I’ll never forget it.
August 2012. Oakland Coliseum. We were playing the Cowboys in my first preseason game. I wasn’t even supposed to play in the first half, but our starter, Shane Lechler, got hurt in warmups and the coaches told me I would be the guy a few minutes before kickoff.
I remember standing on the sideline just staring at the Raiders logo on my teammates’ helmets and feeling light-headed. It didn’t seem real.
Before I ran out on the field with the punt team for the first time, one of the coaches said, “Whatever you do, don’t look in the stands. Just go out and punt it.”
So of course I run out there and immediately look up into the stands, and I see the thousands of people watching, and I’m just like, Oh s***.
I’m standing back there getting ready for the snap, and I’m so nervous. Then the Cowboys are getting set to rush the punt, and all of a sudden I see one of their linebackers looking at me funny.
He yells out, “Yo, what is this?”
He’s pointing at me. Then he’s waving to his teammates. I’m just confused.
Then he yells, “A black punter? It’s a fake! Yo, it’s a fake!”
I just start laughing. That kills all my nerves, and I finally relax and boom it 57 yards for a fair catch.
I can still see the faces of those Cowboys players, looking at me like, What’s up with this dude? Where’d he come from?
Well, lemme tell you.…
Tony Avelar/AP Images
Elementary school, 1995. Macon, Georgia.
We used to play with this big red rubber ball at recess. Not a football, but one of those thick, heavy-duty kickballs with a lot of bounce in them. Remember those? Do kids still play with those today, or are they just chilling on their phones? If you grew up in the ’90s, you know what I’m talking about. I mean, this thing was heavy.
Recess was chaos. There was no organization. We didn’t play kickball. We played “kick the ball.” There was no object to the game other than 20 kids trying to kick it as high and as far as possible. Whoever could kick it the hardest always got the most tries, because all the kids wanted to watch the ball get clobbered and go flying. You didn’t get points for it or anything. It was just cool to see a ball get kicked real high. (Again, this was the ’90s.) If you managed to kick the ball both high and far, you might get all 20 kids to look up in the sky and go, “Oooooooooh!” all at once.
That was my whole motivation when I was 10. I gotta wow these kids.
So I started kicking every day after I got home from school, trying to find ways to get the ball higher in the sky. It sort of became my hobby. And I didn’t want to just be good or even great at it. I wanted to be the undisputed best … at kicking a big red ball.
Don’t ask me why.
But I wanted to kick that ball so hard and so far that it’d just disappear into the sky and never come down. When recess came, I wanted the ball passed only to me, and more important, I wanted everyone else to only want to pass to me. They had to know I was the guy with the good stuff.
It wasn’t a complicated game, but it turned out to be a pretty important part of my life.
Now, I wish I could tell you that some football coach saw me kicking that red ball at recess and said, “Son, come with me. You’re gonna be in the NFL some day.”
But that’s not how it went down. I didn’t even like football all that much. I just liked to play, period. Sitting in front of a TV on Sunday afternoons and watching the Falcons wasn’t for me. I loved being outside and moving around. In fact, to this day, standing on the sideline so much during games makes me go a little crazy. You can always see me pacing around or going to grab a drink of water or trying to talk to somebody.
The only thing I’d stay inside for was video games. Playing Madden on PlayStation with my friends is what actually got me into football. And that’s especially funny because in Madden, nobody ever punts.
Maybe that’s why I started out playing wide receiver. I was a better kicker than anybody on my high school team, so I was still the designated punter, too. But high schoolers aren’t like little kids. They don’t get as excited when they see a solid boot soar down the field. They want to see deep passes and touchdowns. I knew if I wanted a girlfriend, I was gonna have to get in that end zone. So for a little while my focus shifted from kicking to route-running, footwork and becoming the best all-around athlete I could be.
Then I remember one game when Pike County High came to play us. It started out like any other game until their punter took the field. I’ll never forget him. He was this small, skinny guy, and every one of his kicks was just a perfect spiral. He was so consistent — like he had control over exactly where his punts landed, and even how they bounced when they hit the ground. It was the first time I had ever noticed someone with that level of control. His punting skill put our team at a huge disadvantage for pretty much the entire game. And it wasn’t because of a giant leg, but because of his technique. I realized there was a lot more to punting than just raw power. I had to change my mindset to understand the technical side of punting. It was almost like having to learn to kick the ball all over again.
I started to take punting even more seriously in college, when I started doing it full-time for my team at Fort Valley State.
I don’t know what it is, but kicking a ball is just my thing. It puts me at peace. I’d be up in the dorms hanging out with my friends on a Friday night, and they’d be pregaming and getting ready to go out to the club. I’d have a drink with them, listen to some Future mixtapes on the little laptop speakers for about an hour, then eventually they’d be like, “Come on, let’s turn up. We gotta go soon.”
I’d be like, “Alright, I’m gonna go get ready. I’ll catch you guys later.”
They knew I was lying.
I’d go back to my room, but instead of putting on some jeans and a button-down, I’d pull on my sweatpants and grab my headphones. Then I’d stuff three footballs into my gym bag and walk across campus to the football field. Only problem was, the field was closed after 9 p.m. Lights off, gate locked.
