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ON FOOTBALL

Foot in the door at Hall?

FOXBOROUGH -- Kickers and punters, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. This is true on the field, in the locker room, and, most of all, behind the walls of the Hall of Fame.

In recent years, the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri has kicked like a guy who might one day be able to make a case for induction, but there is a caveat. There's only one guy like him in there now.

Kickers and punters do not get into the Hall unless they buy a ticket. The only exception has been Jan Stenerud, and if you compare his numbers with Vinatieri's, or a lot of other kickers of recent vintage, you might not conclude that those guys belong, but you might also ask what Stenerud is doing in there.

This year, there was a strong push made by supporters of Nick Lowery, who finished his 17-year career with 383 field goals, third-most in NFL history behind Gary Anderson (533) and Morten Andersen (515), who are still active. It failed.

Lowery reached the quarterfinals of the voting process but didn't make the cutdown from 90 nominees to 25. The firm of Anderson and Andersen one day may, especially since each has now played a remarkable 23 years in the NFL, but their argument will not be an easy one because of the basic bias against, of all things, football players who use their foot to play football.

When it comes to punters, the Hall of Fame club is even more exclusive. No punter is in Canton. None. Zero. Zip.

Sure, Yale Lary punted and Sammy Baugh punted and a few other guys in the Hall punted, but that is not how they got in. They got in because they were position players of note, football players, a designation still not given to kickers and punters even if they do what Vinatieri is doing this season.

Ray Guy, the only punter ever drafted on the first round, has reached the semifinal ballot several times, but when the great debate begins over his fitness for induction, the idea of sending a punter to Canton is dismissed by some voters as, well, ridiculous -- even though Guy is to punting what Dick Fosbury was to high jumping.

"We talk about this stuff all the time," Patriots punter Josh Miller said, "because we're kickers. We have nothing else to do. Ray Guy's got my vote. His statistics today would put him in the middle of the pack but he was the first punter to do it right. He was the guy with five-second hang times. He's like Dick Fosbury. Fosbury wasn't the best high jumper. He only did about 6 foot 4. But now they all do the Fosbury Flop.

"Most punters study Ray Guy. His form was so good. It's like golf. You look at Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, John Daly, Greg Norman. They all have different body types but there's three things [in their swing] they all have in common. It's easier with Ray Guy. His form was perfect as could be."

Vinatieri feels even more strongly about Guy's place in the Hall, as well as those of Anderson and Andersen when their time comes, but he recognizes the reality.

"Guy should be in there," Vinatieri said. "Lowery should be in. Both the Andersons should be, too. You play over 20 years and score 2,000 points and there's no place for you in the Hall of Fame? Maybe in the back somewhere? Come on now."

As of this morning, Vinatieri leads the NFL in scoring with 112 points, making him only the second kicker in league history to score 100 points in each of his first nine seasons. He is 28 of 29 and has made 21 straight field goals, which makes his accuracy rate this year 96.6 to improve his career mark to 82.22 percent. That latter figure puts him about 16 points ahead of Stenerud (66.8), who scored 100 or more points only seven times. The latter figure is deceiving, however, because Stenerud played on many potent offenses that kicked fewer field goals because they scored more touchdowns.

But if Vinatieri maintains his present pace for another decade, his numbers would approach or exceed those of Anderson. But if Lowery, with an 85 percent accuracy rate, can't get into the Hall, and the likelihood is that Anderson and Andersen will be hard-pressed, how can Vinatieri hope to do so?

Wisely, he doesn't think much about it. Like Miller, he's happy to discuss the injustice of guys who score 100 or more points a year being ignored by a game that is often decided by a kicker's foot, but when it comes to himself, he deflects the conversation in the direction of others who were kicking when he was barely 10 years old.

"Some of those guys are the best ever at their job," Vinatieri said. "They're football players. It's silly to say otherwise.

"We're not out there doing the other stuff but we play as key a role out there as the other players. I'd argue that kickers are as meaningful to the game as the other players. Twenty or 30 years ago maybe things were different, but today a lot of the punters and kickers are good athletes.

"When Tom Tupa was punting here, he was the best golfer, the best basketball player, one of our best athletes. Thirty years ago, maybe the kickers were fat guys and foreign guys and that stereotyped us, but when we get out there, we play a pretty big role in the game."

Although Vinatieri no longer is a punter, he was in the World League and at South Dakota State. He grew up watching Guy boom balls so high that one once struck the scoreboard on the ceiling of the Superdome in New Orleans during a Saturday afternoon practice with the Raiders. In Vinatieri's mind, the question is not whether Guy should make the Hall but why it hasn't happened already.

"The coaches talk about him like he's at a different level than the other guys," Vinatieri said. "People should be able to appreciate what he did for the league and for punters. For kickers like that, there has to be a spot somewhere in the Hall of Fame. Maybe not that many spots but a few."

Guy finally may get his this year, although he first must get down from the list of 25 to 15 finalists, each of whom is discussed in an open debate among the Hall of Fame committee's 39 voters. Then there is another vote to cut the list again until a final vote in which he would need to be named on 80 percent of the ballots.

If Guy survives the process, he would be, like Stenerud, a trailblazer, the first at his position to gain entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That hasn't helped anyone since Stenerud's induction in 1991, but you have to start somewhere. Then, if you're a kicker like Anderson, Andersen, Lowery, or even Vinatieri, you have to do what you do sometimes when the snow is blowing and the wind is whipping in three directions: block out reality, keep on kicking, and hope for the best. 

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