DALE HATCHER : Punter Not Hungy for the Limelight

Times Staff Writer

What do Rams' rookie punter Dale Hatcher and his wife Lindley like best about Southern California? The weather? The beaches?

Neither. What makes them happiest is the fact they can eat at a restaurant without being stared at.

Hatcher, the Rams' third-round draft pick from Clemson, was the highest-drafted punter in the National Football League this year.

But, heck, great college punters don't even get stared at in their own school's cafeteria.

So what's the catch?

Dale Hatcher has spent most of his 22 years in Cheraw, S.C. (population: 9,000), and after being selected by the Rams, he and Lindley couldn't go out for dinner without drawing attention.

"Well, suh, (Hatcher says "sir" at least once per breath), in Cheraw, everybody tends to everyone else's business," he said, sounding apologetic. "People would start staring at us and whispering to each other and I'd get so paranoid.

"I'd ask Lindley if I looked like I was from outer space or if my shirt was on inside out . . . I always think the worst.

"That's why Lindley and I love it out here. Nobody pays you any attention at all."

True enough. Hatcher's drawl might turn a few heads in Anaheim, but his reputation as a punter isn't exactly reknown. Yet.

If things work out the way the Rams' front office hopes, it might not be long before somebody walks up to Hatcher in a Denny's and asks for his autograph.

The NFL scouts have been paying close attention to Hatcher for some time. When Gil Haskell, Rams' special team coach, was sent to scour the country for the best punter in America, he came back with this message: "I've looked at the 12 punters our scouts think are the best in the country. Eleven are very good and one is great."

Hatcher was the one.

"He was by far the best and I personally worked them all out," Haskell said. "It wasn't just his leg that was impressive, though. He has a tremendous knowledge of the fundamentals of punting and was obviously well-coached."

The question that arises, however, is why did the Rams see fit to use their third-round pick on a punter. They still have last year's punter, John Misko, and they recently signed Russell Erxleben, a free agent and former first-round pick by New Orleans.

Hatcher is more than a bit mystified himself, but he's much too shy and too polite to say more than "I was kinda wonderin' about that, too, suh."

"Lindley and I had never been here, but Southern California was where we wanted to go," Hatcher said. "Then I was reading the paper and saw that the Rams had signed Erxleben, and I told her our chances of gettin' out here had gone down."

Hatcher was pleasantly surprised by the Rams' choice, though he wouldn't mind if there was a little less competition for the job.

Coach John Robinson says the Rams' decision to draft Hatcher was calculated, and makes a world of sense.

"Erxleben gives us a proven punter in the NFL, just as John Misko gives us a proven punter, but neither are necessarily the answer," Robinson said. "We were looking for the premier punter, and this guy has a chance to be just that."

If a recent workout at Rams Park was any indication, the coaching staff might be flashing I-told-you-so grins at season's end. And Misko and Erxleben might be seeking employment elsewhere much sooner.

Hatcher's punting is awe-inspiring. He kicks the ball and just when you're sure it can't go any higher, it continues another 10 feet. His hang time in college was consistently more than five seconds, and he seems to be able to place the ball anywhere Haskell suggests.

Almost every punt travels at least 45 yards.

But it is Hatcher's hang time that Robinson was after. Hatcher averaged 42.9 yards per kick at Clemson, but another statistic is far more impressive: Of his 191 career punts, only 59 were returned and for an average of only 2.5 yards per return.

"He's obviously a very good punter," Robinson said, "but what I like best about him is that he gets the ball up and he gets it up consistently. Even his bad kicks get up."

Hatcher has planned this career for quite some time.

And as a result, he signed with the Rams quickly--for less than his lawyer was asking--but he's not exactly whining.

"It's more money than I've ever seen before," Hatcher said. "I just want to make a good living, pay the bills and play football. There's nothing I'd rather do than kick a football."

And he's been doing it for a long time.

"Mama says the first word I said was 'ball,' " Hatcher said.

He stayed out of trouble as a youth because his mother constantly reminded him that if he mixed with bad company, it might jeopardize his football career. That carried a lot of weight, because Hatcher has planned on being a pro football player since he was 11.

But then, everything his mother said was important.

He decided to go to Clemson because his mother was impressed with Coach Danny Ford, and the campus was close to Cheraw.

"I always wanted a car, but we could never afford one," Hatcher said. "So, mama thought Clemson would be best 'cause I could catch rides home sometimes. And she really liked Coach Ford. He seemed like he cared about me as a human being and would take care of me. And you know your mama and daddy like that."

His mother has always been a strong influence.

"She never said I was a dreamer for wanting to be a football player, and she would always stop cleaning the house or ironing or whatever she was doing to drive me over to the high school to practice kicking," Hatcher said.

His kicking career began on that high school field in a Midget League. His first team was the Rams. A little fullback was punting the ball one day during practice when his coach noticed some talent.

"The coach said, 'Who punted that ball?' " Hatcher recalled, "and when everyone pointed at me. He had me kick another one and then he said, 'That boy's gonna be our punter.' "

He competed in the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition for four years and went to the semifinals twice. The second time, as a 13-year-old, he was one step away from the Super Bowl when he lost at the Superdome in New Orleans.

He already was a specialist by high school, handling all the placekicking and punting chores at Cheraw for four years.

"My sophomore year I was backup quarterback, too," he said, "but I was so bad, I decided to just concentrate on kicking."

He also was a pitcher, compiling a 22-1 combined record in his junior and senior years and was scouted by the Pittsburgh organization. But when a Pirates scout asked him what his first love was, Hatcher did what came naturally. He told him the truth.

"I've wanted to be a football player for as long as I can remember."

Dale Hatcher was a freshman at Clemson when he realized a dream and made history, of sorts.

It was a dream that had its beginnings five years earlier when a group of seventh-graders were watching Monday Night Football in Cheraw.

"I guess all kids have idols and mine was Ray Guy," Hatcher said. "That night, he hit the (television) gondola at the Superdome. I had been there with Punt, Pass and Kick, and I couldn't believe he did it. But from that day on, it was my dream to hit it, too.

"Our second game of my freshman season was against Tulane, and we had a workout at the Superdome the day before. I told Coach Ford I was gonna try and hit it, and everybody on the team just looked up there and said, 'You'll never do it.'

"On the fourth try, I hit it."

Hatcher will realize a significantly more substantial dream if he makes the Rams this season. He is concerned about the competition, but is determined to prove his worth.

"I've never met Misko or Erxleben," he said. "I've at least seen a picture of Erxleben, but I don't even know what Misko looks like. I know they can punt, though. I'll just work hard and do the best job I can."

There seems little doubt that will be good enough. Hatcher has been very impressive in his first week of practice and NFL teams don't usually draft people in the third round that might not even make the team.

And if he continues to kick the ball the way Robinson and Haskell think he can, who knows? Maybe people will start staring at him in restaurants again.

Ram Note David Fishof, the agent for Vince Ferragamo, says there has been no word from the Rams on the status of his client. "We've heard nothing new" Fishof said, "but I'm confident that something will be resolved soon."

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