So what’d I do? I would hop the fence and make my way over to the fuse box, and from there I was just on my Jason Bourne. You gotta know the secrets. This was actually child’s play. When I would break into the weight room after hours, I had to find a way to unscrew the bolt on the door and then put everything back together again when I left. The fuse box was nothing.
I’d make sure to only switch on a few lights on one side of the field, just so people passing by would figure it was a groundskeeper doing some work or something.
Once my lighting was right, I’d put on my headphones, start my playlist, unzip my duffel bag and feel the leather of the footballs. Then it was on.
I’d be out there for hours. Kick three balls, run and go get ’em. Kick three more. Sometimes the campus police would stroll by at like 11 p.m. and just be looking down at the field like, What’s this about?
Then they’d see me kick one like 60 yards and I guess they must’ve thought, Alright, this guy is pretty legit.
They never said anything.
My friends would see me from their cars on their way back to campus. I know a lot of them wanted to pull over and say something to me, thinking that it was kind of strange for me to be out on the field punting all night. All I can say is that those people probably don’t know what it feels like to rip a ball 60 yards into the night sky with only the sounds of Travis Porter bumping in your ears. For me, it was the best feeling.
Once again, I wish I could tell you some NFL scout saw me punting out there at midnight and said, “Son, you got it.” But it didn’t go down like that.
The week of the 2012 NFL draft, people wouldn’t stop banging on my dorm room door asking me where I thought I would go. But I wasn’t even sure if I’d get a call from a team. I wasn’t coming from some big SEC school. I was at Fort Valley State. I was a punter. All the hype got so distracting that I went to stay at my friend Gary’s house just to put my mind at ease. Then my dad picked me up in the morning so I could watch the draft with my family in our living room.
It was seriously like five seconds after the last pick of the draft that my phone rang. It was the Raiders. Finding out I was going to Oakland was one of the happiest moments of my life. I burst out of my house and just started walking up the street, calling up my friends on the phone to tell them that I was going to be in the National Football League.
I was so, so happy, right? I was going to punt for the Raiders.
Then I called my one friend. The honest friend. Everybody got one.
“Hey bro, doesn’t Oakland already have a good punter?” he said. “I mean, I think they have like the best punter in the league.”
Jeff Chiu/AP Images
I didn’t really follow the NFL closely. I was too busy playing. Right away I started looking online to find out all I could about Shane Lechler. He averaged over 50 yards per punt for the Raiders the season before I was drafted. That meant he was really good, for all of you Madden players reading.
So I didn’t know what to expect anymore. I didn’t know if the Raiders were seriously interested in me, or just using me as a warm body to compete with Shane until the season started. Before training camp started, I felt like I had no chance to make the squad. But when I got to Oakland, I was determined to make the most of my opportunity. I told myself that even if I wasn’t going to be the starter, or even make the final cut, I’d use the opportunity to learn as much as I could from one of the best punters in the league.
So that’s what I did. I got in rep after rep until things started to come together. I wanted to show all the coaches and players watching that I was listening, and that I was for real. So every day I came in with a chip on my shoulder, trying to show everyone just how good I could be.
The bad news was that I got hurt in training camp and found out I would miss the entire 2012 season. The good news was, the Raiders put me on injured reserve and still kept me on the team. I was so grateful to the coaches who thought I was worth keeping around. That season, I watched everything Shane did on the field. I showed up at the practice facility every day just wanting to soak up as much as I could. By the time 2013 came around, Shane had signed with the Texans, and I was fully rehabbed and ready to show that I could hang with the best of them.
In the span of like two years I went from a raw, undrafted rookie to a starting NFL punter. Since then, I’ve just tried to get better every day and do my part. Maybe I don’t look like the average punter, but that’s cool with me, because I’m not trying to be average. I want kids watching the game on Sundays to look at me and say, “Hey, that dude is pretty cool. He’s got some swag. I want to be a punter, too.”
There’s a whole new generation of punters in the NFL who have a little swag.
Brad Wing? Swag.
Bryan Anger? Swag.
I know that, for a lot of fans, the punter running out onto the field is just a signal to get up and get some chips or check fantasy football scores. But the way I look at it, those four to five times I run out there could be the difference between us winning and losing.
Jack Dempsey/AP Images
Mentally, this position can be just as rough as any of ’em.
When we lose, I take it hard. It doesn’t affect me at all when the clock is running, but in the locker room afterward — when I’m sitting beside guys who are exhausted and covered in dirt, sweat and sometimes even blood — I start to replay the game back: Could I have made the difference in the game just by moving my toe a millimeter to the left on that third quarter kick?
For me, fourth down is my chance to be a star. I know I’m not going to lead a comeback drive or create a turnover to swing the game. But I am proud of what I do. I want my teammates to know that I want those wins as bad as every one of them. Kickers don’t have to deal with the same level of physical pain as position players, but we feel the same pressure to win as everybody else. Honestly, every time we lose, I have to call my mom on the drive back home just to calm down and stop my brain from wondering, What if I had just done this? Or this? What if?
To the average fan watching on TV, maybe it’s only punting. But punting is my entire life. And I still just want to prove that I have the best leg in the neighborhood.