- Paul Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer
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ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Former Oakland Raiders punter Ray Guy is on the cusp of history. Widely regarded as the best punter in the history of the game, Guy is one of two senior nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- along with Claude Humphrey -- and would be the first pure punter enshrined in Canton.
There have been 49 different senior candidates since the category was established in 1972 and 38 have been elected, with 15 of the past 18 gaining election since 2005.
As senior candidates, the cases for Guy and Humphrey will be heard first and separately, and then voted upon by the 46 selectors, with an 80 percent affirmative vote ensuring enshrinement. Then the 15 modern-era candidates, a group which includes former Raiders receiver Tim Brown, will be discussed and voted upon before the Hall of Fame Class of 2014 is announced the night before the Super Bowl. No more than five modern-era finalists can be elected.
Guy, 64, was shockingly drafted in the first round by Oakland in 1973 after suffering a broken left ankle in his final college game at Southern Mississippi. The six-time All-Pro was known for his booming punts that fostered the creation of "hang time," never had a punt returned for a touchdown in his 14-year career, and only three of his 1,049 punts were blocked as he averaged 42.4 yards.
He now runs his punting camps in the summer and is the director of the Southern Miss M-club alumni association for athletes. Guy spoke with ESPN.com in lengthy and wide-ranging phone interview from his Hattiesburg, Miss., home recently.
Q: You were first a modern-era finalist for the Hall in 1992. What would it mean to get in as a seniors candidate in 2014?
A: It would be great, fantastic. I mean, I'd be telling you a lie if it wasn't. I look at it like, when you're building a team, there are a certain number of positions. And every position on a Hall of Fame team is full except for one, and that's the punter. But that is a position, I don't care how important you think it is or isn't, but it is a position and it needs to be filled. Whether it's by me, or somebody else. Now, I would love to be the first one. But if not, let's finally go ahead and complete the team so we can go out and play. I don't know if it's been nine times already or what I've been nominated, so I get excited but I try to keep it at a minimum so to not get overwhelmed or overanxious because maybe it won't happen. If it doesn't, I won't be that down too much. That's the way I'm approaching this.
Q: Why do you think there has been a bias against punters in Hall voting?
A: I don't know, unless they apparently do not think that is an important position. Apparently they do not know enough about the sport itself. They probably have never played. I don't really know, but they probably never have played. But the deal is they started that position at the origin of the NFL or football in general. Really, the last 30 or 25 years, it has really become a very important part in a football game. I know it's not what you'd call a glamorous, from a reporter's eyes, position because the only time you get to see them is maybe one time a game, or 10 times, depending upon the offense. But it's still important, even if it might be one play. Look at all the teams that have gotten into the playoffs consistently and into the Super Bowls, every one of them had very good offense, defense and special teams. And the punter is one of the main ingredients in them getting to the Super Bowl. So don't tell me it's not an important part. I do know it is because I played defense, I know how important the punter is. And I played offense. So you've got to look at it with an open mind.
Q: You are widely considered the best punter of all time. Did you ever consider yourself as such?
A: No. I never have. I never let it get that far. I was doing something that I grew up as a youngster doing. I was playing a game that I enjoyed playing, whether it was out in the backyard or on a professional football field. Yeah, I might have been good at what I did, but hey, that was something that God gave me. He gave me ability. I would have rather played defense, or offense, more than any other because I grew up that way and played other positions all my life, what you might want to call physical positions, until I was drafted by the Raiders. I didn't try to put myself up on a pedestal just because I did something very well. I did it because of the team. It's like my dad always said to me and my two brothers, the three of us, he said, "Whatever you do, give it your best shot." That's what I did.
Q: You retired at 37, old for a physical position, so to speak, but relatively young for a punter.
A: Well, I was having a lot of problems with my lower back. That was something that began back in high school and I guess it progressed throughout my career. And then playing defense and offense before, you're always jamming your head against somebody. Then, look at the position I put my body in all the time [when kicking]. I don't think it was made to go beyond that point. But I was very flexible, I was very rhythmic and all that stuff. But my last few years with the Raiders it started giving me a lot of problems where I had to deal with it, even though it did not take away from my job and my productivity of what I was doing. But during the week, the training and the pain and the therapy, it kind of gets old after a while.
Q: Not only did you retire after the 1986 season, so did Jim Plunkett, Lester Hayes and Henry Lawrence. Cliff Branch retired the year before and even Tom Flores left after '87. You have a sense change was coming to the Raiders?
A: I actually kind of saw the change coming back around 1979, '80, right before we moved to L.A. [in 1982]. We had already lost a lot of great players to retirement or trade so technically the old Raiders were beginning to disperse. We had to make room for the young generation, the Marcus Allens and the Howie Longs and [Greg] Townsend and all those guys coming in. Sooner or later the older guys are going to have to step aside. It was starting to get to something I was not used to, as far as the unity. I mean, we were still good, don't get me wrong. There was just something missing, an ingredient missing from what the players had formed as a bonding body. I understand people coming in and trying to improve themselves but things were changing and I always said, if it got to be like work or if it got to be where it wasn't fun no more, maybe it was time to start thinking about hanging your cleats up and going home. I guess that's what we did.
