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Punter Needed? I'm Available.

by on October 21, 2015 6:00 AM
State College, PA

Dear Coach Franklin,

I would like to be considered for the position of punter on your football team.

I was a pretty fair kickball player back in the day and I don’t see why having a strong foot with one of those big, red playground balls wouldn’t translate to coffin-cornering the oddly shaped bladder you use in football.

True, I haven’t played kickball since the spouse of the president of the United States was named Lady Bird, but I do have football experience at the junior high level. I mean, I never played in an actual game, but that, I hope to show you, may turn out to be a blessing in a disguise.

So great was my prowess as a kickball player that I didn’t even have to try out for the freshman team. I just showed up and they handed me a uniform: white number 53 on a green jersey. (Someone at my school must have gone to Michigan State because our colors were their colors and our team was called the Spartans.)

I confess I have never been more in love with my image in the mirror than I was the day I suited up for my first practice. Until then, I hadn’t realized that football players wore shoulder pads. I assumed that the game was played by people who were unusually broad in that department. Now there I was, all V-shaped, with a tiny head between these enormous shoulders. Oh, did I look tough.

Despite my past success as a playground punter, I began my career as an offensive lineman. As far as I could tell, all I had to do was line up and push people. I didn’t understand what the pushing had to do with the gaining of yardage or the scoring of points, but if, when Coach blew the whistle, I pushed the kid lined up opposite me, I looked enough like I was doing my job not to incur Coach’s wrath.

Because he was a wrathful guy. We called him Mr. Clean because he looked like the muscular, bald-headed character on the TV spots for the household cleanser. Come to think of it, he looked a lot like you.

If Mr. Clean wanted your undivided attention he would grab your helmet by the facemask, twist your head into a radically cocked position and shout directly into your helmet’s ear hole.

Perhaps, Coach, if you tried communicating thus with your punters, you would not need to recruit a replacement. Perhaps if Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh had done the same, his poor punter would not be receiving death threats for having fumbled the game away to Michigan State last weekend.

This more hands-on approach to coaching is not without risk, however: Mr. Clean was eventually fired for physically abusing his players, though I heard it had more to do with shoving a kid against a locker than with his ear hole communiqués.

So here’s why I never played a down for the Spartans:

During pre-season practice one afternoon, I was half-heartedly hurling myself at one of the foam-covered rods that stuck out from the blocking sled when my friend Leslie (a guy Leslie, like Leslie Howard) stopped to say hello.

With Leslie were two girls. One was his girlfriend. Michelle? Denise? The other was Amy, upon whom I had a major crush.

“What’s up?” Leslie asked.

“Just hitting the old blocking sled,” I said, hoping Mr. Clean was too busy with his backs and receivers to notice I was skiving off.

“We’re going to Amy’s to listen to records,” Leslie said.

At that moment I knew that no amount of gridiron glory could possibly match the glory of curvy, longhaired Amy’s company. For the rest of practice a line from the song “Groovin’” by the Rascals played in my head: “Life would be ecstasy/ you and me and Leslie,” though I later found out the actual lyrics were “you and me endlessly.”

The next day I summoned my courage and told Mr. Clean I was quitting the team. Outwardly, he took it well. I’m sure he was devastated.

So you see, Coach Franklin, that the interruption of what was surely a promising football career had less to do with insufficient prowess than misplaced priorities. But I’m totally over Amy now.

And here’s the good news: If I had played junior high football I might have played high school football, and if I had played high school I might have played college. Instead, I spent my undergraduate years playing intramural basketball, thus preserving my eligibility. I could be pinning our opponents inside the 20 for the next four years.

My only concern is that penalty called roughing the kicker. If you could impress upon your offensive line, Mr. Clean-style, just how important it is to protect their punter from harm, I’d be glad to try out for your team.

Death threats, I’m used to. But at my age I really don’t want to be roughed. 

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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