Can he kick it? Yes he can!
But can Kemar Scarlett break the mold in the NFL, where black kickers are virtually nonexistent?
This story appears in the April 18, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
A GUSTING BALTIMORE BREEZE whips across Morgan State University's football field on a March afternoon as a placekicker and a punter blast footballs toward the gray clouds.
"Hitting satellites," they call it. The placekicker, Kemar Scarlett, a departing senior who's prepping for the team's pro day later that week, spins kickoffs deep into the end zone 75 yards away. The punter, Nick Adams, a junior with two years of eligibility remaining, booms tight spirals with hang times approaching five seconds.
Both players have NFL dreams and, based on raw ability, NFL potential. During one game in 2009, the long-legged, 6'1" Scarlett hit a school-record 55-yard field goal, and the burly, six-foot Adams launched a school-record 79-yard punt. It was an outstanding day all around, one that helped earn them the nicknames DJ Kick and Big Punter around campus. But among pro hopefuls, Scarlett and Adams stand out for another reason entirely -- the color of their skin.
In the NFL's 91 seasons, very few African-Americans, or black men of any nationality, have earned a living launching the ball with their foot. In the 1960s and '70s, Gene "Golden Toe" Mingo made a career of placekicking (while playing a few other positions) for five AFL and NFL teams. In the past decade, Cedric Oglesby and Justin Medlock had brief placekicking stints. And two Nigerian-born soccer-style kickers, Obed Ariri and Donald Igwebuike, also made the NFL after starring at Clemson.
Equally few African-American punters have secured regular-season NFL jobs -- most notably Greg Coleman and the late Reggie Roby, who between them kicked for seven different NFL teams over 12- and 16-year careers, respectively. Currently, though, the NFL's only black kicking specialist is Browns punter Reggie Hodges (his father is black, his mother white).
Given their pro scarcity, it's no surprise that black kickers are nearly as rare in college. Kicking guru Gary Zauner, an NFL special-teams coordinator for 13 seasons, holds off-season showcases with pro scouts for hopeful kickers. When asked to identify the best African-American placekicking prospect today, Zauner says, "I'm not able to name one."
That's because only one of 120 college teams in FBS had a black kicker or punter appear in a game last season -- Arizona punter Keenyn Crier. Even in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, with its 13 historically black colleges and universities (11 have football programs, including Morgan State), most kickers are white or Hispanic. Which is why, when one of Morgan State's two specialists trots onto the field, opponents stare. "I've heard, 'Man, you're black, you can't kick, what are you doin' kicking?'" says the 20-year-old Adams. "Other teams are surprised to see a black kicker. Then to learn I'm actually good at it ... "
A FEW HOURS BEFORE PRACTICE, Scarlett and Adams walk through the Morgan State athletic complex, giving a tour of the school's Hall of Fame. They each point to photos of star alumni, like NFL greats Leroy Kelly, Willie Lanier and Roosevelt Brown. Adams, who is steeped in MSU history, knows that almost 70 Bears have gone on to the NFL. Seeing all those players who overcame the odds to make the big time out of their tiny college, Scarlett and Adams can envision their photos up on that wall too.
But the path to the NFL will be steeper for Scarlett, and eventually Adams. For starters, both are self-taught in what have evolved into technique-intensive arts. Most top kicking prospects have been specialty-coached for years by the time they finish college. The old 50 percent gold standard for field goal accuracy is now closer to 85 percent, as kick doctors refine concepts of balance, rhythm and transfer of force. Likewise, a punter's footwork, drop and ball alignment can be more important than his brute power. Last season, with little outside tutelage, Scarlett hit 18 of 24 field goals and Adams averaged close to 40 yards per punt. "You can be raw and kick the ball a long way," says Crier, who just finished his college career and hopes to break into the NFL. "But if you have no technique, the chance you'll hit the ball you want to hit is slim."
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Scarlett has never attended a camp, clinic or combine. If he makes it to the NFL, he might be the league's first YouTube baby. That's where the 21-year-old acquires most of his technical training, supplementing that with a few tips from former Morgan State placekickers. It's sort of like trying to build a scratch golf swing from random advice at the driving range. "Confusing? Yeah," says the ever-upbeat Scarlett, "because people have different ways. I try to apply their knowledge to my style. It works, it works."
