The return trip was five hours, and usually it was very quiet.John Kidd’s family was certainly loyal.
Every home game in the fall, his mother, Carolyn, his father, Max, and his little sister, Janet, would jump in the car and drive 300 miles from Findlay, Ohio, to Evanston, Ill., to watch John play football for Northwestern. Every week, Northwestern lost. There was never much to talk about on the way home.
In 1980 and 1981, John’s freshman and sophomore seasons, Northwestern didn’t win a game. The football team was the punch line to nearly every campus joke.
On top of that, the Kidd who had gotten so many slaps on the back as the quarterback of the Findlay High School football team, who had decided to go to a not-so-high-powered college football program so he could continue to play quarterback, had been relegated to full-time punting duties and wasn’t being considered for the starting quarterback position.
Nearly a decade later, Kidd has punted his way to San Diego, where he will play his first season as a Charger. The dearth of wins at Northwestern didn’t stop him, and neither did the the abundance of wind in six NFL seasons in Buffalo.
If Kidd, 29, were the type of guy to get really upset every time something went wrong, he probably would have quit football long ago. Measured in victories, his career has undoubtedly more downs than ups.
As if playing football for Northwestern weren’t enough of a headache, Kidd was drafted by the Bills in 1984. During many games, 50-m.p.h. winds would blow in his face, and he would do his best to keep the ball low so it wouldn’t die in the air. On a day like that, a 28-yard average wasn’t bad. At least, not until he checked what the guys on the West Coast were doing.
“You have a 28-yard average and the punter you go against has an 18-yard average, and you feel like you’ve had a great day,” Kidd said. “But then everybody out here has a 45-yard average. It’s tough to keep up with the Jonses when you’re in Buffalo eight games a year.”
Still, Kidd has a career average of 40.5 yards a punt, and he set an NFL record in 1985 with 33 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
The funny thing is, Kidd was almost California bound. During his senior year, the San Francisco 49ers often phoned to express interest. Then, on draft day, the called to tell him he was about to be their next selection. The phone rang again five minutes later. It was the Bills.
So, after four years at Northwestern, the first two of them winless, he went Buffalo, which didn’t exactly have a winning tradition.
The 49ers won the Super Bowl that season. The Bills went 2-14. The next season they also went 2-14.
Unbelievable, yes. Unbearable, no--not for a guy with Kidd’s temperament.
“Outside factors don’t get to him as much as other players,” said Janet Stewart, Kidd’s younger sister. “He can take a lot of things in stride. Things just don’t rattle him.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that concern him about playing professional football. He would just as soon the NFL reconsider the rule that gives officials the option to make “roughing the punter” a five-yard penalty rather than a 15-yarder.
“If it’s fourth and more than five, you’re going to get rushed,” he says. “Kids go to camps and learn the 152 steps to become a great punter. All that stuff goes out the window when you have 10 guys that run 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash) coming at you.”
A few years back, a player came flying in and cut him at the knees on a punt. The official blew the whistle and assessed a five-yard penalty.
Kidd said to him: “That’s got to be a 15-yard penalty.” The official responded: “You’re not hurt.”
“So I guess you have to have knee surgery to get a 15-yard penalty,” he says. “To me, it’s not fair to protect the quarterbacks like they do and then turn everybody loose on the punter.”
Fans aren’t always fair, either. After one game his rookie season, Kidd was walking off the field after a Bills’ loss reassuring himself that if he kept his punting at a high level it eventually would help the team win. It was about then that somebody from the stands yelled: “Hey, Kidd, you (stink).”
“It’s irrelevant if you have a good game or a bad game,” he says. “People just want you to win. So that was a good early lesson.”
The Bills went 12-4 in 1988 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game, which they lost to Cincinnati. That was the first winning team for which Kidd had played since his junior year in high school in 1978, when Findlay High went 7-3.
Because Kidd has proven effective in adverse situations, and because his quarterbacking background shows versatility, the Chargers went after him when he became available as a Plan B free agent.
In past years, punters have often been the subject of snide remarks because of there non-athletic appearance. Larry Pasquale, the Chargers’ special teams coach, says punting became so specialized that the position often was filled with players who weren’t capable of doing anything but kicking.
“That’s where the flakiness titles came in,” Pasquale says. “But now punters and kickers are more versatile. They’re better athletes. They train, they lift weights, they run.”
And Kidd does all of those. Growing up, he divided his time among every sport imaginable, including long hours playing hockey. Little sister Janet would wait around the rink just to carry his hockey stick for him when he went home.
In contrast to his early seasons in Buffalo, Kidd was a big shot around Findlay. That got old for Janet, who was always referred to as John’s little sister by her teachers. (One year, on his birthday, she made a pitch for her own identity by giving him a T-shirt that said: “Janet’s brother.”)
These days, as the Chargers prepare for the regular season opener at Dallas Sept. 9, Janet’s brother is impressing a lot of people with his knowledge of the game and his willingness to work. Most days, Kidd is one of the last players to leave the field.
“John’s always alert, always thinking about his job,” Pasquale says. “You don’t have to look for John to work. He’s always around. He’s always making sure that everything is clear.”
It isn’t a chore.
“I enjoy what I do,” he says. “so from that aspect, it makes it a lot of fun.”