Oct. 22, 1999
BERKELEY - Punters are so notorious for the lack of respect they get from coaches, fellow players and fans that comedian Adam Sandler wrote a song about it. In "The Lonesome Kicker," Sandler sings about a mistreated, underappreciated player who is laughed at even by the towel boy.
"...I go home at night 'Cause I never get invited To go drinking with the other guys And I sit in my chair and I soak my foot As I eat a plate of cold french fries..."
Nick Harris, California's star punter, was aware of the stigma and the song. "I came to Cal thinking that could be the way it is," said the 6'3", 215-pound junior. "But it wasn't. The guys accepted me right away as an equal and as someone who plays. I haven't felt any effects of what Sandler was talking about."
And why should he? After redshirting his freshman year, Harris appeared in all 11 games in '97, averaging 42.2 yards per punt. His sophomore year he placed 27 punts inside the 20-yard line, including five inside the opponent's five.
Harris is currently averaging 48.0 yards per punt, has 20 punts of 50 yards or longer and six of 60 yards or longer. After last week's shutout of UCLA, he was named Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the Week. Harris averaged 53.1 yards on seven punts against the Bruins, including a career long 69-yarder and a 60-yard punt that was downed at UCLA's three-yard line.
His successful season thus far has ranked him No. 2 in the nation in punting but Harris, who at one point this season was in the No. 1 spot, says he doesn't feel any added pressure because of it.
"It obviously brings a lot of attention to what I am doing, but as far as it being the most important thing that a punter can have, it's not," says Harris. "It's up there, but hang time and placing the ball inside the 20 are much more important than an accolade."
Eleven of Harris's 42 punts this season have been inside the opponent's 20 and his performance this year has led many to believe that he will soon be playing on Sundays.
"I feel I got a good shot," says Harris. "I keep improving year after year and I expect that trend to continue. If it does, it should be no problem."
All this from a player who didn't take punting seriously himself until his senior year in high school. After attending an informal punting camp the summer before his final season at Westview High in Phoenix, Harris averaged 42.3 yards per punt and had a long of 60 yards. He was named All-America as a punter that year, but also played offense and defense for the team and received all-state honors as a linebacker. He was recruited at both positions, but when the offer came in from Cal, he took it.
Now, to hear Harris describe the motion of the perfect punt is to understand what he believes is a thing of beauty. "At the highest point, it takes a straight dive," he said. "It just spirals and just points right at the ground like a bomb that is going to hit the Iraqi desert or something."
Harris says he gets as much respect as the next guy from teammates and coaches who consider him the team's 12th man.
"I get the same scholarship everybody else has - I get to play, I get to travel and all the perks are the same," says Harris. "And I get to play football. That was the main thing, to keep on playing no matter what. And just to be good at something, just to be blessed with something you're good at, is nice to have."
By the end of this season, Harris may indeed be a lonesome kicker, but not because he has been shunned by teammates, fans and coaches as in Adam Sandler's song.
That's just the way it is at the top.