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Hatcher Finally Puts His Best Foot Forward

As odd-jobs go, this one was only a fair catch--planting road signs along the interstate that runs through Gaffney, S.C., beckoning motorists to stop and sample the sweetest peaches this side of Cheraw.

Dale Hatcher, unemployed punter, couldn’t stop kicking himself.

He had been to the Pro Bowl in 1985.

He had been to the NFC championship game in 1989.

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He had been the finest punter the Rams had ever had, averaging 40.4 yards per kick in five seasons.

So what was Hatcher doing in the fall of 1990, sweating for the profit of his wife’s uncle’s peach orchard while the Rams persisted in subsidizing Keith English’s season-long research project-- The Fourth-Down Squib Kick: Can It Be Perfected?

Dale Hatcher wasn’t the first player to eat himself out of football, and he certainly wasn’t the first to fret himself out of football, but he might have been the first punter to do both.

By the end of 1989, Hatcher’s body was a mess--at 250 pounds, he was out-lunching the linemen--and he had a mind to match. Hatcher was feuding with his coach, feuding with his wife--and feuding, or “fussin’ ” as Hatcher puts it, simply isn’t in his nature. Hatcher was the Jethro Bodine of the Rams, a very gentle, very fragile giant who hankered for little more out of life than kickin’ and grinnin’ and getting paid for it.

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Bit by bit, he lost it, first by adding nearly 30 pounds to his rookie weigh-in mark of 222.

“After I had knee surgery in ’88, I started lifting weights,” Hatcher says. “I wanted to be as strong as I could be, but I did it wrong. I didn’t run. I didn’t kick a whole lot. I was taking amino acids, just trying to get bigger. And I did. In the wrong way.”

It is one thing to look like a defensive tackle. It is quite another to punt like one. Hatcher was so out of shape in 1989 that “I couldn’t hardly even raise my leg. That’s how lazy I was, really. It was a hassle, just doin’ it.”

This tended to drive the Rams special teams coach at the time, Artie Gigantino, nuts. And with Hatcher, Gigantino didn’t require much of a push. They were culture-clash at first sight--Gigantino East Coast glib and abrasive, Hatcher as unsophisticated as a backwoods creek. Bright lights, big city? Hatcher thought you were talking about the midnight stars over Gaffney.

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“I just didn’t get along with him,” Hatcher says. “He was always on my case, all the time, along with everything else . . . He’d point at what he wanted you to do and if you didn’t do it exactly right, he’d get all mad at you.”

Hatcher was getting it by the earful that year, both home and away. At the time, he was separated from his wife, Lindley. “She was back in South Carolina and I was out here and I’d call her up every morning,” Hatcher says. “I’d be talking to her on the phone like something crazy and we’d start fussin’ and then I’d go to practice with it on my mind. Mentally and emotionally, I was completely drained.”

Hatcher is hardly an illusionist. He wears his mental and emotional state of being on his sleeve--and, in 1989, on his punting average. His 38.8 yards-per-punt average was the second lowest of his career and his net average of 32.1 was among the worst in the league.

“I didn’t have confidence in ’89,” Hatcher says. “I didn’t have anything in ’89. Mentally, I didn’t have it together at all. I’d be kicking in the games and I’d be so unsure of myself . . . And then you’d come back (to the sidelines) and everybody’s looking at you. ‘What’s your problem? Why can’t you kick?’ ”

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Finally, the Rams remedied the problem--or so they thought--through Plan B. After the 1989 season, they placed Hatcher on their unprotected list. Hatcher can never forget the day.

“My mama called me up and she had seen the list on the news,” he says. “She asked me, ‘What does that mean? Does that mean they don’t want you any more?’ I said, ‘Well, pretty much so. After you have one bad year, I guess they want to get rid of you.’ ”

Hatcher ended up bouncing to Green Bay, where the carom lasted but six weeks. The Packers cut Hatcher just before the season opener, with no time to hook on elsewhere, since the 27 other teams had already decided on their punters.

Except for fruitless tryouts with Buffalo and Cleveland, Hatcher sat out the 1990 season. He did it at home, having reconciled with Lindley, but that only hardened the message: This Is Your Family--What Have You Done For Them Lately?

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“I felt like a failure,” he says. “I couldn’t take care of my own family.”

From September through December, Hatcher learned more than he had during four years at Clemson. “I learned that I never wanted to go through that again,” he says. “It’s like the old saying--You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I believe that now.”

And so do the Rams.

Hank (The Shank) Ilesic?

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Keith (31.9 Net Average) English?

Suddenly, Hatcher looked wonderful again.

Gradually, the relationship was resurrected. Gigantino was fired and long-time Ram assistant Gil Haskell was re-assigned to his old position, special-teams coach. Hatcher lost 25 pounds. A tryout was arranged, then a contract and, now, full-time employment. Hatcher won the Rams’ punting job outright Wednesday when the Rams announced they were releasing English.

Is Hatcher happy?

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Pick a topic, any topic.

The Rams. “The other night, going to Angels Stadium to play San Diego, I couldn’t wait to get there. I was just so excited. I love having this feeling back.”

His kicking. “The reason I know my leg is back is because I hit one 49 yards the other night--with a new ball. I don’t know if I’ve hit one as far as that since my rookie year.”

Gil Haskell. “I like Gil a lot. He’s a big reason why I came back. He’s always positive about everything. Even if you do something wrong, he’ll find something good out of it.”

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Hatcher is so happy that when Haskell asked him to try holding on kicks for Tony Zendejas, Hatcher asked how Haskell wanted him to kneel, right knee or left?

“I’ve never tried it before,” he says, “but I just pretend it’s part of the job. I enjoy it.”

As odd-jobs go, it beats the last one Hatcher had.


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