Or does it? At the 2010 HBCU All-Star Bowl, concerned observers told Scarlett that he needs to tweak his form. A coach from Tuskegee University suggested Scarlett line up with his shoulders square to the uprights. Back in high school, he had to learn to kick with the side of his foot and not his instep. In junior college he was taught to explode through the ball. All seemingly sound advice but still lacking the same thing that eluded Albert Einstein: a unified theory.
According to Zauner, a hodgepodge of instruction can lead to a player's developing shoddy technique. "Sometimes no coaching is better than wrong coaching," he says. But proper instruction comes with a price tag.
Placekicking and punting have become country-club disciplines, as training and gaining exposure to scouts can be expensive. Many colleges recruit by holding instructional training combines for high school kickers, charging fees as high as $400 for what are often glorified tryouts. "I went to four college camps," says Medlock, who wound up at UCLA. "You get seen. A couple of schools offered me a scholarship on the spot."
Oglesby, who runs a kicking school in Atlanta that has in the past offered financial aid to campers, points out that college recruiters typically rely on Internet scouting services. And because those rankings are based largely on what scouts see at camps, he explains, "If you can't afford to go to camps, you can't get ranked."
Zauner also operates camps and combines in Phoenix. College seniors and hopeful free agents pay $300 for a one-hour evaluation; free agents who wow Zauner can pay another $275 to kick in front of scouts from the NFL, Canadian Football League and United Football League.
Zauner hasn't seen Scarlett kick, partly because money is an issue for the player. Instead of attending kicking camps over the past several off-seasons, Scarlett worked on a dinner-cruise boat in Washington, D.C. His rise from deckhand to bosun's mate on the Odyssey III is admirable, but it's not likely to impress scouts.
Another hurdle for Scarlett and Adams: NFL scouts tend to overlook small-school kickers and punters. Says Oglesby, who placekicked and punted at South Carolina State in the MEAC: "At an HBCU you have to kick the ball out of the back of the end zone to get anyone to notice."
The thinning of the pool of black kickers starts long before college, though. "Black kids want to be the guy with the football in their arms," says Morgan State head coach Donald Hill-Eley.
Adds Oglesby: "When you turn on a TV you don't see an African-American kicker. There's nobody there to relate to."
Having tried out for more than a dozen NFL teams, Oglesby knows about being the odd man out in the locker room. When he pulled out his soccer cleats at the Cowboys' training camp, another player burst out laughing, saying, "Man, I've never seen a black kicker in my life!" In Arizona, where he kicked in place of an injured Bill Gramatica, teammates called him Gra-black-tica. During Oglesby's time on the Chargers' roster, teammates called him Igwe, a nod to Igwebuike.
But Igwebuike, who honed his skills playing soccer, is not the model for modern black kickers. At inner-city high schools, where soccer tends to be less popular, it's not uncommon for football teams to de-emphasize kicking almost to the point of extinction.
Alonzo Carter spent eight years turning out championship teams as head coach of tradition-rich McClymonds High School in Oakland, but kickers weren't part of the glory. "We had black kids as kickers," says Carter, who is African-American. "You didn't even think about field goals. If our kicker missed a PAT, the rest of the game we were going for two. It was a cultural thing that we just accepted." Carter remembers one receiver who was named All-City -- as a punter. "I brought him his medal," Carter says, "and it was like shining armor to him. But his peers ridiculed him. 'You made All-City as a punter?' It's ignorance, and we coaches are part of the ignorance."
Some potentially great African-American kickers also get pushed -- for good reason -- to other positions. Chargers Pro Bowl punter Mike Scifres (who is white) was the second-string punter at Destrehan High School in Louisiana, behind future Ravens star Ed Reed. But Reed, an all-state defensive back and kick returner, ditched punting at the college level to focus on free safety. In 1997, when Zauner was special-teams coordinator for the Vikings, he had Randall Cunningham, an All-America punter at UNLV, and Randy Moss slotted as emergency kickers. "They would stand at the 40-yard line in practice and kick 50-yard field goals, toe-punching the ball," says Zauner. "Two great athletes, playing for Cokes. They probably could have been great NFL punters and kickers." In fact, Cunningham averaged nearly 45 yards on 20 career punts, including a 91-yard bomb that is still the fourth longest in NFL history.
