There Can Be Only One
NAPA, Calif. — In the NFL, we all begin as rookies. We come in to a team with no idea what to expect, no idea who anyone really is, blind and unsure. The pressure is immense. Ninety men are on that team, and ultimately there’s only room for 53. You are fighting for your livelihood, daily, against as many as five other people, depending on position.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be a human being.
I entered the league in 2005, as an undrafted free agent for the Seattle Seahawks. In minicamps, I was one of three punters. One was the incumbent from 2004 who’d had a shaky year, Donnie Jones. One was a seasoned veteran looking to prolong his career, Leo Araguz. I was the unproven kid with a big leg. We had what I would call an uneasy truce. We didn’t try to actively sabotage each other, but we didn’t try to help each other out, either. Conversations were slightly stilted, focusing mainly on banal topics like the weather, or what college we had attended. Punt drills were silent affairs of intense effort, the focus solely on ourselves.
Two weeks into minicamp, Donnie was cut. He tweaked his knee golfing, the team decided to drop him then and there, and suddenly it was me and Leo.
The pressure became even more intense. Our special teams coach, Bob Casullo, was loud, brash—a yeller. Mis-hit a punt and you’d hear about it, generally at around 90 decibels. Each day I found myself focusing on the same litany. Don’t mess up. Outkick the other guy. Don’t mess up. Every time I didn’t hit a punt perfectly, I wondered if it would be my last day in Seattle. Will they cut me like they did the incumbent? Am I good enough to play in this league? Will I even make it to preseason? It was a month of fighting down the doubts, convincing myself I belonged, each and every day.
I made it to training camp, and, impossibly, the pressure increased. When you put on full pads, when you do full team sessions, it hits you: This is for real. Every rep counts, and you’ll never get as many as you want. Hit a bad ball, and there’s no taking it back. You can’t ask for one more to try and end on a good note; there’s simply not enough time. What you do in that limited practice segment defines who you are, and some days that definition is hard to face.
Leo and I continued our consensual silence. He would punt with the first team, I’d punt with the second, and again it would be us alone with our thoughts. In the NFL there’s only space for one punter on a roster. We both knew one of us wasn’t making it to the regular season. That knowledge formed the very bedrock of our interactions. How do you get to know someone you’re trying to replace? Is it even possible? Obviously you’re not going to help each other, right?
I made it to the final day of cuts, 75 down to 53. My roommate, a fullback named Jesse Lumsden, was cut a week earlier. Strained hip-flexor. He tried to play through it, to show the team he was tough. All it got him was no injury settlement. If you make it to the final cutdown, the day after the fourth preseason game is when they let you know your future. You’re on the team, or you’re looking for work. Veterans call the player personnel guy the Grim Reaper, and he carries a scythe labeled, “Coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook."
I got a call from the Grim Reaper around 10 a.m.
He told me I had punted well during the preseason, but that they were going with the veteran guy. They thought he would be more consistent. They wanted me to stick around, though. They wanted to put me on the eight-man practice squad, a place for young, raw players to develop and get used to the intensity of the NFL.
I was elated. I still had a chance to win the job. It might take a little longer, but at least I was still in the building. I had shown something that made them think I would be a useful addition to the team at some point. All the pressure of minicamps, OTAs, the preseason—all worth it.
Funny thing about the practice squad, though. They have to cut you first, before putting you on it. You spend 24 hours on the waiver wire, during which any other team can put in a request. The catch is that another team can’t claim you to stash on their practice squad; you have to go on the 53-man active roster. As a punter, for all intents and purposes, if someone claims you off the waiver wire, you are their starting punter for that week.
An hour after being cut by Seattle, on my way to put a down payment on an apartment for my wife and me, life changed. I got a phone call informing me I was now the starting punter for the Minnesota Vikings.
I thought I knew what pressure was.
