“You look like a piece of crud. The people watching say, ‘Man, what a geek.’

— Mike Black, on his muffed punt in the Lions’ 31-7 loss to Dallas. It doesn’t take much. Punters and placekickers are forever this close to being cut, anyhow. In the NFL pet shop, they are like litter boxes; most people don’t notice them until they stink, and then they get dumped.

Ask Mike Black. Last Sunday, the Lions’ punter was noticed, which is to say: he screwed up. With 12 seconds left in the first half against Dallas, he took a snap, stubbed his toe on the carpet, looked up to see the Cowboys’ linemen barreling in, and did nothing. Nothing. Just dropped the ball and fell on it. The Cowboys took over and kicked a quick field goal before the gun.

“I panicked,” Black would say later.

That was the bad part. The terrible part came next. On the punts that followed in the second half, Black pushed too hard to make up for his mistake.

The stronger he tried to kick the ball, the less distance it traveled.

The Lions lost. Darryl Rogers began thinking about a new punter. And Mike Black, who gets paid only when he works, had to go home to his wife and four-month-old daughter knowing that the money might stop this week.

Fun life, huh?

This is pro sports. You blow it, they’ll get somebody else. Especially if your only valuable appendage is your foot.

“Do you think you might lose your job over Sunday’s performance?” Black was asked.

“I could,” he said. “You can lose it on one bad kick. There’s no security in this job. None.”
‘Get your butt in gear’ Black, 25, is in his fourth season as the Lions’ punter. You think that means something? True, he tries to fit in, tries to make himself useful. When he’s not practicing kicking — which is most of the time, since punters practice kicking only twice a week — he warms up the quarterbacks, he throws to the guys on injured-reserve, he organizes doughnut runs on Friday morning, and he makes sure everyone gets the scouting reports.

But his only real action is Sunday, fourth down, when his sole job is to kick it as close to the other team’s goal line as possible. Mess that up, and nobody cares how nice a guy you are.

So when Black came in Monday for team meetings, Rogers took him aside and told him “to get his butt in gear” or he’d be gone. Sometimes a coach just says that, and sometimes he’s serious. Black went upstairs to the Lions’ offices to use the xerox machine, and did a double-take. There was another punter, waiting to try out.

Rogers was serious.

“Uh . . . how ya doin?” Black said to the punter, Jim Arnold, a guy he knew from college.

“All right . . . how you doin’?” Arnold said.

“Haven’t seen you for a while,” Black said.

“Yeah.”

“Weren’t you in Kansas City?” Black said.

“Yeah, for a bit.”

The conversation ended quickly. “What was I supposed to say?” Black asked.

“I hope you kick the crap out of the ball so you can have my job?”

Black left the office. He thought about watching Arnold kick. Then he changed his mind, went out the front door, got into his car and left. If you blow your lines once . . . If a lineman blows a block, odds are he’ll have another chance 30 seconds later to redeem himself. If a running back misses a hole, there will always be more holes, more plays.

Punters, like placekickers, play the cameo role, and if they blow their lines, they’re not always around for the next show. Imagine if, after a bad day on your job, you came in the next morning to find someone else trying out your desk.

That’s what Mike Black feels like this week.

“I know if I let it bother me, it’ll make it worse,” he said. “That’s what Darryl didn’t like. That I couldn’t overcome my first mistake. I thought about it too much.

“I didn’t show my ability Sunday. I know that. I just need another chance. I just have to prove to them I’m the right punter for the Detroit Lions.

“But if he releases me . . .

He didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t have to.

We envy pro football players, their glamor, their strength, their fun. But there’s a sword over their heads that hangs lower than most, and it doesn’t take much to make it fall. Maybe a momentary loss of nerve, a dropped snap, a fumble.

Mike Black knows it. He lives it. Maybe he has 10 more years, and maybe he’s gone tomorrow.

It doesn’t take much. It never does.

CUTLINE Mike Black

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