HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Behind a desk, in a second-floor office of an old mansion-turned-college alumni center, sits a man some call the greatest punter who ever lived. Ray Guy looks old now. His once boyish face has aged. His eyes droop. A white goatee sags. He is only 62 but his voice is rich and rural in that way of a country grandpa.
He's got a bad back. "This sucker is wore out and there ain't no parts left." A few years ago he was forced to sell his three Super Bowl rings after declaring bankruptcy. "Something I had to do," he says quietly. "We all have to do something we don't want to do."
These days he works at Southern Mississippi, where he was an All-American, working with former athletes from his alma mater and helping to run the school's athletic fundraising campaign. He loves the job because it puts him in touch with old players. There are old games to remember, stories to tell.
On one wall of his office hangs a giant framed certificate that says he is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. On the opposite wall is a poster commemorating the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team to which he was named in 1994. You can see him in the poster, wearing his Oakland Raiders jersey, No. 8. His leg is locked in an almost impossible leg kick, having just launched a football into the sky.
The poster is meant as a celebration yet it mocks him daily – a perpetual reminder that he is just one of two men on the 75th Anniversary Team who are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the other being punt returner Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. And the fact Guy is not, as perhaps the greatest punter in history, might be one of the great injustices in sports today.
"He changed the game, really," says former Raiders coach Tom Flores. "It was never a glamorous position until he came along."
But because of the position he played, many of the 44 writers who make up the Hall of Fame selection committee have kept him out. They don't see punting as football. Any day now, the Hall will announce the 25 finalists who made the latest cut for the 2013 induction class. Guy won't be one of them, just as he wasn't last year or the year before. More than 25 years have passed since he left the game, so he can no longer be considered in the regular voting. If he is going to make it, he will have to rely upon the senior selection committee to bring his name forward, and this group has a long list of long forgotten players who merit serious consideration.
On occasion, when Guy speaks at a banquet or to some organization, the host will make an introduction and then an assumption, announcing him as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And Guy will shake his head and correct the host because he can't let a lie linger in the applause. And apologies will be made and Guy will assure the host that it was an honest mistake despite the awkward silence that will fill the room.
"They don't know, I'm pretty much in every damn Hall of Fame except this one," he says. "I wonder if they have a beer drinking Hall of Fame. I could be in that one, too." And Ray Guy throws back his head and begins to laugh. Because what else can you do?
Talk to him long enough and you will discover that Guy is indeed angry about the Hall of Fame. He's mad not for himself because there isn't much he can do about a voter's opinion but for the disdain some of the deciders seem to have for his position. He has camps every summer and there are hundreds of kids who come from all around to learn punting from the great Ray Guy. He worries about what they will think when they see the Hall never calls. What does it say about their dreams? What does it mean?
"I watch them and in the back of my mind I know you're wasting your time because we got some stupid people who don't understand," Guy says. "Here's a kid who's got a dream of being a punter in the NFL, but you got people here who cut him down before they even get out of the chute. So what are you telling these kids? To forget about it?"
He sighs. It is a long, deep exhale.
"I guess it all stems around people just don't understand the importance of a punter," he says. "They really don't. Unless you played. You have to be in there. You have to understand every player on that team has a position or play to do. And all they do is drag and fuss about 'well yeah he can punt and this and that and the other thing,' but they don't really respect that and they think it shouldn't be alongside the other guys in the Hall of Fame."
For a time voters called Guy. Their voices were always filled with optimism, sure that year was indeed the year. They said things looked good, support was lining up. They told him to be ready for good news. They told him to stay near his phone on the day before the Super Bowl. They said a call would be coming.
Then the phone never rang.
"I used to anticipate [the call] but not anymore," Guy says. "It crosses my mind and it's just a fluke. I don't think about it anymore. I just go on. I guess that's the way for the older vets, older than I am, who aren't in the Hall of Fame. I know it bothers them. I mean they should be in the Hall of Fame. The problem they are running into is there are too many modern guys going into the Hall of Fame over these veterans. Reason being is because of their notoriety and they are seen a lot more than these older guys are now."
He sighs again.
"It's all politics, that's all it is," he says in his drawl. "It's the same of everything in life. Everything comes down to politics."
The voters who pick the Hall of Fame meet in secret. This happens every year on the day before the Super Bowl. The panel of 44 gathers in a room at the game's headquarters and decides the fate of 17 finalists. Deliberations often go for hours. Details are rarely revealed, yet enough comes out of football's Star Chamber to know why Guy has never been voted in.
Too many people on too many of the selection committees over the last quarter of a century don't think a player who is on the field five or six times a game without making a tackle, catching a pass or setting a block should gain football immortality. Voters sympathetic to Guy talk about powerful voices on the committee, writers from important publications whose influence carried significant weight didn't even want to discuss the possibility. They talk about one in particular who dismissed Guy with a dramatic flourish, offended that a punter in the Hall was being seriously considered.
Others use statistics. They point to his 42.4 yards-per-punt average, which is tied for 78th in NFL history and say he wasn't even the best punter of his time. If they're going to consider a punter, they ask, why not pick one with better numbers?
They say this even in the rush of all good counterarguments. They stand defiant even when it is suggested that Guy was never a punter to be measured by basic metrics. They don't want to hear arguments that he turned punting into a weapon, that he never had a punt returned for a touchdown in his 14-year career, that he perfected punting out of bounds to minimize returns or that the Raiders had assembled a great offensive machine that often left him to punt with only half a field that prevented him from building more staggering statistics.
"There's always been that bias," says voter and senior selection committee member Len Shapiro. "It's been sort of mystifying. I think he's a Hall of Fame player. He was one of the best at his position in his time."
