On a little-used practice field at the Carolina Panthers' training camp, right around the 25-yard line, there's an oddly shaped patch of dead grass about the size of a coffee table. I first noticed this weird little yellowish crop circle a few weeks ago on my first tour through Panthers camp. Then, as I traveled to other camps I saw similar bits of oddly worn turf all over the league. Intrigued (or perhaps out of column ideas three weeks before the start of the season), I decided to investigate.
It was 9:03 a.m. on Tuesday and the fog had just lifted off the Panthers' practice fields. The area was so still that the six fans standing on a nearby hill could actually hear crickets chirping. With the rest of the team busy on an adjacent field cramming in a few prepractice run-throughs, my eyes wandered to the Carolina crop circle and there was the answer.
I laughed out loud. Shoulda known.
Actually, it was the team's entire collection of special teamers: punters, kickers, holders and long snappers, all of them standing around in a circle like a coffee klatch straight out of "Desperate Housewives." They kept on like this, without a care in the world, for several minutes. And every once in a while, in between barfing his lungs out by a fence, tight end Dan Curley looked over at them with envy and sweat burning his eyes. In the last week of training camps, as the preseason mercilessly comes to a close, the grass is always greener (or, in this case, yellower) on the kickers' side of the field.
See, I've been watching them now for several weeks and as far as I can tell, NFL kickers prepare for the grueling regular season by stretching a lot, tying and retying their shoes, scratching their groins, adjusting their knee pads and spending lots and lots of time bouncing the football off the ground and back up to themselves.
"People think they're stealing money, is that what you're going to say?" asked Danny Crossman, Carolina's wildly successful special teams coach. "That's the constant line they get in camp from other players, 'Well it sure must be nice.' People see kickers standing around talking, wearing sneakers and those itty bitty shoulder pads and they think, 'Now that's a nice way to make a living.'"
Well, yeah. Exactly.
I mean, the only people kickers have outworked this summer are Cedric Benson and a certain columnist whose last name rhymes with lemming. On every team and in every training camp this summer, while pads cracked, coaches screamed and dreams and femurs snapped like dry twigs, I was always left to wonder would the dang kickers ever do anything?
Then suddenly, at 9:09, like spooked deer, Carolina's kickers burst into action.
By that I mean together they strolled 25 yards to join the rest of the team for some stretching exercises. At 9:15, when the rest of the team exploded into smaller groups for some high-octane warm-up drills, kicker John Kasay waltzed 25 yards back to his perch, his hands clasped gently behind his back like a proper English gent. In training camp lingo this is what's known as a "kicker windsprint." (If he was actually wearing his helmet, then it would be categorized as a "suicide.")