Now it’s eight years later. I’m in training camp with the Oakland Raiders, after the Vikings decided they wanted to go in a different direction last spring. The situation is eerily familiar to my first trial. Only for me it’s ... the opposite.
There’s a young punter in his second year, very strong leg, lots of potential, immensely talented, looking to earn a starting role for the first time in his career. There’s an older veteran, going on his ninth year in the league, may not have quite the same booming leg strength he used to, but he can still kick. Still wants to prove he can play at an NFL level and prolong the dream a while longer.
This time, I’m Leo Araguz. Marquette King, a nice kid from Georgia, is Chris Kluwe.
When I first joined the Raiders, during minicamps and OTAs this year, I wasn’t sure how I would handle it. In a lot of ways it’s like being a rookie all over again, constantly trying to prove myself, ruing every wasted opportunity, every bad punt. I wasn’t sure how I would interact with the young punter with the massive leg. After all, aren’t we fighting for the same spot? There’s room for one punter on the 53, after all.
The first couple days were awkward. Marquette and I said hello to each other in the locker room, talked about the weather, went outside and punted in silence. How could it not be awkward? We both knew the underlying foundation, the one unavoidable truth. It hung in the air like smog, an elephant staring at us from its perch in the corner. There can be only one.
After the third or fourth day, I did what might have been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (outside of changing some particularly foul diapers). Marquette and I were out punting, and he was struggling with his drop. It kept falling to the inside, causing his leg to cross over and make his punts drag short and to the left. It’s an easily correctable mistake, but a lot of the time you need someone else to point it out to you, especially if you’re still refining your fundamentals. I could see him getting frustrated, hating the fact he was losing those oh-so-precious reps, squandering them on poor punts.
During a break between kicks, I walked over and told him what was happening, and how to fix it. He looked at me somewhat bemusedly, perhaps sensing some sort of mind game. I can’t say that I blamed him. Why would a veteran, a guy fighting for the same spot, offer to make his competition better? Surely this had to be a trick, a ploy? (And don’t call me Shirley.)
The next rep, he tried the change I had suggested—tuck his elbow in a little to keep the ball from falling inside—and he crushed the ball. And the next one. And the next one. Afterward he thanked me for the help, still not quite believing it. I was glad he trusted me enough to try the technique change, willing to listen to someone he knew might not have his best interests in mind.
Why would a veteran, a guy fighting for the same spot, offer to make his competition better? Surely this had to be a trick, a ploy?
Why did I help Marquette? Why did I knowingly lessen my own chances at winning the punting position for the Raiders? Why would I put his interests before my own?
Because I was Marquette, eight years ago, and no one helped me. No one offered to take a little of that pressure off my shoulders, encourage me that I had what it took to make it in the NFL, showed me the little tips and tricks that can be the difference between playing under the lights on Sunday and watching wistfully from home.
Am I upset at the uneasy truce I had with my veteran teammate when I was a rookie? No. I completely understand why things were the way they were. This is a business, after all, and an extremely competitive one. Offering help to a rookie might mean that the rookie takes your job. Far easier to simply take care of yourself, and let others sink or swim on their own. I made it on my own. Shouldn’t Marquette do the same? When I see him punt well, it’s easy to ask myself what in the hell I’m doing. He has a cannon for a leg, strength that I no longer have. We have evergreen trees here at our camp in Napa, and, depending where you stand on the field, you can see him punt the ball over the trees. When he hits a consistent set, I know I simply can’t match him anymore in terms of raw distance or hang time. Time catches up with all of us, eventually.
Time also teaches us lessons.
I may not have the same ceiling as Marquette anymore, but I’m confident in my abilities. I know I can still punt in the NFL, still contribute to this team, and I refuse to watch someone struggle with a problem I know I can fix. Competing for a spot on an NFL roster doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. You see, there are 31 other teams out there. You’re not just competing against each other. You’re competing against every other punter out there, and the best 32 will end up playing on Sunday. That’s how the NFL works. I think I’m one of the best 32 punters out there, and I also think Marquette can be one of the best 32. Whichever one of us ends up getting cut, I want that player to have the best chance possible at making another team. I want someone to get claimed off waivers, just like I was as a rookie. I want us both to succeed.
