Column: After all this time, punter Johnny Hekker still gets a kick being a Ram
For a decade he has been a leg the Rams could stand on, their irrepressible ambassador, their unwavering presence.
So when it appeared he was going to be cut, Johnny Hekker understandably couldn’t bear to watch.
It was late August, he was sidelined by COVID-19, and, on the television in an exhibition game against the Denver Broncos, his potential replacement, Corey Bojorquez, was booming the ball.
Hekker literally turned off the game at halftime.
“It was a deal where I was sitting there watching the game and felt like my heart sink a little bit, down in the pit of my stomach, thinking, man, he might have just slipped by,” Hekker recalled during a teleconference Thursday. “Ended up turning off the game at halftime ... turned on ‘Ted Lasso’ or ‘The Office’ ... ..called a mentor ... prayed ... was able to find some peace.”
He found even more peace several days later when his job was officially saved after he agreed to restructure his contract and the Rams traded Bojorquez.
“I was really, really grateful,” Hekker said.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL have got it wrong. Their hiring issues are not about diversity, they’re about meritocracy.
So were Rams fans, who have grown close to the longest-tenured players and one of only three who were with the team since it moved here from St. Louis. They love his huge leg, his fearless arm and his crazy optimism. Especially his crazy optimism.
Like, he thinks there’s an actual chance that, for the first time, a special teams player could be selected as MVP on Sunday when the Rams play the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
Don’t laugh. If the Rams had survived Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots, Hekker’s nine booming punts and Super-Bowl record 65-yard boot would have made him a viable candidate.
“We’ve all had the discussion this week of what it would take,” he said of the MVP possibilities. “Our long snapper [Matt Orzech] has some crazy dreams, Matt Gay has some crazy dreams, I have some crazy dreams ... but, I think it’s possible ... highly unlikely, but possible.”
It’s those crazy dreams that have made Hekker, 32, such a likable member of the community, and a figure who should be cherished Sunday. This could, after all, be his last game as a Ram. If the team came that close to firing him mere months ago, who knows?
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s been an incredible ride.”
The Los Angeles stretch of his ride began when he arrived from St. Louis in 2016 with teammates Aaron Donald and Rob Havenstein. While there has been no greater joy than watching Donald, and while there has been much admiration for the toughness of Havenstein, it is Hekker whose voice was initially the most influential in helping this strange new team carve out a home.
It is Hekker who was most available for questions when the Rams stunk. It is Hekker who constantly acknowledged the importance of the community when they won.
It’s been a blessing. It’s been an incredible ride.
— Rams punter Johnny Hekker
The Rams have plenty of talkative stars now, from Robert Woods to Jalen Ramsey to the charismatic new guy Von Miller. But before all of them, there was the brightly bearded Hekker, a consistently honest voice who stepped off the plane from St. Louis with his hand out and his hopes high.
He was the first Ram this columnist met, at their first training camp in July 2016, where they practiced in front of nearly 10,000 fans at UC Irvine.
“To walk out here and see the stands like this, we are super blessed to be there,” Hekker said at the time. “You put in hours and hours of work and there’s nobody there. Then you see something like this, we are so appreciative, we’re just soaking it all in.”
Later that season, with the team struggling, he was one of the first Rams to set the stage for the firing of coach Jeff Fisher.
“The fans have every right to be frustrated,” Hekker said at the time. “We have to wear it as players. We’re letting [Fisher], each other and our fans down, and that sucks.”
Lewis Lazarus, 91, is one of many old-time Rams fans who have been around long enough to see them come to town, leave, and come back. And win a title in 1951.
Through it all, in that first year here, Hekker had arguably the greatest punting season ever, landing 51 punts inside the 20-yard line and having only one returned while recording the single-season record for net punting average at 46.0.
In all, he has been a first-team All-Pro selection four times, he ranks fifth in career yards per punt, and, oh yeah, he has thrown a touchdown pass, kicked a field goal and booted an extra point.
Granted, this most recent season hasn’t been his most useful. He is not punting as much, only 51 times, second lowest of his career, and only once in the NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers. His 42.6 net average was the third worst of his career. And for his fun fakes, well, he has attempted only one pass in two years. But then again, he has had a combined five booming punts in the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 49ers and could be peaking at the right time.
“He had a tough go of it right from the start, but I’m glad to see him come through because he’s a heck of a guy and a really good leader for our team,” said Joe DeCamillis, Rams special teams coordinator. “The guys listen to him ... the guys know the guys that are working at it, the guys know the ones that are bought in completely, and Johnny definitely is that.”
How bought in is he? Because he on the field so little this season, he found a constructive way to contribute on the sideline. Meet your all-pro water boy.
“I’m doing whatever I can to support the team in other ways,” he said. “Getting guys water, encouraging them ... just being a vocal presence on the sideline. ... I like to be a good encourager.”
Hekker ended Thursday’s videoconference with more positive thinking. He flashed the peace sign, then unzipped his jacket to reveal a shirt emblazoned with the yellow “Believe” sign that hangs in the locker room of that beloved television soccer coach Lasso.
For six years in a land of doubt, Johnny Hekker has believed. It’s cool that he has been able to stick around Sunday to possibly, finally, reap the rewards of this belief.
“It’s awesome to be a punter on this football team,” he said.
For at least one more game, it will be awesome to watch him.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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