Last Saturday, as Rob Myers paced the sidelines watching Washington State’s final drive fizzle at its 36-yard line, a teammate offered him a bit of encouragement.
“Just get the punt off, Rob,” he said.
But Myers needed to do more than that if the Cougars were to preserve their 34-30 lead over UCLA. He had to get enough loft on the ball to freeze the Bruins’ Darryl Henley, the nation’s No. 3 punt returner, and to allow the Washington State coverage team to get downfield.
And when Myers stepped out in front of 52,000 screaming fans with less than a minute to play, he left his faculties on the sidelines.
“When I went out, I was outside of myself,” he said. “Thoughts were racing through my mind at a 100 miles per hour. I was looking around and people were yelling things but I couldn’t hear them. It was really weird. I don’t remember a thing about the punt.”
He unloaded the kick and quickly snapped to his senses as Henley streaked down the right sideline. Henley was caught at the Washington State 39-yard line and Myers was in on the saving tackle.
UCLA, ranked No. 1 in the nation before the game, wasn’t able to score and Washington State ran out the clock.
But Myers, a junior who graduated from La Canada High in 1986, has felt more than the heat of a Henley return during the past few weeks. After a game against Tennessee a month ago, the Cougar coaching staff issued him an ultimatum.
“We put some pressure on him and said, ‘Hey, if you don’t start kicking it the way you can kick it . . . . Relax. Do what you can do. Then we’re going to put somebody else in there,” said John Smith, WSU’s assistant head coach. “And he came out in practice and said there’s no way you’re taking it away and just flat outkicked (Jason Hanson) every day.”
Myers didn’t scoff at suggestions of his replacement.
“A lot of times coaches will say that just to get you to work harder,” he said. “But I knew this was for real because we were switching off in practice.”
Myers’ problems didn’t involve a tendency to slack off--rather, he was too intense.
“I was stepping on the field with the weight of the world on my shoulders and I was looking for a 60-yarder,” he said.
Instead, his punts were dying. They would often sail less than 35 yards and wouldn’t rotate. His average dropped from 38.3 yards in 1987 to 36.7 this season.
Still, coaches say, when Myers is in a groove, his kicks are phenomenal.
“During practice he just kicks the crap out of the ball,” Smith said. “He’s got great hang time.”
Smith compares the swing of the punter’s leg to that of a golf club. But unlike a golf ball resting on a tee, the football is moving downward. Introduce the variables of a botched snap, wind, an altered step pattern when pressured or a bad drop, and inconsistency is likely.
The mental aspect of the job is also crucial.
After his second punt against UCLA, Myers turned in his big, thick turf shoes in favor of snug, sleek punting cleats. His first kick in the streamlined shoes sailed 54 yards.
“I was just playing mind games with myself,” he said.