At least once a month during football season, I have a conversation with Jim Arnold, the Lions punter, that goes like this:

ME: “Hi, Jim. How’s Elvis?”

JIM: “He’s OK. Me and him were over the house last night, eatin’ cheeseburgers.”

ME: “Cheeseburgers.”

JIM: “The King still loves ’em, what can I tell ya?”

From this, we can infer that:

1) The National Enquirer is going to make Jim very rich one day.

2) I need to develop a better opening line.

We cannot infer, however, that all kickers are nuts. Or even that all punters are nuts. Or even that all punters who are losing their hair, like Arnold, are nuts. Reggie Roby, of the Miami Dolphins, qualifies on both counts, too, and I have met Roby, and he seems perfectly normal. I bet he doesn’t even know the words to “Jailhouse Rock.”

And yet, here is Arnold, when I call him at home, dropping immediately into a deep, Elvis-like drawl and saying:

“Uh . . . huhuhuhuhuh, sorry, man, Jimmy cain’t come to the phone now, he, uh, he ain’t here–“

Clumping sound now. The phone being dropped. Then picked up.

“Don’t listen to him,” Arnold says, back in his regular voice. “The King should know better than to answer the phone.”

Funny? Of course it’s funny. But — unwittingly, I’m sure — Arnold, a great punter, is also perpetuating a myth: that kicking types are, by nature, flakes. Nut cases. Wackos. It’s a well-worn stereotype. The game of football seems to feel that any player who must use his feet has already lost his mind.
“Oh, hell, you know them kickers,” coaches will say, rolling their eyes, as if talking about nudists, or some senile aunt.

Maybe it’s the fact that most football players seem to be sculpted out of granite, whereas kickers can be built like your average relief pitcher. They can be missing half a foot, like Tom Dempsey. They can be Dudley Moore stunt doubles, like Garo Yepremian.

They can know Elvis.

“He’s comin’ to one of our games, you know,” Arnold says to me. “Of course, I can’t tell you which one. He wouldn’t like that. . . . ” The language problem

Personally, I think it’s the foreign thing that has done in kickers, at least placekickers. Let’s face it, you don’t meet many outside linebackers named Raul.

But ever since the mid-1960s, when Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian-born soccer player, began sidewinding field goals for the Buffalo Bills and later the New York Giants, the man with the tee has often traveled with his passport. And this has made the other guys uncomfortable. Football, like the Army, is not a good place to be different. NFL types consider the Ivy League a foreign country. You can imagine what they think of Cyprus.

“They ought to tighten the immigration laws,” Norm Van Brocklin, the former NFL quarterback-turned-coach, once grumbled about placekickers. Instead, the imports just kept coming. Rafael Septien. Uwe von Schamann. Fuad Reveiz. And of course, whenever these guys did anything remotely different, like maybe

speak in their native tongue, they were “flaky” — even if what they were saying was perfectly normal.

KICKER (to visiting relative, in his native tongue): “This is the locker room, where I dress.”

BILLY BOB (to his teammate Joe Bob): “Did you see that? That Commie is talking about devil worship!”

Now. It’s true, kickers practice by themselves. And they rarely get their uniforms dirty. And they are often called upon to save the game after twiddling their thumbs for 59 minutes.

Also, Rafael Septien liked to sleep in an isolation tank.

But I don’t think kickers are necessarily nuttier than the rest of their teammates. I mean, why does Jack Reynolds get to chainsaw a car in half, and that’s called “spirited,” while Garo Yepremian throws one stupid balloon-ball pass in the Super Bowl and everyone says he’s a nut?

You know why? Because kickers are smaller. You wouldn’t call Reynolds a flake to his face. You wouldn’t call him anything to his face, except maybe
“Your Highness.” But a kicker? Shoot. You feel safe giving him a jab now and then.

The movies haven’t helped, either. Whenever they make a movie about football, it seems the kicker is always some little, dark-haired foreigner with no concept of the game. Remember the Burt Reynolds film “Semi-Tough”? The kicker in that kept picking lint off his uniform before a field goal. Or the recent film “Necessary Roughness,” when they go out and get a woman to do the kicking? Not that there’s anything wrong with women kicking. But the woman they got was Kathy Ireland, the super model. And this big Samoan lineman has a crush on her.

The lineman in love with the kicker? I mean, really. What does that say about the position? What would Elvis think?

Which brings us to punters. They just send you money

“Let me show you why I love this job,” Jim Arnold says, sitting by his locker. He reaches in and pulls out an envelope. I figure maybe photos, snapshots of him making a pressure punt, something like that.

Instead, he pulls out junk mail from sweepstakes contests. Lots of it. You know, the letters that begin, “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE JUST WON. . . . “

“Lookie here,” he says. “I’ve already won $23,000 with this one. And this one here, it says I’ve won $7,000. So that’s $30,000 already, right? And that’s before I throw in this one, right here” — he pulls out a long, yellow, Ed McMahon-signed envelope — “which assures me . . . $10 million.

“It’s unbelievable! They just send you money in the mail. So how could a job get any better than this?”

OK. Not all punters are this twisted. Some actually fit right in with the safeties and linebackers. Punters nowadays tend to be bigger, stronger and more athletic — especially when compared with placekickers — and as such, maybe they are slowly losing their flakiness tag.

Then again, I met a college punter last year, played for Temple, and he was part of the Flying Walendas tightrope walkers. Honest to god. The guy could walk on his hands across the crossbar. He did it, too.

And a few years ago, there was this kid from Central Florida who, in the last game of his college career, took a snap, then turned to the crowd and began to bow, once to the home stands, once to the visitors’ stands, once to each end zone. By the time he got around to punting, the kick was blocked.

He then ran off the field and disappeared down the tunnel, never to play again.

“And don’t forget that kid we had here in camp, Dave Jacobs,” Arnold says.
“He had long hair. And after we’d come in from practice, all sweaty and hot and everything, he’d duck under the big fan as he walked past, because he didn’t want his hair messed up. This was after practice, not after a shower, OK? That cat was weird.”

This from a man who has a framed poster of Elvis hanging in his locker.

On second thought, I’m going to take back what I said. You don’t have to act like a cast member of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to be a good kicker. You don’t have to be built like a jockey, or be able to walk on your hands across the goalpost. You don’t have to know what home games the King plans on attending, or where he’s sitting.

But if you do, please let us know.

I want to send him a cheeseburger.

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