Much of the nation chuckled last Sunday when New York Giants kicker Sean Landeta nearly whiffed on a punt attempt just outside his own end zone.
Once the wind in Chicago’s Soldier Field got hold of the ball, Landeta was lucky to get a piece of it. The ball dribbled feebly off his foot. The Bears ran it in for their first touchdown of a game they won to move into this week’s NFC championship showdown with the Rams.
But in San Diego, one television viewer didn’t see anything funny at all about Landeta’s embarrassing moment.
For Bryan Wagner, it conjured up a picture all too familiar.
Last summer, he was also staring across a line of scrimmage at the faces of those ferocious Bears.
The stakes were a little different. He was wearing the uniform of the Dallas Cowboys in a meaningless exhibition game.
But it was not meaningless to Wagner. The stakes couldn’t have been any bigger for him.
Wagner, a three-time All-American at Cal State Northridge and the leading punter in school history, was trying to make the Cowboys’ roster.
“I was in competition with Mike Saxon for the job,” Wagner said from his parents’ house in San Diego, where he is living. “It came down to the last preseason game against the Bears. Saxon was punting in the first half and I had the second half.
“As I got ready to punt, I saw them bring two extra guys up to rush. I probably panicked. The ball went off the side of my foot and traveled less than 30 yards.
“When I came to the sideline, Danny White, their quarterback, tried to make me feel better. The next time, I kicked the ball more than 50 yards.
“But in the long run, it didn’t help. One bad punt, that’s all it takes. The next day, they sent me home.”
The Cowboys stuck with Saxon, not exactly a poor choice. He wound up with a 41.9-yard punting average, best by a Cowboy in 16 years, and best ever by a Dallas rookie.
“I think they saw that when the pressure comes, I’m not yet at the point where they wanted me to be,” Wagner said. “I thought I was in pretty good shape, but I had to show I could do it in a game. I found it’s all a mental game when you get up in the pros.”
Steve Arnold, Wagner’s San Francisco-based agent, thinks it was also a matter of bad timing.
“For years, they had Danny White punt,” Arnold said of the Cowboys. “This year, they decided to go with a separate punter and they had a choice of two top kickers.”
Wagner was certainly a top kicker in college. He holds CSUN career records for punts (203), yardage (8,762) and average (43.4). He was also the school’s placekicker, hitting 25 of 41 attempts and 62 of 65 PATs. His field goals included one from 54 yards out.
Wagner doesn’t have a lot to kick about. Since leaving Dallas, he has had two more tryouts, with the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.
But he remains unemployed and is currently working out at Hilltop High, his alma mater.
He says he is not just going through the motions there, but is improving those motions.
“I found when I was dropping the ball, I was holding it underneath,” he explained. “I’m holding it a little more on top now and that has made me more consistent. I have also cut down my stride to two steps instead of three, which will enable me to get the ball off faster.”
Wagner helped coach the Hilltop football team this past season while pursue a denews
gree in physical therapy at a San Diego junior college.
That keeps him busy, but not satisfied. His goal remains unchanged.
“Once the draft is over,” he said, “we will decide which team to go for. I have no doubt I will be somewhere.”
Arnold hopes to have a club lined up in the next six weeks.
“We feel he is an NFL-caliber kicker,” his agent said. “He can also kick field goals. And on kickoffs, he can get the ball in the end zone almost every time. That can be a real advantage if you have someone like a Ron Brown of the Rams back there. It is sure much better to have the other team start at the 20.
“With the smaller rosters, someone like Wagner, who can punt and place kick, is very appealing. Especially in the USFL, where they might be able to save a salary.
“What we will do is to evaluate who needs a kicker and go with the best opportunity. Secondarily come the dollars. I would hate, for example, to see him go to the Rams and come up against their kicking situation.”
The situation for the Rams is great with Dale Hatcher firmly entrenched in the position.
Arnold won’t completely rule out the United States Football League. But that’s only if his kicker can’t make it in the NFL. And if the USFL can make it back on the playing field for another season.
The Baltimore Stars held the draft rights to Wagner last year. But nothing developed. They wound up with another punter.
Some guy named Sean Landeta.