Q: Obviously, you were known for your hang time, but later in your career it became more about punt placement. How were you able to make that adjustment?
A: Each scenario dictated certain things to do. Maybe it was right around the time we moved to L.A. I started focusing more on directional punting and not just kicking it down the middle of the field. Return teams got a little but more complicated. They got a little bit better and the returners out there were getting faster and quicker. I started thinking, "Well, it's fine and good to kick it down the field 70 yards but if they run it back 40 yards, that defeated your purpose." So it wasn't a major change in what I was doing, I just had to change my direction. Everything else stayed the same -- the tempo, the follow-through, the rhythm, the height of the ball. I just had to get it reprogrammed in my mind that when I got the snap, I had to turn to the right or left and go that way with it. It's not really complicated to do; it just takes a little work. Another thing was, I had to help my cover team out and the best way to do that was to re-direct the punt to a certain place on the field and make the returner have to go work. My [cover team] always knew it was going to be in a certain area and all they had to do was go there. And that's an advantage in field position. Now, a majority of times there, I really had to sacrifice some yardage [from my average] just so that they could cover a certain distance within a certain time to maintain our field position. It might have only been five yards or 10 yards but I had to sacrifice, which in turn worked out to our advantage because we'd still wind up winning. That's the whole key to it.
Q: Two images of you -- hitting the scoreboard in the Superdome in the 1976 Pro Bowl and your acrobatic save of high snap in Super Bowl XVIII in 1984.
A: Well now, the Pro Bowl down there in New Orleans, that was the only time I would have ever tried to hit it in a game. Technically, the season's over anyway and it's a fun week. Why not, let's go for it? But when we played there again in '81 against Philadelphia down there in the Super Bowl, I had them raise that thing up before the game. That's a very important game there and I didn't want any idea that something could happen that could change the momentum or the flow of the game and I didn't want that to be a burden on my mind so I had them raise it up. And on that field down there in Tampa, against the Redskins where I had to jump so high, that was just a reaction. Good thing I played basketball in high school. It could have been a very bad, nasty situation, if you want to know the truth about it. If that ball had gotten away from me, that thing would have been down there around the goal line or probably in the end zone. I just reacted to it. I always practiced those kinds of disasters that might come up because you want to be some kind of prepared for it.
Q: Which punters do you like watching now and what are your thoughts on the Raiders' current punter Marquette King?
A: Marquette's going to be a very dominating punter as he gets more accustomed to the pro life and all that. I've talked to him a couple times on the phone and we've texted back and forth and I was honored to be there for the Philadelphia game and lo and behold, I didn't realize you had Donnie Jones on the Philadelphia side. Donnie is one of my boys that comes down the ranks of my camp I have in the summer and he's also been a staff member. Andy Lee across the Bay over there is one of my boys, one of my staff members. [Shane] Lechler came through. Brandon Fields from Miami is one of my boys. I've got about five or six out there that I am very proud of and very proud to say I had a little bit of assistance with them. All I really did was work with their mental game. Like I told Marquette, I said, "Marquette, be yourself, man. You know what you can do. Go do it. You don't have to prove yourself to anybody." When you start pressing, you start having doubt in your mind, and when you start having doubt in your mind, you might as well go sit on the bench.
Q: Speaking of coming off the bench, you were also the Raiders' emergency quarterback and in 1984, at the Bears, Plunkett was already out before Marc Wilson and David Humm were both knocked out. How close were you to going in and how fearsome would that have been?
A: (Laughs) We already had the play called when Marc came back [into the game]. I mean, I was ready. Hell, it was a brutal game on both sides of the ball. It looked like they were bringing bomb inspectors in and out on both sides of the bench. But that's just what football's about; it's a very brutal game. Coach [Tom] Flores and I had already talked about it and technically, of course, we couldn't run everything that was on the game plan but we were going to try some things that probably Marc couldn't do to kind of get away from that rush but he came back out [on the field]. He had jammed his thumb on somebody's helmet but he came back out and finished the game. I had one foot on the field, and one foot off.
Q: Many say that if you get into the Hall, it will right a wrong. But what about the other Raiders players that so many think deserve a bust in Canton? Is there hope for them, too?
A: With that separate [senior] division, it will make it easier on Plunkett and [Ken] Stabler and Tom Flores and guys like that, because you can't just run off and forget about us. These are pioneers of a sport that's escalated into a multibillion dollar corporation now. But you need somebody to lead the way and it's not just the Raiders but on other teams, too. Sooner or later, we're going to get all the pioneers in there and we're really going to see football, what it was, what it started and what it is now.
Q: You were a member of all three Raiders Super Bowl title teams, along with Ted Hendricks, Cliff Branch, Dave Dalby, Henry Lawrence and Steve Sylvester, in 1976, 1980 and 1983. So, which team was the best?
A: All of them.
Q: You auctioned off your three Super Bowl rings in 2011. Any regrets in doing that, or was it something you simply had to do?
A: That's just something in life that you have to come to a fork in the road and you hope you don't take the wrong fork. I have regrets, but I don't have regrets. I took care of what I had to take care of and I took care of my family.
Q: And I guess if you get a yellow jacket that would mean just as much as any ring?
A: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And who knows, maybe one of these days I might get them back. You never know.