A Practice in the Life of An All-America Punter

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Careers have been made and broken writing about champions.

Whether it's a golfer who dominates the game enough to make it watchable or a grocery-stocker-turned Superbowl MVP, sportswriters have wasted hundreds of gallons of ink writing bad cliches about "what it really takes," "championship mindsets," or the time-honored "he wanted it more than the other guy."

So I set out to find out what makes one of Cal's own champions tick.

But simply talking to him would have been too simple. No, I wanted to see first-hand the work that goes into crafting the nation's best punter.

With this in mind, I kept an eye on Nick Harris and Cal's kickers for a few practices over the past two weeks. Following is a play-by-play description of a typical grueling practice that has gotten Harris where he is.

4 p.m.: Harris works on punt drills while most of team is still warming up. Breaks his only sweat of the day.

4:05: Harris shanks kick to the right. Onlookers stare in disbelief.

4:13: Harris booms a 60-yard punt. No one notices.

4:41: Kickers begin full-contact kicking drills. Break their only sweat of the day.

4:45: Practice for rest of team begins. Harris and kickers head down to Memorial to practice field goals.

4:48: Head coach and kicking coordinator Tom Holmoe arrives at Stadium. Attempts to snap ball to kickers.

4:49: Holmoe turns around and tosses ball to kickers.

4:55: Holmoe leaves. One of the kickers goes and lays down in the shade; Harris begins kicking the ball really hard.

5:01: Passerby stops and marvels at Harris' punts. He is invited to join the kickers on the field.

5:02: Harris and the passerby begin playing catch.

5:05: Harris begins throwing the ball at the crossbar.

5:07: One of the kickers leaves for class.

5:20: Cheerleaders arrive for their practice. They partially destroy the fence circling the field while trying to get on the routine platform. Kickers move over to investigate. The kicker laying in the shade gets up.

5:26: Cheerleaders start kicking.

5:27: One of the kickers begins teaching one of the cheerleaders how to kick.

5:33: Harris starts running patterns while one of the other kickers throws him passes.

5:36: Harris catches a fade route in the end zone. An argument ensues over whether it was a better throw or catch.

5:43: Cheerleaders begin practicing routine. Kickers move over to sit on a bench in the shade.

5:48: Cheerleaders finish a routine. Kickers applaud.

5:52: Kickers leave field.

5:53: Kickers sit in stands.

5:55: Kickers return to practice, where the team is in the middle of full-contact drills. They begin working with snapping machine.

6:07: Harris moves closer to snapping machine and tries to field ball. It hits him in the facemask and knocks him to the ground, much to the amusement of the other kickers.

6:32: Practice ends. Harris kicks a line drive to the equipment pile, dangerously close to a group of reporters.

Now do you see what he's done to earn the "Harris for Heisman" signs that will probably appear this year?

In all seriousness, there's little that Harris needs to work on at this point. He returns as one of the nation's best players at his position, and we all know how much game experience he's gotten over the past two years.

Harris averaged 44.6 yards per punt last season, good for seventh in the country. That number could have been higher if he hadn't often been forced to pooch-punt by a place-kicking game that had more curves than Jennifer Lopez.

Now, with a Playboy spread behind him and an NFL career ahead of him, Harris is getting the recognition he so richly deserves. He has size, athleticism and a leg many NFL punters would dream of - and he's been a godsend to a Bears team that hasn't been able to sustain drives since 1997.

For the past two years, Harris has been the 12th man on a stellar defense. The atrocious field position he gave opponents helped a defense that already had to spend as many as 45 minutes a game on the field.

Harris doesn't make 12 tackles a game. He doesn't spend two and a half hours banging helmets in practice four days a week. He doesn't have to.

If you don't believe me, just watch tomorrow.


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