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.")
To be fair, after working on medium field goals and kickoffs Monday and long field goals and PATs Wednesday, this was supposedly Kasay's lightest practice of the week. But the players will tell you: There's easy, and then there's kicker easy. A 15-year veteran and a quintessential good guy, Kasay battled back from serious injuries to kick Carolina all the way to Super Bowl XXXVIII. In 2003, the Panthers won seven games by three points or less, many on the foot of Kasay. Even after his botched kickoff handed the Super Bowl on a silver platter to the Patriots, Kasay stood in front of his locker in Houston, just below an ominous ticking clock, and answered every last question.
So it was just Kasay's dumb luck to be the kicker having a light work day at the camp I visited on the very day I decided to chronicle, minute-by-minute, what exactly, if anything, these guys do at practice. It could have been any kicker on any team, trust me. Later in the day, when I caught up to Kasay on his way to lunch, he seemed neither bothered nor caught off guard by my line of questioning. In fact, he oozed the "Always Positive" message on his T-shirt and clearly seemed to enjoy how his preternatural poise and sense of perspective were royally screwing up my column.
Maybe this is what these guys do during practice: stand around killing grass and thinking up the perfect responses to the question, "What exactly do you do during practice?"
"Listen, I don't try and make a comparison between what I do and the physical rigors other players have to go through," Kasay said. "I'm 35. I can't run, can't jump, can't block, tackle or catch. Obviously there's something different about how I contribute to this game. In training camp guys do make comments about wanting my job all the time, sure. But I'll tell you this: When it's the regular season and it's time to kick a game-winner in the fourth quarter, I don't see any of those same guys rushing in to volunteer for my job then."
I've got no beef with the kickers. Honest. Heck, I grew up with three brothers and a chore-happy dad, so no one respects a guy who can appear to be busy while not doing anything at all more than me. What is disturbing, however, is how in today's vanilla-flavored, everybody-finishes-tied-at-8-8 NFL, the less the kickers do the more important they seem to become. With increased frequency, teams are waging knockdown, drag-out turf wars for 59:59 only to have them decided by the dorky dudes wearing Halloween-costume football uniforms.
So disturbed by this trend, a director of scouting for an AFC team recently scream-whispered into my ear that, "The league should just go ahead and change it's name to the National Field Goal Kickers League." (But that would make it the NFGKL then, wouldn't it?) You wanna see Jon Gruden, Herm Edwards or Marty Schottenheimer go absolutely batty? Just remind them that for all their years of hard work, dedication and study, their collective football fortunes still lie in the tiny, manicured hands of field goal kickers.
Are these guys football players or just professional grass killers? Take a look at Kasay's practice log and judge for yourself.
9:18 -- I know this is his "light" practice, but Kasay appears to be wearing sneakers, not actual cleats. He begins a playful game of catch. This is very important on three fronts: 1) it explains why he's wearing a wrist band since it couldn't possibly be to soak up sweat; 2) he hasn't thrown a single pass during an actual game in a decade with the team and; 3) sonofabiscuit, I forgot what three was.
9:25 -- The rest of the team has worked itself into quite a lather as backup QB Chris Weinke challenges the No. 1 defense. "GET BACK IN THE HUDDLE AND DO IT AGAIN ... DAMMIT!!!" a coach screams. Curley continues to hurley. Kasay, meanwhile, hasn't moved a muscle going on seven minutes and counting.
9:27 -- Nothing to report. I still believe with all my heart that when kickers get together in private they play golf, light cigars with hundred-dollar bills and just laugh and laugh and laugh at the rest of us suckers working for a living.
9:29 -- Picks up helmet, lifts from waist to shoulder, twice.
9:31 -- Walks 30 yards without stopping for water. Good God, John Fox, are you trying to kill this man?
9:32 -- Strolls 12 yards over to Jugs machine, which is being used -- dig this irony -- to simulate kicks. I sense that even the Jugs machine is jealous of Kasay.
9:35 -- Needing to relax, Kasay walks back to yellow kicker crop circle. I say kickers should just embrace this thing and wear silk robes to practice. Most people want to be quarterback, running back or a wideout? Me, I daydream about becoming a kicker.
9:37 -- No change. I've seen the best and Kasay does nothing better than almost anyone. Coach says that's all part of the training. "Think about this, kickers are the only position subject to finger pointing," Crossman argues. "In a sense they are paid to stand off to the side and then, on a moment's notice, come in and answer the call in the clutch."
9:39 -- Still, no change. Worried about falling asleep, I hook up my iPod shuffle and the first song that comes on is NIN's kicker anthem: "Only." "There is no you, there is only me," screams Trent. "Only. Only. Only. Me."
9:40 -- Freaked by Reznor, I lose sight of Kasay.
9:44 -- While Curley continues to ralph, Kasay is, literally, picking his nails with his helmet hanging in the crook of his elbow.
9:48 -- Now holding helmet with both hands.
9:51 -- Final kicker windsprint back to yellow patch of grass.
9:53 -- Walks off field. Crossman says he'll do some "situational work" in the afternoon, which in football terms means, I think, daydreaming.
9:54 -- Stops to sign autographs. The rest of the team will continue to practice, at full speed, for another 15 minutes. According to coaches this is usually when someone yells to the kickers, "Hey guys, how many holes you playing this afternoon?"
9:56 -- Hands on hips, looking around, perhaps for a golf cart to come carry him up the gentle grade to the locker room. Any spike in heart rate now would ruin the whole hour he's spent doing nothing.
9:59 -- Begins to walk hill, lifts helmet from waist to shoulder. Ah yes, "kicker curls."
So here's the final tally: 56 minutes, zero kicks, zero practice kicks, zero snaps, zero holds, 200 yards of walking, some mild stretching, steady breathing, lots of grass stomping, one major pants adjustment, a series of helmet curls and a handful of autographs.
Ya know, NFL kickers have a word for a guy who goes through this kind of training camp practice.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall of 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.