Memorial Day weekend is a special holiday and the kickoff to summer. Fittingly, Talk of Fame Network this week brings listeners a special show totally dedicated to memorializing the significance of special teams.
Co-host Rick Gosselin has long been viewed as an expert on special teams play whose year-end rankings are closely watched and studied by all NFL teams. In fact, a number of special teams coaches have bonuses clauses in their contracts for finishing atop Rick’s rankings.
That expertise was on display last week when Rick drew up his all-time special teams unit, not only picking first and second teams of 22 players each but also adding nine more reserves to make a full 53-man “roster’’ that was indeed special.
To follow up on that, Talk of Fame dedicated its weekly radio show to special teams play, visiting with former Super Bowl coach Bill Cowher, who began his career coaching special teams in Cleveland. Joining him was two-time Special Teams Coach of the Year Bobby April, legendary gunner of the San Diego Chargers Hank Bauer and the only man to hold for two Hall of Fame kickers, former NFL punter Ray Stachowitz.
Cowher believes it’s no coincidence that he, Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh, all Super Bowl winning head coaches, began as special teams coaches and thinks more such coaches deserve the same chance.
“These are coaches who have to adapt to the ever-changing game,’’ Cowher said. “They’re the only coach besides the head coach who deals with every player on the team. There should be more (head coaching) opportunities for special team coaches.’’
Cowher also believes it’s long overdue for a special teams player and a return man to be given serious Hall of Fame consideration, a point Talk of Fame’s hosts, Rick, Ron Borges and Clark Judge have long espoused.
“These are guys who could change a game with a return or a coverage (play),’’ Cowher said. “There’s no question it’s one element of the game that’s been overlooked and devalued.’’
April knows that feeling and often had to deal with it during a nearly 30-year career as an NFL special teams coach. April, who was twice special teams coach of the year while with the Buffalo Bills, said one of the hardest parts of his job was getting young players who considered special teams a job for someone else to buy into its significance.
Worse, often when he accomplished that his own team would make a decision that undermined that effort.
“The biggest difficulty I had to overcome was when we cut our best (special teams) performer,’’ April said. “That completely sabotaged everything we said. We lost some credibility. They have to overcome the perception that’s for somebody else, not me.’’
One guy who never bought into that was Bauer, who became a legendary gunner during his years with the San Diego Chargers. Bauer was all about contact, even playing seven games his final season with a broken vertebrae in his neck that was so severe he went from being able to bench press 430 pounds to being unable to pick up a pan off his stove.
That relentless attitude was always on display in the years Bauer was breaking up wedges and downing returners by any means necessary. That included “the windmill,’’ a move in which he sacrificed his body to break up the wedge.
“I started going over the top (of the now illegal three and four men wedge that used to be a staple of the kickoff until recently outlawed for safety reasons),’’ Bauer recalled. ‘Do a little windmill.
“I’ll never forget the first time I did that. It was against the Philadelphia Eagles. They had a guy, Billy Canfield I think was his name, running it back. I went right over the wedge.
“They caught my leg and just kind of flipped me sideways and I leg whipped (Canfield) right in the neck. That was one of my favorite plays. Just dropped him!’’
One guy who never dropped anything was Ray Stachowitz, the only man to hold for Hall of Fame kickers Morten Anderson and Jan Stenerud.
An All-American punter at Michigan State before entering the NFL, Stachowitz held for Anderson when he arrived on campus from Denmark. At first he didn’t know quite what to make of Anderson, who would become so proficient he was a two-time NFL All-Decade player as well as only the second pure place kicker enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“With his accent and his Danish outfits (at first) I thought, ‘what’s this?’’’ Stachowitz recalled. Soon he learned what he was was a kicker with a powerful leg.
When he arrived in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers Stachowitz encountered another kicker with a strong leg and an unusual accent and so began to wonder what was happening.
“I came in (to Green Bay) and there’s another Norwegian guy with a heavy accent,’’ Stachowitz said. “I’m thinking ‘wow.’’
“Wow’’ turned out to be the best way to describe not only Anderson and Stenerud but the entire 53-man all-time special teams roster Rick Gosselin put together.
You can hear the entire special teams show – including Bauer’s story of the day the Raiders hit him so hard an odorous thing followed and his answer to the question of whether or not wedge busters close their eyes before a collision – on your local SB Nation Radio show Wednesday night or downloading the free podcast at iTunes or on the TuneIn app.
You can also hear the show any time by going to our website, talkoffamenetwork.com, and clicking on the helmet icon.