REGGIE HODGES IS THE EXCEPTION. A punter for eight NFL teams over six seasons, Hodges, who has two years to go with the Browns, didn't dream of becoming a fourth-down hero. No, the quarterback at Centennial High School in Champaign, Ill., wanted to play hoops in college. But his Centennial coach gave him punting duties after learning that Hodges had finished second in a national punt-pass-and-kick contest. As a senior, the punter was all-state, averaging 39.4 yards per kick. He went on to become a first-team All-MAC selection as a senior at Ball State, and was drafted in the sixth round by the Rams in 2005. If punting lacks prestige, don't tell Hodges. "I love it," he says. "It's an absolute blast. This is what I'm called to do."
Both Scarlett and Adams feel a similar pull to kicking. Scarlett grew up playing soccer in his home country of Jamaica. When he moved to America at age 13, his new school, Potomac High in Oxon Hill, Md., didn't have a soccer team, so he ran cross-country. When the football coach learned that there was a freshman runner with a skilled foot, he called Scarlett out of class on a Thursday and asked him to try kicking a football. By Saturday, Scarlett was kicking in a game -- the first he ever saw. Coach pushed him onto the field for a PAT attempt and Scarlett drilled it. He had to ask how many points his kick was worth.
In 2007, Scarlett accepted a scholarship at Bowie State in Maryland. When the coach's contract was not renewed, Scarlett says his paperwork was misfiled and he lost his scholarship. He spent the following two years at a community college in Central California. But he sent tapes to Morgan State and, in 2009, he was offered a partial scholarship that has since turned into a full ride.
Scarlett's arrival two summers ago surprised a lot of players, none more than the Bears punter. "I did a double take when I saw a black kicker," says Adams. "'He matches me!' He was booting just like I was. I'm like, Cool. Ever since then we've been like brothers."
Adams came to Morgan State in 2009 as a 245-pound linebacker and defensive lineman. The coaches knew he had punted in high school, so they told him, "We don't have a punter, you're it." Adams was relieved of his defensive duties immediately. At first disappointed, he's since embraced his role. "I'm the fourth-down quarterback," says Adams. "If I kick the other team down on their 1-yard line, it's like scoring a touchdown."
Now Adams and Scarlett are on the field every day, pushing and inspiring each other. Adams introduced Scarlett to weight training; in two years Scarlett has jumped from 170 to as high as 192 pounds. They are both serious students: Adams wants a career in medicine, Scarlett is eyeing TV production. Once in uniform, they jokingly see themselves as superheroes with a mission to alter the face of kicking and punting. "What we have is something that could change the game," says Adams. "We just do things different. We take that HBCU African-American swagger, and we apply it to positions that have been kind of clean-cut and white-collar."
Adams, who calls himself Turbo, has issued challenges to rival punt returners via Facebook and wears brightly colored tape and bands on his arm and legs. Scarlett wears flashy black-and-yellow soccer cleats that he calls bumblebees. They talk trash and back it up by making crunching tackles on special teams. After clutch field goals, Scarlett is met with a flying chest bump from Adams before he gets close to the sideline. A deep punt is cause for the duo to dance the Dougie.
"I bet if punters and kickers looked better, there would be a lot of young people who would want to get into it," says Scarlett. "They'll come off as cool, not, 'He's just a kicker.' It's that stigma I want to get over. We're athletes, and we're important athletes."
IMPORTANCE IS RELATIVE. On Morgan State's pro day, the Baltimore weather is still bitterly cold and wet. Over the previous weeks, scouts from the Eagles and Ravens have indicated strong interest in Scarlett. He hopes other teams will be on hand.
The Eagles don't show. Two Ravens scouts record numbers for Scarlett and three teammates on standard sprints and lifts, but with rain and winds gusting more than 30 mph, they do not ask Scarlett to kick a football. "I was disappointed that I wasn't kicking," Scarlett says later, "but I won't let it knock me off track."
This summer that track will lead him to one of Zauner's camps. After all, Scarlett has to make sure scouts remember his name before he can change the face of the game.
ESPN The Magazine: April 18, 2011
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