- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- My prospects were mixed, depending on the evaluator.
As I toured the AFC South during training camp, I made special requests to chat with punters and punt returners. With a pending appointment to attempt to field practice punts from the Titans' Brett Kern, I was searching for advice, and seeking forecasts.
In Houston, Texans receiver and returner Jacoby Jones said I could catch three and a half of eight punts, with a falling-down catch counting as the half.
In Jacksonville, Jaguars halfback and occasional returner Maurice Jones-Drew sized me up and said he thought I could catch two of eight.
In Anderson, Ind., Colts punter Pat McAfee expected less of me.
“The first four you’ll be confused,” he said. “You’ll get lucky on the fifth one, the sixth one you’ll get overconfident. If I were you, I’d just close my eyes and hope it hit me in the chest … I think if you get one, you should be happy.”
OK, what stupid thing is Kuharsky up to now?
While I spend a lot less time in bars watching games than I used to, I typically circle to an idea like this once a year. Sit with friends over a cold one and watch a return man flub a punt, and inevitably someone says, “I could have caught that.” I’ve often been that someone.
And so I sought to transfer the question from the pub to the club and started making arrangements to test out the question: Can a fat, bald, 41-year old -- a cue ball covering football -- field a punt from a top professional?
The pointers I collected had me all twisted around, particularly those on ball flight.
Said Jones-Drew: “If the nose of the ball stays up, it’s going to be short. But if that nose turns over, you’ve got to get back because that ball is going to sail a little bit.”
Said Houston punter Matt Turk: “It really depends on the height of the ball. If it’s turning over, and it’s a low ball, you should be backing up. If it’s turning over and it’s a good hang-time ball, it might fall away from you.”
Said McAfee: “If the ball turns over it’s going to be straight; if the nose stays up it’s going to go right for a right-footed punter.”
Said Jones: “With a right-footed punter, if it’s a tight spiral, the ball will dive to your left. If it’s a wobbly spiral, it dives to your right.”
Got all that? I didn't either. Ultimately, I decided it would not be beneficial to try to flip through those notes while the ball was in the air. I’d play it like a center fielder and try concentrating, as Titans receiver and returner Damian Williams encouraged, on being square to the ball so any bobbles wouldn’t squirt through me.
I just wanted to get to where it would come down -- MJD said a six-yard radius should suffice -- and take my chances.
When I finished my travels a couple of weeks ago, I might have sneaked off one afternoon to get a feel for things with some work at Brentwood Academy in suburban Nashville with Nathan Renfro, a senior punter who might be heading to Northwestern.
Two days later I signed a waiver letting the Titans off the hook should anything go awry, passing on Turk’s advice to wear a mouthpiece and tape my fingers. Then, armed -- or should it be handed? -- with a pair of gloves provided by the Titans and with my dusty Puma Kings from my soccer days laced up, I met with Kern.
Some players, including kicker Rob Bironas, already were out preparing for practice. Equipment guys I know were milling around. A reporter friend and a PR man looked on from a distance.
I was happy McAfee, the Colts' punter, was hundreds of miles away.
“This is our only opportunity to actually embarrass a media person,” he said. “If Brett brings the rain down, it would be absolutely great for all of us. There are 31 other punters looking for him to embarrass you. Hopefully, he will.”
I wished Turk was nearby.
“Maul the ball, don’t try to use your hands, it won’t work,” he said. “… I always root for the underdog, so I am rooting for you. I want to be proud of you at the end of this thing.”
And so, with a bit of coaching from since-released Titans veteran kick returner Alvin Pearman, I took my shot.
I was 2-for-5 in warm-ups, but didn’t sufficiently learn from my misses.
Pearman mentioned the parabola of the ball, and I butchered my calculations of that early. The center-fielder approach didn’t work, as Kern’s first punts reached an apex, then dropped more sharply than I expected. Had I run through them, I’d have had a chance. Slowing for fear they’d take off, I had a pathetic showing. The first bounced in front of me, the second might as well have.
After those two, Kern changed his prediction from two catches on eight punts to none.
His third sailed over my head to the left, and I didn’t even get deep enough to make a play on it. I was well-positioned on the fourth and I dropped it.
Finally on No. 5, as McAfee predicted, a catch.
Feeling much more confident, I knew the worst was still ahead. Kern learned former Titans punter Craig Hentrich’s famous knuckler at the foot of the master.
Punish me, I shouted to him, give me your most devilish stuff.
Kern didn’t hit the first one especially well. Punt No. 6 sent me drifting back and to my right and I got that one, too.
Then he connected on what he said was his most fluttery knuckleball in weeks.
Sliding left and settling, I felt confident I’d done better than a 6-yard radius. I was directly under it and the nose was tilting down right at me. But I might as well have been standing under a flapping fish sent flying by a hurricane. The ball couldn’t have been 10 feet over my head when it flattened, shot several yards over my head, then bounced on the turf well behind me.
“I let those hit the ground,” Jones said when we talked knuckleballs.
I should have waved my arms and ran away from it screaming “poison” or “Peter” or “pull” or whatever other keyword guys use in those situations to signal teammates to be wary of letting a bouncing punt hit them and turn it live.
Kern and I agreed on a bonus punt, and I raced in to field another dancing knuckleball that bounced off my chest near my shoulder. I thought it would leave a mark.
It didn’t. But the next day I noticed the inside of both forearms were painlessly black and blue from just two catches.
Kern was nice about it all. On camera, he said I wasn’t the most graceful as I caught the two I did, and that was kind of him. The laughs in the locker room understandably could have come with a far harsher review.
I didn’t think it was going to be easy. I didn’t expect it to be quite that difficult -- or for me to be quite so clumsy.
Now add the standard conditions real punt returners contend with: a helmet and set of pads, mean gunners and crowd noise.