An ode to the punt returner

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

Summer is great for so many reasons. It is also, from a sports standpoint, slow. Which is nice in its own way, because it gives me the opportunity to go off and do stuff I otherwise wouldn’t get to do. Which brings us to where we are now. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at some of the most under appreciated athletes in all of sports.

Let’s dive right in. Top of this list, for sure, is the punt returner. If you will consider for a moment what a punt returner is asked to do, you’ll understand a little better why these people are for real crazy, and why you should respect them more than anything.

On a punt return there are 20 humans all clustered together in one area of the football field. And then, 50 some odd yards away, there’s one other person. Just standing there, alone with his thoughts. Maybe he looks into the stands to see if his girl is watching him, which will honestly make more of a difference in how he performs than anything his coach says, or maybe he’s thinking about how he wishes he had washed his socks before the game. I’ve never returned a punt in a football game; I don’t know what they think about. The point is he’s there, all alone, then the ball gets snapped, and he realizes what a huge mistake he made.

Before we get into all that, the punter himself deserves mentioning. The Earth as we know it has never hatched a more perfect existence than that of a professional punter. This is a man who gets paid a large sum of money to kick a football as hard and as far as he can, and if anyone touches him while he’s doing this it’s actually illegal. Here’s looking at you, foresightful fathers of children with marginal athletic talent.

Once the punter makes contact, the returner knows he made a mistake signing up for this. The 10 other players on the kicking team who don’t have the best job ever sprint toward him, intent on hitting him very hard. As this monsoon of bodies hurtles toward the returner, he has to look up into the sky, locate the ball careening end over end to the ground, and go get underneath it, all the while trying not to think about the people who are running really fast at him. Do you have any idea how hard that has to be? THAT’S SO HARD. By this point, he is for sure not having fun any more.

If you’re watching this, especially if it’s a particularly good punt, the scene playing out in front of you is eerily familiar to that one scene from The Lion King, and I always want to shout “STAMPEDE, IN THE GORGE! SIMBA’S DOWN THERE!” Only in this case, Mufasa isn’t coming to the rescue.

From here, the punt returner must catch the ball and gain whatever yardage he can. Or, in simpler terms, he has to catch the ball and try not to die. Yeah, he has blockers who try and protect him, but even still. The depth perception, calm demeanor, hands, speed and slight mental break from reality required to make a good punt returner is so rare.

The reason we don’t think about punt returners in this way is because the kids returning them are usually some of the best athletes on the field. And, especially at the high school level, the punts aren’t going to be long or high enough to set up a potential bone-crushing hit at the same clip as in college or the pros. Still, the point holds that we don’t think much about how tough this is because it’s usually made to look effortless by those who do it, until they mess up, and then it is made to look very painful and sad. Punt returning is one of the toughest things to do in sports that no one talks about. Plain and simple.

Here’s looking at you, returner of punts. Keep it up, and make sure to hold on to that ball.