You should hear Jim Arnold do Pee-Wee Herman. Right at the lunch table. That crazy laugh. Huh-HUHH! Perfect. Or Howard Cosell. Or Elmer Fudd. You name it. I mean, the guy is good.

This, of course, fellow NFL players, is no reason to elect him to your Pro Bowl. Unless you want some post-dinner entertainment. After all, how long can you do the hula? But there is a better reason to invite this tall, bearded stranger. Simple. Basic. And here it is:

Right now, he is the best punter in the NFL.

I’m serious.

Now, it may not say much for the Lions that 1) their best player this season is their punter, and 2) that punter was cut during training camp. “I went back to Nashville and I didn’t even have a place to stay,” recalls Arnold, the 26-year-old foot specialist. “So I watched the first week’s games at a friend’s house. And that night, I got a phone call from the Lions. They said (Russell) Erxleben had been injured and they wanted me back. I got in my truck and drove up that night.”

So began his “magical” season. In a truck. Just the same, on a Lions team that has won just three games and lost 10, Arnold is averaging 44.2 yards a punt (second best in the NFL). More incredible is his net average of 40 yards
(which means opponents have as much luck with returns as shoppers will on Dec. 26). Nobody has a higher average in that area.

No one is even close.

So OK. The Lions may not have much to celebrate these days. But this man deserves his due. And I am going to give it to him. That is my new campaign. SEND A PUNTER TO HAWAII. The following is a public-service announcement: Follow the bouncing punter

Here is a guy for whom “bounced around’ is too weak a term: He was cut by Kansas City, was out of work last year, was brought in to Detroit for a tryout, then passed over, then called back a month later, then signed, then cut from training camp, then called back. Perseverance. That should be worth a few votes, right? Besides, he holds a degree in sociology, and a real estate license (“in case football doesn’t work out”), and is a lanky, polite Southerner who says things like, “Shoot, ah’m not worried” yet can mimic Sammy Davis as if he were born with 10 rings on his fingers: “Mmmm, cat, babe, you’re cook-in!”

Still not impressed? Try this: How many guys have to practice punts sideways? It’s true. Because the Lions share the Silverdome with the Detroit Pistons, they often have just 40 yards of field to work with (the rest devoured by the basketball court). And because the offense and defense need that precious field, Arnold stands on one sideline and punts over to the other. Sometimes he reaches the seats. Sometimes he doesn’t. “One time I kicked it and the linemen were practicing off the far sideline. The ball was coming right down into them. I yelled, ‘HEADS UP! HEADS UP!’ “

He sighs.

“You don’t want to upset your linemen.”

Right. He’s sensible, too.

Who knows how bad the Lions’ season might have been if not for Arnold’s punts? He at least slowed down opponents. Forced them to start way back. Gave his team a few morsels of inspiration with each good boot.

Sure, he’s a little kooky. You would be, too, if you kicked footballs all day. But Arnold is not your wimpy-kicker-with-an- accent type. He’s an athlete. Even has a mean streak. “I don’t even want to see the return man,” he says, in mock toughness, “unless I’m picking one of my guys off him.”

Yeah. A dark-horse candidate Like most punters, Arnold spent a chunk of his life kicking lonely footballs into the air, then chasing them and kicking them again. As a kid in Georgia, he measured punts by the trees (“‘cept when they got stuck in the branches”).

He kicked through high school, college (Vanderbilt), the pros. And now he is finding success on a team that needs good, long punts the way most people need liquids. A team that could boost morale by sending at least one player to the. . . .

Pro Bowl, which is where we began this little story — and where Jim Arnold should end up come February. It takes the votes of the other NFL players, and that could hurt, because not many teams see the Lions. Sometimes not even the ones they play. But if they study the facts, they will find, in Arnold, a truly deserving candidate.

“I don’t like to bring it up,” admits the punter, ever the gentleman,
“because I’m just one guy, and I think if I went, the whole punt team should go. They’re awesome.

“But, oh, yeah, it would be a great honor.”

So what do you say, NFL? Wipe the stardust out of your eyes and look down here, in the lower echelons, where stands a gem. Invite him. He deserves it. And after the game, maybe Jim will do his Pee-Wee Herman.

“My feet should do the talking,” he says.

That’d be a neat trick.

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