FWAA member catches the bug, but not the ball, at Penn State spring game

FWAA member Nate Bauer of Blue-White Illustrated participated in the punt-catch event at Penn State’s Blue-White Spring Game on April 22.  Penn State head football coach James Franklin offered media members an opportunity to participate.  Here is Bauer’s account of the experience.

By Nate Bauer

Blue-White Illustrated

The proposal was one not to be taken seriously.

Penn State’s James Franklin began his midweek, post-practice press conference by offering up an opportunity for the media. Any interested colleagues, he announced, could go down on the field, in front of the Blue-White Game crowd, and catch a punt.

With a tone that instantly elicited memories of grade school teachers fed up with students who’d talked too much during class, the invention was, in my mind at least, clearly born of spite. Go ahead, hot shot, you teach the class.

An avid practitioner of avoiding any and all forms of unnecessary embarrassment, this was an example-making moment from which I’d spent my entire life steering clear.

Fewer than 72 hours later, I’d let a booming, sidewinding punt glance through my fingertips and to the Beaver Stadium turf. And not a day has passed since in which I haven’t wished for another crack at it.

So what changed?

It started with Franklin himself shortly after his challenge had first been revealed. Lingering with a colleague on the other end of Penn State’s outdoor practice fields following the scrum, snapping a few pictures of players while chatting with team personnel, the head coach himself popped into the circle to say hello.

As we’d been warned, by Franklin’s own words and via other staff members, the challenge was not a joke. They’d already drawn up legal waivers to be signed by participants, and Franklin was adamant about bringing the idea to fruition.

“So are you going to do it?” he asked excitedly.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

And my colleague? The same.

“Come on! Are you kidding me? I had higher expectations for you guys. This is a real disappointment,” Franklin said. His up-to-no-good grin beaming for the duration of the conversation, the dismissal was a welcomed relief. Crisis averted.

The reality would quickly turn the next day as my phone buzzed with incoming texts and calls. In a group text with three of my closest friends, without having mentioned any of it, the challenges poured in.

“Are you suiting up for the Blue-White Game Nate?”

Acknowledging that I’d been lobbied by Franklin and other staffers to participate, my answer remained a solid no.

“Do it! Do it!” they persisted.

Then another, and another, and another; as each hour passed, friends and family urged my participation after they’d read the Tweets, Facebook or Instagram posts from Penn State football that had, to no surprise, gone viral.

The sway of bad advice from folks with no skin in the game began to work. I queried the team’s sports information director to find out what the response had been like from others. The response had been positive, I was told, and though I’d made no mention of wanting to participate, the question was apparently the equivalent of a verbal commitment.

“I’m signing you up,” the next message read. “You want to do it.”

Maybe she was right. Certainly, that I’d already Googled “how to catch a punt” betrayed any notion to the contrary. Predictably, the answers were mostly less than illuminating, but an entry from former New York Giants return man Phil McConkey did offer some insight. McConkey, paraphrasing legendary coach Bill Parcells, said catching punts could be boiled down to four golden rules.

“Sprint to the ball. Get set. Don’t drift. Catch it.”

Not unlike playing centerfield in a church softball game, the nuances of trajectory, wind and spin would need to wait for another day. Instead, understanding the basic principles would have to suffice as preparation.

Still reluctant about my decision as I stepped onto the field alongside 15 other brave souls at halftime, I made one last-ditch effort to glean some pre-punt knowledge to increase my chances of success. With Franklin making the rounds to offer his thanks for being good sports, I asked for at least a few tips in return.

Turning back, his emphasis was even more straightforward than McConkey’s. Whatever you do, he said, show no hesitation. Make the decision on where the ball will land, run to the spot and go after it, as he continued, because “you’re either going to look ridiculous, or you’re going to catch it, but you don’t want anything in between.”

And with that, the steady air assault began.

The punts booming in rapid succession off the feet of starter Blake Gillikin and backup Dan Pasquariello, two lines of media members filtered through. At my place deep in the second line, maybe 12th overall, the on-field experience of watching punt after punt sail through the air proved beneficial, though. The distances weren’t wildly different from punt to punt, but the locations sideline to sideline often were.

Finally at the front of the line, my name announced over the Beaver Stadium loudspeakers, Pasquariello’s punt leapt from his foot to my right, at least the 40 feet separating my hash from the one opposite my line.

Immediately, the golden rules would come into play. Though I’d been able to track the direction of the punt well, the downfall of my career in any and all varieties of youth athletics manifest itself completely.

In my short and stocky case, “Sprint to the ball!” likely appeared as a beleaguered rumble, leaving the ball to slip through my outstretched fingers.

Though two or three colleagues ahead of me were able to actually secure the punts, I would not join them. Instead, the consolation of Penn State men’s hoops head coach Pat Chambers awaited me in the back of the end zone — him being nearly in tears laughing at my near-miss.

Still, what I’d suspected was confirmed by him and others.

I almost had it! A better kick and I would have been on to the second round! That wasn’t so difficult!

Reflecting on the initial challenge, having avoided abject embarrassment while still taking in a unique experience, it was a decision I’m glad to have made.

“We thought that would be fun,” said Franklin. “And just so you know, I’m dead serious.”

It was fun. And though I’d resolutely objected to the idea from the start, I’m now determined to get another shot at next year.

And just so you know, I’m dead serious.