Gi­ants’ Fea­gles Gets a Kick Out of It All

Vet­eran Punter Is Doc­u­ment­ing His Un­for­get­table Week

The Washington Post - - Profession­al Football - By Les Car­pen­ter

CHAN­DLER, Ariz., Jan. 30 — Deep in the abyss be­neath the sta­dium’s stands Tues­day af­ter­noon, New York Gi­ants punter Jeff Fea­gles en­coun­tered a gi­ant rolling con­tainer clenched shut with all kinds of mys­te­ri­ous pad­locks. Given this is his first Su­per Bowl, Fea­gles, 41 and holder of the NFL record for most con­sec­u­tive games played, had re­solved in his mind to no­tice ev­ery­thing un­usual, lest he should miss some­thing sig­nif­i­cant.

Thus he in­quired about the case’s con­tents.

“Would you like this?” he re­mem­bered a man ask­ing.

“Well, what’s inside?” Fea­gles replied. Oh, just the Su­per Bowl tro­phy. Fea­gles, also be­ing a per­sua­sive man, gifted with a sig­nif­i­cant amount of boy­ish charm de­spite his years, man­aged to per­suade the man to open the box. There, in the murky light of a sta­dium cor­ri­dor, wrapped in felt was the Vince Lom­bardi tro­phy in all its stain­less steel splen­dor. A pair of white gloves rested on top.

“Did you touch it?” some­one asked Fea­gles on Wed­nes­day as he re­counted the tale. For a mo­ment, he looked stricken, as if some­one could dare won­der such a thing.

“Oh no,” he said. “I got a great pic­ture of it, though.”

Lost some­where in the hys­te­ria of a week gone wild, where a man in a kilt asked Fea­gles count­less ques­tions about his Scot­tish-born team­mate, Lawrence Tynes, there was the joy of a man ap­proach­ing mid­dle age see­ing the Su­per Bowl through the eyes of a rookie.

Fea­gles came to the in­ter­view room at the re­sort where the Gi­ants are stay­ing at least 20 min­utes early, not to sit at the ta­ble with his name on a piece of card­board, nor to seek what­ever air­time he could seize, but rather to look around, to gaze at the spec­ta­cle he had long heard about but had come to be­lieve might never hap­pen for him.

His wife and chil­dren told him to film ev­ery­thing, so he ar­rived bear­ing a dig­i­tal cam­era and a video recorder. He held one in each hand, ready to chron­i­cle ev­ery­thing that might oc­cur, no mat­ter how in­con­se­quen­tial, just in case he were to dis­cover the Su­per Bowl tro­phy all over again.

The strange thing about this sea­son is that un­like other years, Fea­gles thought lit­tle about the Su­per Bowl. His Gi­ants got off to a ter­ri­ble start, los­ing their first two games and fall­ing be­hind badly in their third at Wash­ing­ton.

Plus he was so busy with work be­ing done on his New Jer­sey home and his old­est son, Christo­pher, learn­ing to drive and want­ing to punt for his high school team, that it was hard to fo­cus on ev­ery­thing that was go­ing on with his em­ployer.

Fea­gles never re­al­ized the sig­nif­i­cance of the come­back against the Red­skins or the 10 road wins in a row un­til Tynes’s over­time field goal was go­ing through the goal­posts in Green Bay, and he fi­nally was go­ing to the one game he al­ways had dreamed of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

But be­fore any­one thinks Fea­gles is just an­other ag­ing su­per­star cling­ing pre­car­i­ously to a dy­ing ca­reer for a chance at a week like this, re­al­ize that with­out Fea­gles the Gi­ants might not be here. For even at 41, he could well be the most ef­fec­tive punter in the NFL. He has al­ways car­ried a rep­u­ta­tion for trick­ery, kick­ing to the places where re­turn­ers are not, spe­cial­iz­ing in the knotty art of coax­ing a ball to rest on the brink of the goal line.

In re­cent sea­sons, how­ever, the years have caught up to him. He no­ticed he does not have the same strength in his right leg and while he might still be able to boom a ball 60 yards in the air, it won’t go as high or have the same hang time. In­vari­ably grav­ity has caught up to him, forc­ing him to be more cun­ning than usual.

“I can put the ball where I want to now,” he said. “Clubs will take what I do, punt­ing 38 yards out of bounds, ev­ery time. They will take that 72 times a year. It elim­i­nates the re­turns.”

Kick re­turns are what keep coaches awake at night. In the old days, back when Fea­gles first came into the league, the list of great punt re­turn­ers was small, maybe no more than two or three. But as spe­cial­iza­tion crept in, more play­ers were find­ing them­selves on NFL ros­ters sim­ply for their elu­sive­ness af­ter punts landed in their hands un­til it seemed al­most ev­ery team had a kick re­turner con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous.

The game has moved away from the men who can kick the ball higher than the tallest seat in the sta­dium and come to em­brace play­ers like Fea­gles. Rather than push­ing the re­turner back to his end zone, it’s bet­ter never to let him catch the ball.

Ev­ery year now, the Gi­ants sign a young punter to com­pete with Fea­gles in train­ing camp, just as teams have done to him through­out his ca­reer in Ari­zona, Philadel­phia and Seat­tle. This has been done more as a for­mal­ity, in­sur­ance in case he gets hurt, save for the sea­son the Sea­hawks used their sev­enth-round pick to draft a punter. That player didn’t last too long.

Fea­gles jokes that he can tell the ones who will be se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion and will be frosty to them. But the re­al­ity is, no­body ex­pects any of th­ese young pun­ters to take his job; he’s sim­ply too valu­able. The more likely re­sult is the younger player gets a two-month tu­to­rial on the val­ues of kick­ing to cor­ners, away from the other team’s top re­turner.

Plus who would hold on field goals and ex­tra points? Af­ter years of prac­tice at this, Fea­gles has be­come adept at the thank­less task of catch­ing snaps and hold­ing the ball for kick­ers. There is a science to this, and he de­mands the en­tire process — from snap to the mo­ment the ball is placed on the ground — take 1.25 sec­onds. Any­thing faster or slower, and the in­tri­cate tim­ing falls apart.

To be sure of this, a coach stands next to Fea­gles ev­ery prac­tice and times the kick-hold­ing process with a stop­watch to en­sure that noth­ing falls out of sync, that ev­ery­thing is pre­cise.

Be­cause af­ter two decades in foot­ball there is no point in leav­ing any­thing to chance.

BY DAVID DUPREY — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In his first Su­per Bowl, 41-year-old Jeff Fea­gles ar­rived with cam­era and video recorder to cap­ture the ex­pe­ri­ence for pos­ter­ity.

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