Seven times Guy was a finalist. A couple of those years, voters say, he was close to selection.
"For punters if you are great and Hall of Fame-caliber and defined the position you should go in," says recently retired punter Jeff Feagles who, along with current Raiders punter Shane Lechler, will probably be a Hall of Fame candidate himself. "I'd like to see the day they can get through a football game without punting."
Nobody taught Guy how to punt. When he was growing up in the 1960s there were no punting camps or clinics or special instructors. The best advice he ever received came from his high school coach back in Georgia who suggested he might get more power if he tilted his foot slightly to the side. Everything else: the leg kick, the high-rocketing kicks, the punts that went and went and went – such as a 93-yarder his senior year at Southern Miss – he learned himself through experimentation.
When the Raiders made him their first-round draft pick in 1973, many of the players were surprised. Who exactly was this kid from down south that was so essential they used their most cherished draft choice to get him? "I thought: We drafted a punter?" recalls Flores who was then an assistant coach. "Then when I saw him kick, it was like 'Holy cow!' I was amazed at how perfect it was when you saw it come off his foot. It just took off."
Guy developed a penchant for kicking the ball out of bounds. This was hard to do because kicking out of bounds is not as precise as booting the ball straight downfield. There was greater risk for "shanking" the ball or hitting off the side of the foot and having it wobble only a few yards in the air. But soon he perfected the technique of dropping kicks off the sideline inside the 20-yard line. This cut down on his yards-per-kick but it also eliminated returns. It seemed at the time a fair tradeoff.
Soon he was something of a kicking sensation. Since he kicked the ball so high in the air, his teammates had more time to run down and cover returns. This led to a new statistic: hang time. Coaches started talking about it. General managers searched for punters who could imitate Guy. Network telecasts put hang time counters on the television screens whenever he punted.
In fact, Guy was such a good athlete – a gifted baseball pitcher and safety at Southern Miss – that he was Oakland's No. 3 quarterback. Rather than punt on the side for a few minutes and watch workouts as most punters do, he was the scout team quarterback, playing the role of Dan Fouts or Terry Bradshaw or Jim Kelly or whichever quarterback Oakland was facing that particular week.
If Flores has a favorite memory of Guy, it is probably one many never noticed. It came in the Super Bowl XVIII victory over the Washington Redskins when he leaped high in the air and one-handedly grabbed an errant snap then managed to land, balance himself and still boot a 42-yard punt.
"If that hadn't have happened they would have gotten the ball on our 20, and it might have changed the whole game," Flores says.
So how do you quantify the immeasurable? How do you put a value on the kicks out of bounds or count the points opponents didn't score? The fact Guy never had a punt returned for a touchdown seems lost on his detractors. How then do you find a statistic that shows the value of a punter on three NFL champions?
"You need a hook," says voter Ira Miller, who covered Bay Area football for the San Francisco Chronicle and is also on the senior selection committee. "You need something that will convince people."
Voters have already shot down the angle of the greatest punter who ever lived by countering with his yards-per-punt-average. The argument that he changed the game is flimsy to those who don't believe a punter can do such things. They don't even care the honor given to the best punter in college football is called the Ray Guy Award. And one of Guy's biggest detractors apparently waved away the suggestion that Guy's role as a scout team quarterback helped the Raiders win three Super Bowls.
"Tell me what he did on the field," one voter remembers the detractor saying.
Miller and another supporter plan on approaching the Raiders at the end of the season to see if they can get access to statistics the team might have kept, including drive charts to see if there is something they can use to sharpen their case. Something has got to work.
One voter notes that Johnny Unitas, who is one of the four quarterbacks on the 75th Anniversary Team, has a lifetime passer rating of 78.2. This is tied for 73rd all time, ranking Unitas well below players like Jeff George and Dave Krieg. Another supporter points out that the one kicker in the Hall, Jan Stenerud, made fewer than 67 percent of his field goal attempts – an atrocious number by today's standards.
Sometimes the statistics just don't matter.
When the senior selection committee met this summer, Guy's name was heavily discussed. Ultimately the committee decided to make Chiefs and Oilers defensive tackle Curley Culp and Packers linebacker Dave Robinson its finalists this year. But sources say Guy came very close to being picked. One said he finished third behind Culp and Robinson. There is a thought among senior committee members that next year it will be Guy's turn.
Though senior selection committee selections have to be approved by 80 percent of the voters just like any other candidate, they are often approved. Voters tend to believe the senior selection committee has already vetted their finalists so the chances are better – 36 of the 49 senior candidates nominated have been chosen. But those weren't punters. Their selections weren't as controversial as Guy's.
"I suspect at some point he will get in, I really do," Shapiro says.
In his office, Guy frowns. Every so often someone starts a campaign to get him in the Hall. One of the most recent is from a 22-year-old college student named Steven Sawtelle who never saw Guy play, but discovered old videos when he made his high school team as a punter. Sawtelle has written to many of the voters and found several of their replies to be discouraging: "A lot of them come up with almost juvenile angles: 'He's a punter,' " Sawtelle says.
Guy is thankful but pays little attention. Some men campaign for their immortality, writing letters, practically begging voters to let them in the Hall. This is not Ray Guy.
"If it happens, it happens, if it don't, it don't," he says with a shrug. "Like I said, as long as my former teammates and my close friends and people like that realize, it's OK."
Then Guy turns to a visitor. The visitor looks at Guy, his face long, his eyes drooping and thinks that, no, it is not OK.
"If you find out the answer let me know," Guy says almost forlornly. "If you accidentally hear why they're never going to put me in, let me know before I leave this old world. I'd rather take that one with me."
If only it could be so simple.
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