HATTIESBURG, Miss. – After two hours of talking about his life and his days with the Oakland Raiders, Ray Guy turns to a waitress who’s been eavesdropping.
“I bet you’d be surprised to know I never used to talk that much when I was younger,” Guy said. “I was bashful.”
These days the former Raiders punter is a regular raconteur — happy to share stories about his work with young football players, trade stories about his All-Pro seasons and describe the new Jack Russell puppy he’s adopted for company.
He only hesitates when the conversation is steered to one of his least favorite topics: the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I was trying to get your mind off of it,” Guy said with a laugh.
When the seven 2009 inductees are announced later this week, Guy already knows he will not be on the list. A seven-time finalist for selection since 1992, most recently in 2007 and ’08, Guy didn’t make the cut from 25 semifinalists this time around.
You wouldn’t know it from meeting him. Guy is all smiles, still slim and trim at 59 with white hair and a touch of a smoker’s rasp in his booming Southern drawl. Friends stop by the table at his favorite haunt to say hello and he’s treated much like a celebrity in this small town where he was the starting free safety and punter, backup quarterback and a player on the baseball team at Southern Miss 35 years ago.
Were it not for a fellow named Favre, Ray Guy would be the most famous athlete ever to slide through Hattiesburg. There’s even an award given to college football’s best punter named for him.
Most assume he’s been granted every honor the man considered by many to be the NFL’s greatest punter could garner. But the fact remains: Guy is not in the Hall of Fame. Even worse to Guy, no player whose day job was punting has ever been selected by voters who meet each January.
“I think what I can tell you is, yes, I’m upset, but, no, it’s not something I’m going to sit here and dwell on,” Guy said over a Miller Lite. “Things happen for a reason. I’m a firm believer in fate, that sooner or later, if you wait long enough and you work hard enough, it will come around.”
Truth be told, Guy doesn’t have much time to sit around and dwell on it. He’s too busy. He now works for Southern Miss, helping to plan the school’s 2010 centennial celebration. And he headlines a series of camps for punters and kickers with many of his pupils having gone on to college teams and even the NFL.
He finds the work fulfilling. He’s held camps in every state but Alaska and his work at Southern Miss gives him a chance to serve as mentor to young people.
“I love what I’m doing,” Guy said. “I’m trying to give back to them. Not just the student-athletes, but the students in general. When you cross that curb over there into real life, I’m trying to relate to them what that’s like.”
Occasionally a camper or player will ask Guy if he’s still got his chops. They want to see if he can still put his right foot far over his head and hang the ball up there for 6 seconds like he did when the Raiders won three Super Bowls.
He once grabbed a few balls and a pair of cleats out of the Southern Miss locker room with the idea he’d head over to the cow pasture near his house and fire off a few, just to see. But the shoes remain in their box, the balls in a bag.
“I probably could still get it that high,” Guy always says. “But there’d be another problem – gettin’ it down.”
Mostly, he worries that he might hurt his back again. The injury forced him out of the NFL a year earlier than he planned, cutting short one of the league’s more colorful careers.
He played for the Raiders from 1973-86 and remains the only punter taken in the first round, 23rd overall by the Raiders. He was selected to seven Pro Bowls and still holds the record for most career punts in that game with 33. He led the NFL in gross average three times, finishing with a career mark of 42.4 yards per punt.
A gifted athlete who served as the Raiders’ emergency quarterback, the oft-used term “hang time” was coined to help describe his kicks. They would languish in the air, allowing tacklers to encircle a return man before he received the ball. They stayed up there so long, iconic coach Bum Phillips once had a football he used analyzed to see if it contained helium.
“Ray Guy is the standard of excellence by which all punters will be measured for all eternity,” Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis said. “His character was the very best. His will to win, his belief in team and the Raiders organization exemplified the greatness of the Raiders.”
So why isn’t Guy in the Hall of Fame? He’s heard all the reasons, participated in all the debates. What it really comes down to is punters get no respect.
There are none in Canton, save for those who were inducted for their work at other positions — former Washington Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh, for instance. At least placekickers can point to Jan Stenerud, the lone pure kicker in the Hall of Fame.
No, punters must suffer in ignominy, the importance of their position downgraded because they don’t score points. A wily punter can help keep the opposing team buried in its own end of the field, giving his team’s defense a huge advantage. But there’s nothing sexy about punting, nothing voters have found worthy of honoring.
Guy just wants to see a punter in the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t matter if it’s him. He points to others who are deserving — the Dolphins’ Reggie Roby, Jerrel Wilson of Southern Miss and the Chiefs, Herman “Thunderfoot” Weaver of the Lions and the Steelers’ Craig Colquitt.
Punters of today also feel the snub and pull for Guy’s eventual entry.
“It’s football, so a guy who is the best at his position in the game deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” Steelers punter Mitch Berger said. “It’s not the Pro Football And Not Kickers Hall of Fame, so if a guy has the statistics and he’s been one of the greats in his job, I don’t think there’s any reason he should be judged unlike any other position. But we all know that’s not the real world.”