Put That Punt a Little to the Left of the Flutists


DeOssie recalled feeling a twinge of guilt three seasons ago in San Diego when the specialists’ preparation did, in fact, encroach on a youth cheerleading performance.

“They were doing a fantastic, wonderful job, but there were three minutes to go, and we needed to get our work in,” DeOssie said. “We had moms yelling at us on the sideline. I was like, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but we need to get this done.’”

The specialists experience this chaos largely on their own. When they run onto the field for late preparations, a less rigorous version of the full warm-up they completed earlier, their coaches and teammates remain in the locker room. Brad Wing, the Giants’ punter, stays inside long enough to hear the first part of Coach Ben McAdoo’s speech before scurrying outside.

The rest of the Giants file onto the sideline, with quarterbacks tossing footballs and other players jogging and stretching, but no one else joins them.

When Arizona Cardinals punter Ryan Quigley played for the Jets, he treated that final warm-up as a competition with himself, he said, identifying a section of the field — a 10-yard window between flutists, for instance — and then aiming his kicks there.

Jets kicker Nick Folk said his primary intent during those late moments was gauging whether the conditions had shifted — most critically, whether the wind was blowing differently. He strikes a few field goals and some kickoffs until he feels comfortable, but only after assessing which side of the field will be less populated.

“You want to make sure you’re not kicking toward the end where all the fire and smoke is,” Folk said.

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Children participating in the Play 60 campaign welcomed Bills players before a game in September.

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Bill Wippert/Associated Press

Often, though, players have little choice. Not long before kickoff in Cleveland on Oct. 30, members of the Browns’ 1986 team formed a gantlet about 20 feet to the left of Edwards. Volunteers soon filled that space, and as they readied to unfurl a giant Browns flag, Edwards motioned to his long snapper, Tanner Purdum, to move closer to the Jets’ sideline, lest they be swallowed by an orange-and-brown tarp.

A native of Australia, Edwards said there was no sporting equivalent to the N.F.L.’s on-field craziness in his home country, but he added that he did not mind it much. From the time the ball is snapped in a game, Edwards has about two seconds to punt it before rushers reach him, and he said the tumult of warm-ups enhanced his concentration.

“The more stuff going on, the better,” Edwards said. “Then, once you get out there, it’s kind of simple.”

There was stuff everywhere Wing looked on Oct. 16, before the Giants played the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium. One set of volunteers came out carrying a folded banner promoting breast cancer awareness while another held an American flag. As the groups assumed their stations — the first gathered near midfield, while the second assembled along the hash marks extending from the 40-yard line to the 20 — Wing, standing near the 50, boomed kicks toward the corner.

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Jon Dorenbos of the Philadelphia Eagles practiced his long snaps as the team’s cheerleaders practiced a routine before a game in September.

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Rich Schultz/Getty Images

If not for the quick reflexes of a ball boy who stuck out his hand to deflect the ball, one of Wing’s punts would have struck a volunteer in the head.

“We’ve hit a couple of people,” Wing said a few days before that game. “That usually works out for the best because they don’t come back, and they know. We’re focused on our job, they’re focused on their job. Sometimes they get in the way of each other.”

The N.F.L. has not established a protocol for the hectic confluence of pomp and players. But during rehearsals, held about three hours before kickoff, individual teams often alert the on-field participants to the specialists’ routines and remind them to stay vigilant.

That vigilance extends to the specialists, whose comfort in the mundane is tested every time they play in unfamiliar venues. By now, Folk knows that at New Era Field, where the Buffalo Bills play, both teams emerge from the same tunnel, allowing him to run to the other side of the field so he can practice in relative peace.

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Members of the military carried United States flags onto the field before a Patriots game in October.

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Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Through trial and error, the players learn to adjust their routines. DeOssie keeps mental notes on which teams have frisky mascots. “Watch out for the Viking” on the motorcycle, he said.

The former N.F.L. punter Louie Aguiar can recall, even more than a decade after his career ended, precisely where the Oakland Raiders, the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins would appear from.

At Arrowhead Stadium, his home for five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Aguiar tended to linger by the numbers instead of the middle of the field, from where he preferred to punt, in order to keep away from the cheerleaders and community service personnel. Even taking those precautions, Aguiar said, he still once nearly drilled a man who walked right in front of him.

“He said, ‘Oh, sorry,’” Aguiar said in an interview conducted when he served on the Jets’ coaching staff. “I said: ‘I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about you.’”

That quick exchange usually represents the extent of participants’ on-field interaction with players — a terse apology, an “excuse me,” maybe even a “Hey, watch out!” — although some might suppress their reactions. When Quigley played for the Jets, he quipped that he expected people who were almost struck by his punts to plot their revenge against him.

Every so often, though, there is a tender, unscripted moment. If DeOssie leaves the locker room and sees a youth football game, he will sometimes run into the huddle and dispense high-fives. It creates a good memory, he said, and it takes only a few seconds before he must dart away, off again to search for calm amid the mayhem.

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