They get up each morning, and there is no football. Eddie Murray puts on a suit and goes off to the bulk food business. Jim Arnold rolls out of bed and sees what’s for breakfast. When the sun loses its heat they head for deserted fields — Murray uses a high school in suburban Detroit, Arnold finds a middle school outside of Nashville — and they kick. And kick. And kick. To absent teammates. To absent opponents. To the air.
“It’s frustrating,” says Murray.
“It’s lousy,” says Arnold. “I’m ready to rock and roll, and I’m just hanging around here.”
Now is the summer of their discontent. Contract problems are the plague of this hot and humid season. Look around. The biggest headlines from this year’s NFL camps have nothing to do with who’s there and everything to do with who’s not: Tony Mandarich is sitting out; he wants $20 million. Barry Sanders is holding out; he wants $10 million. Phil Simms is holding out; he wants the moon. Reggie White is sitting out; he wants the stars.
Quarterbacks, running backs — even defensive linemen — you get used to. But suddenly, the Lions are missing their kicking game: Murray, the placekicker for the last nine years, is without a contract, and Arnold, a punter with the Lions for the last three seasons, is without a contract.
And here is the weird thing: The kicking game was the best part of the Lions’ 1988 season.
And nobody seems to mind.
They get no kick from missing camp “What are you doing with yourself?” I ask Eddie Murray, on the phone from his house in Southfield.
“The same thing I do all off-season,” he says. “I develop franchises for a chain called Mister Bulky. Right now I don’t even get the local papers, so I don’t keep up with what the Lions are doing.
“I’m working out every day, and if they wanted me in camp, I could be in camp — it’s that simple. I’m not asking for a ridiculous amount of money; I just want to be paid like other kickers with similar careers. I’m asking for the same kind of money that other guys on our team are walking away from.
“Look at Dennis Gibson. He’s been there two years, he demands a contract extension and they give him one. No offense, but in my time, I’ve been as productive here as Dennis Gibson.”
He sighs. The other guys are in uniform, banging helmets, slapping backs. He’s waiting for some news on his negotiations. It’s true, the Lions owe Murray (who earned $195,000 last year) something for all the time he’s worked for them. Nine years? He’s always been consistent, if not spectacular. Last season he played all 16 games and missed only one field goal. Out of 21 tries. He didn’t get voted to the Pro Bowl, but many thought he deserved it. Meanwhile, he points out, other guys such as Morten Andersen of the Saints
(26-of-36) made less on the field but far more in their paychecks.
“It’s my turn,” says Murray. But it’s always somebody’s turn. And Eddie, who will soon be 33, is no longer a kid. So he changes clothes after his day job, heads for the high school with his three footballs, and kicks away, and he wonders when he gets home whether there’ll be a message on his machine.
They’re ready . . . and waiting Down in Tennessee, there is no need for an alarm clock. Jim Arnold has no particular place to go. “I’ll lift some weights in the morning, maybe ride my bike,” says Arnold, who is living with friends.
“In the afternoon I kick. The other day, a bunch of kids came around. They were like ants at a picnic. They swarmed together when the ball was in the air, and just when it landed, they scattered.”
“What else have you been doing?” I ask.
“Oh . . . hanging around with Elvis.” He drops his voice into a breathy imitation. “Like I told the Colonel, Jimmy, you need to rebuild your career. Stop those silly movies, get back in front of an audience.”
Arnold laughs. Last season he was one of the few Lions who could afford a sense of humor: He was the No. 1 punter in the NFC. He went to the Pro Bowl. Jim Arnold? He clobbered the ball. If anyone shouldn’t have a problem getting a contract. . . .
But money talks, and reputation walks. And so his agent wrestles with the Lions’ front office, and Arnold, who can’t remember the last August he wasn’t in a football camp, is kicking to children.
“We’re not far apart. But it seems like we’re always making the phone calls. I like being with the Lions, but I’m not sure how much they like me.”
It’s hard to feel sorry for him or Murray. Both are being offered good money by normal American standards. Both feel it is not enough by NFL standards. Both may be right.
But this much is for sure: If the Lions had two of the top- rated running backs in the league, they’d work like crazy to have them signed by now. If they had two top-rated receivers, they’d do the same. Perhaps they figure kickers can get by without the full month of training camp, and they can save some money by making Arnold and Murray squirm.
I don’t buy it. That’s not the way you build a winner. Let’s face it. The only part of this team you didn’t laugh at last year was the kicking game. That should be worth something.
“I want to be back,” says Murray.
“I’m ready to play,” says Arnold.
The wait continues.
Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight, 9-11, on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guests include Bernie Federko.