That’s the other part of the NFL I’m trying to pass along to Marquette. Those other 31 teams? They’re always watching. Always. There’s a reason I ended up in Minnesota despite not having taken a snap with the Vikings for the entire preseason.
What you do in preseason games, during warmups, during practice, it all plays a part in your chance for success. Coaches and scouts and agents and GMs talk to each other. They know each other. The league is a very small world, and if you can play, everyone will find out. There will be a spot for you somewhere. It may not be the spot you originally envisioned, but the opportunity will come.
Most importantly, we talk about the mental aspect of the game. Punting, just like any other position, is defined not only by your physical attributes, but also by how you apply them. I’ve been in pressure situations before. Most, I’ve kicked well in. Some, I haven’t.
I try to let Marquette know that you have to be able to bounce back from a bad kick, you have to be able to shake it from your mind and focus on the next one.
If you get a bad snap, whether in practice or a game, you can’t let it affect you. Push it out of your memory.
If you get those pre-game jitters, that’s natural. Tamp them down and focus on your fundamentals, on looking at the ball, on making sure your drop is consistent and that you’re not rushing your kick.
If you hit a good kick, great. Now forget about it, and get ready for the next one. Act like you’ve been out there before. Excitement is good; you should be proud of doing your job well. But if you’re focused on the past, you’re not going to do well in the present. Above all, be confident in yourself, no matter what.
And sometimes I can’t help but think: Why am I helping this kid out? I should just focus on me.
What do I get out of being Marquette’s confidant? The satisfaction of passing on what I know to someone else who can use it, if he wants to. The satisfaction of hopefully helping someone make it to the very exclusive club of active NFL players. The focus that teaching requires, knowing the fundamentals so well you can explain them to someone else. The focus that naturally makes your own form better because you’re forced to consider what you’re doing rather than take it for granted.
Is it still awkward sometimes? Yes. Some days that elephant creeps back into the room, especially after a poor practice. The pressure clamps down once more, the doubts resurface. I wonder what he thinks sometimes.
Why does this guy keep talking to me? Just leave me alone!
What if I’m not good enough?
And sometimes I can’t help but think: Why am I helping this kid out? I should just focus on me.
This weekend the preseason games start. That will bring a whole new set of challenges, a whole new set of pressures. What you do under the lights is ultimately the only thing that counts, and reps are extremely limited there. What will our game-day demeanor be? Will we still help each other? Or will we retreat back into silence, every man for himself?
I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re friends, if we can ever be friends … if that’s even possible given the harsh realities of the NFL. I don’t know which one of us will make the team, or if either of us will. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think about life after football, if I didn’t wonder whether this could be my last time stepping onto the field on Sundays. If this is it for me, I’ll have other pursuits. I can write, do speaking engagements, get a teaching credential. But those are the late-night thoughts, ones I drive from my mind, because to wallow in them is to accept defeat, and that’s one of the most important lessons I want to pass on to Marquette. Never listen to those doubts, because they’ll sap every chance you have to succeed.
What do I know? I know that I am ultimately responsible for my actions. I know the type of person I want to be. I know, were the situations reversed, how I would want to be treated, because I was on the other side of the equation. I was the young rookie, competing with everything I had for a place on the 53. I know that I want to win my spot now because I am the best, competing against the best competition I could possibly find, not because I let a guy struggle when I could have easily helped him out. I know that in a violent sport, filled with uncertainty, I will eventually fail, but it will be my choice, my failure, not because I let someone else fail in my place.
Yes, Marquette and I are fighting for a job. Yes, there will be only one of us when the regular season starts.
That doesn’t mean we can’t act like human beings.