29 of 42 field goals for the 49ers, who cut him in March. If Akers goes into an early season slump, the Lions could be just the nervy team to trot out a guy who put on his first football helmet this spring. In 1966, Detroit tried out a bald, left-legged Cypriot named Garo Yepremian—who once made a living painting neckties. He may be best remembered for the panicky slapstick interception he flung, as a member of the Dolphins, in Super Bowl VII (Miami still won, 14--7), but he was a terrific kicker. SI named him to its 1970s all-decade team.
Rugland was inspired to give football a try while watching the first game he ever saw, the 2007 Super Bowl, which was broadcast in Norway at 3 a.m. "I thought to myself, I could do that," says Rugland. So, he went online and ordered some American footballs. He started practicing at the nearby International School of Stavanger's athletic field. The Kickalicious video, set to a song by the Dropkick Murphys, includes jawdropping highlights: a 50-yarder caught by a passenger in a moving boat, a shot through the uprights from the corner where the sideline meets the goal line, and a 35-yarder through a basketball hoop.
At the end of minicamp, Schwartz turned up the heat on his Norwegian novelty, forcing him to attempt a 58-yarder with the rest of the team gathered around. Rugland made it easily.
Earlier, he had been sized for a helmet. "I think I'm an extra large," he'd told equipment manager Tim O'Neill. "I got a pretty big head." It may get bigger if he graduates from YouTube sensation to a guy Norwegians get up to watch on TV at three in the morning.
Peter King goes long with legendary coach Bill Parcells on the eve of his Hall of Fame induction, Friday at TheMMQB.com
Photograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TIMELY TAKEAWAY Spillman (27) recovered a muffed punt return by the Packers' Ross (left) in a divisional playoff game last January. The 49ers rallied to win—allowing Spillman to breathe easy for another week.
HECTOR AMEZCUA/SACRAMENTO BEE/MCT/LANDOV
[See caption above]
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TASKER)
HARD ACT TO FOLLOW While Tasker (89) achieved stardom, most gunners, such as Thomas (15), who was cut in 2012 despite making two key plays for the Giants in the playoffs, toil in obscurity.
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KING)
KICKSTARTER Rugland's most impressive trick will come when he nails a field goal in the face of onrushing NFL linemen.