Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ray Guy

Growing up in Oakland, California, my brothers and I watched Oakland Raiders games with a passion.  After church, we'd settle in for that week's big game.  The 1970s were a tough time to be a Raiders fan (not as bad as today, though!), because the Steelers were always kicking our butt. And you cannot imagine how disheartening the Immaculate Reception was, when Franco Harris miraculously caught a 4th down Bradshaw pass that bounced off of Jack Tatum *and/or Frenchy Fuqua and ran it in for a touchdown -- even the cameramen were fooled.

Over twenty five years later, I was with the Pittsburgh Symphony, led by Mariss Jansons, whose newest friend at the time was . . . . Franco Harris.  Harris loved the orchestra, even coming to rehearsals from time to time, sitting by himself.  I asked him about that amazing catch, and told him I was a Raiders fan, to which he responded, "yeah, someone recently played me the tape of the play-by-play call [from Raiders voice Bill King] from your perspective, and I guess it wasn't such a good day for you, huh?"   Harris is a really great guy, making it very hard for me to dislike him, much as he disrupted my brother's and father's life at the time.

It was thrilling to be a Raiders fan in the 70s, with so many ne'er-do-wells on the team, guys that no other NFL team wanted, like John Matuszak, Otis Sistrunk (from the University of Mars, they would say) and so many others.  For the Super Bowl game in New Orleans against the Philadelphia Eagles, Coach Dick Vermeil made sure his players observed curfew, while Tom Flores's Raiders were up all night, every night, in the French Quarter. (The Raiders won -- so much for needed sleep before big games.) Quarterback Ken Stabler (aka "Snake") wrote a book about all of the off-field antics, of which one player on that team recently confirmed all of the stories to be 'accurate.'

I am speaking of Ray Guy, legendary punter from Southern Miss.

Most football fans understand that when a team has to punt, it's bad news, because you've just gone 3-and-out, and now you must give the ball back to your opponent (if you're not in field goal range).  But when the Raiders had to punt, we used to lick our lips in anticipation, because we had Ray Guy. Even the announcers would get excited! Why?

When Guy came out to punt, the other team was very worried.  With most punters, the ball goes down the field, the punt receiver catches it, then he runs it back. With most punters back then, a punt receiver usually had time to run before the other team could get to him downfield.  But you must understand -- a Ray Guy punt was extraterrestrial.  It never came down.  It went so high in the air . . . there was one time when a camera caught the ball gracing the rim of the stadium!  His punts were majestic things of beauty.  Guy's punts brought about the advent of the phrase: hang time.  Imagine being a punt receiver, waiting for a Ray Guy punt to take forever to descend while Raiders special teams guys are ready to throttle you.  It was a no-win situation.  One year, Guy had several punts over 60 yards.  Legend had it he could throw a ball 100 yards (he recently corrected it to only 80 yards), and his status as one of the Raiders' backup quarterbacks proved it.  There was a stretch of over 600 consecutive punts without being blocked.  Such an amazing athlete he was!

Last week, Ray Guy was finally elected to the Hall of Fame.  He had to wait 22 years for the honor, probably because no one had ever been elected to the hall as a punter before.   Good thing the voters finally got it right, after so long.  Congratulations, Mr. Guy.  You richly deserve the honor!

* the 'and/or' was important then -- not so now -- as it no longer matters who last touches the ball. But in 1972, it mattered.  It REALLY mattered.

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