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The Loneliness Of A Nebraska Punt Returner

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Eric Francis

I am a punt returner for the University of Nebraska. Our defense has held the opponent, they must punt, and I get my first chance at glory.

I get on the field, take my position. As I wait, I try to take in the moment. 90,000 plus people, all clad in red around me. I have waited all my life for this moment, and it has arrived.

The two teams line up. The opposing team's players take their position. They are in a spread punt formation, three guys in front of the punter for protection. Their gunners are loaded to one side. My guys take their positions next to them.

I remember coach saying that he did not want to see a fair catch. I am a freshman, I am getting a chance, and I want to prove myself. I will not let the ball bounce and roll. I resolve myself that no matter what, I will not signal fair catch. I think this punt return will be easier than most; the decision of what to do is already made before the play begins.

I never see the punt itself. There are too many guys in the way. I only pretend I can hear the ball hit the punter's foot. I heard it in high school, in those games in which only a few fans were in attendance, but with with 90,000 plus fans yelling, I can only watch the action up front and assume the ball has been punted.

I have to spot the ball as quickly as I can. It's in the air. Locate the ball. Locate the ball. Locate the ball.

I must trust my teammates; that they will block for me. The opposing team doesn't know what to expect from me, but I'm new so I know they don't fear me. Because of this I know that the punter will not purposefully punt away from me, but the ball might have gone off the side of his foot. Locate the ball. The punt is short, and I must keep my eye on the ball in the air while I move towards it, with only a quick glance to determine where the others players are.

I studied physics. I know that momentum is mass times velocity. Their 175 lb gunner will be running at full speed and if he hits me given that mass and velocity I might as well be hit by a small car as him. It doesn't matter. I must hold onto the ball.

I continue to watch the ball in the air. I am cognizant of the opposing team's players coming toward me. They are coming fast and at least two appear to be unblocked. I am a little surprised by this, but I am still focused on the ball. I must be fearless.

The ball, the ball, the ball. It is all about the ball. To be successful I must first catch the ball. I have caught maybe a million balls in my lifetime, but not like this. Not with thousands of fans watching on TV, and maybe a few million more at home. I dismiss that thought as the ball comes nearer.

I catch the ball and instinctively take my first step to make the first man miss. At the least he won't get a clean shot, blow me up, and let loose the ball. Peripheral vision, feel, and instinct determine whether the first step is left or right. Make the wrong choice and I'm hit by a car.

I gain three yards. I am not dead. I have not dropped the ball. This is a successful punt return. The entire play took six seconds. The crowd isn't so impressed. I wonder how many of them have ever tried to do this. Maybe a hundred out of this 90,000. Maybe.

I look at coach. He is not impressed, but I cannot tell if it because of me or because my teammates have failed to block for me.

I dream of the day that my teammates actually block for me.

That day will be special.