Originally posted on FishDuck.com: http://fishduck.com/2012/06/when-its-fourth-and-long-oregon-fans-remember-a-legend/
Special teams are often overlooked in football, until it comes down to a last-second kick to decide the game. Punters feel equal pressure, one of the key components in the chess match of football, tasked with pinning the opponents deep in their own territory. Armed with toes of steel and spin on the ball that makes golfers envious when the flop-wedge punt results in downing the ball at the 1, a great punter can mean as much to a victory as a key starter on either side of the ball. Punters get the unenviable task of being a relative unknown on a team, unless they do something spectacular, or screw up.
One of the greatest punters in Oregon football history, known for doing the spectacular booming kicks deep and pinning opponents inside the 10, made a big difference in his time at Oregon helping lead the Ducks to the success of the late 90s–Josh Bidwell.
In the 1995 season opener, Oregon’s all-purpose kicker/punter Matt Belden suffered a career-ending injury. The Ducks faced a major dilemma, relying on Belden to cover both kicking duties, coaches needed a replacement fast knowing they had no one with any game experience. Coming to the rescue was Josh Bidwell, a high school quarterback who took over all kicking duties for the remainder of the game. Oregon soon found a replacement full-time placekicker in Joshua Smith, but Bidwell from that point would never relinquish the punter’s role, going on to make every punt for Oregon until his final game as a Duck.
Becoming one the best punters in the country, Bidwell was selected in the 4th round of the 1999 draft by the Green Bay Packers, beginning a 12-year NFL career that included a Pro Bowl selection in 2005. Now retired from the NFL, a cancer survivor, and published author; FishDuck had the pleasure of catching up with Josh to relive his Oregon glory days.
We will follow-up with another interview with Josh soon to discuss his foray into writing, his time in the NFL, and his bout with cancer.
Q. Tell us about your early days as a punter?
I had always been able to kick, so by the time high school rolled around, I was all-league my freshman and sophomore year, and all-state my senior year. It was just one of those things that I was blessed with, and was good at all the time, though I was also the starting QB in high school. I figured it out, honed that skill, and got noticed enough to be given a scholarship at the U of O.
Q. What schools were recruiting you, and what made you decide to be a Duck?
Oregon was the one and only Division I-A school that offered me a scholarship. I had gotten smaller school looks (not all scholarship offers) from local schools such as Willamette and Linfield. Those types of schools wanted me to come in, kick, and possibly play quarterback, but it never got to that point. Coach Brooks was impressed enough with me as a punter and an athlete, so he offered me a scholarship right then and there. So, it happened pretty quickly.
[Note: Bidwell attended Douglas High School of Winston, Oregon (also alma-mater of USC legend Troy Polamalu (graduating several years prior to Polamalu’s arrival.) Bidwell was primarily a high school quarterback, but proved to be a versatile all-purpose athlete who also saw playing time on defense and special teams; frequently handling kicking duties.]
Q. Given you were a high school quarterback, how was becoming a punter full-time different from your expectations? How did you adjust to the position change and college transition?
That was tough. Even my first year of college, I was playing on the scout team. Playing several different positions and having a lot of fun being athletic was what I wanted. But when Matt (Belden) went down and I had to go in and punt that year, then all of a sudden Coach Bellotti comes up and says ‘you can’t run routes, and we can’t have you on the scout team playing any tackling positions, because if you get hurt we don’t have anybody left.’ That first year (1995) was a bit of a struggle; I didn’t punt well at all, and quite honestly had terrible stats. But, I worked really hard the next summer.
When we came back for fall camp, they were fully prepared to have a big competition for the starting special-teams spots, but I had improved so much over the summer, it was obvious by the first day that it was going to be my job. We just kind of went on from there. At that point, I was punting well. I just worked hard at it and got better and decided that my boredom during practice and my pride of not being an ‘athlete’ certainly shouldn’t supersede an opportunity to succeed and earn the scholarship I was given. At that point, I decided to buckle down, work hard, and get better.
Q. Was there a key point to your turnaround?
My first year on the field was a struggle, and I knew I needed to improve. My grandfather had a business partner in San Diego. His business partner happened to know Darren Bennett, who was the All-Pro Punter for the San Diego Chargers. His partner went to Bennett and said ‘my buddy’s grandson is the punter at the University of Oregon, would you mind spending some time with him?’ He agreed. They arranged just one week, so I went out and punted three days with Darren at the Chargers’ facility. I learned a lot and saw a lot, but I remember how two things crossed my mind:
1. I realized how big this guy was…He was a former Australian Rules Football player, so he was probably two inches taller than I was, at 6’6″ and probably 40 pounds heavier than I was! So, that had me thinking, ‘This guy just kicks it a mile!’ I was just a kid, so I didn’t realize I had so much more room for improvement.
2. I really did pick up some techniques from him, mostly from things I watched him do. He didn’t necessarily coach much, he just kind of showed me things he did, and I just picked it up from those things by watching him. He didn’t necessarily talk about it, it just ended up working well for me to assimilate into my game and it made a huge difference. So, I went back to Oregon right after that, punted all summer long, and heading into the 1996 season I had improved so much I went on to have a seven-yard better average than the previous year.
Down the road, the neat thing is, I remember actually getting a chance to play against Darren when I was in the pros. When I was with Green Bay, we went down and played San Diego; and the guy was the classiest guy I had ever met. In fact, he missed a Wednesday practice because his wife was having a baby. We were supposed to meet on Wednesday to practice together, but he called me from the delivery room to apologize. Instead of punting that day, we made the arrangement to punt on Thursday and Friday because he wanted to give me enough days. That always stuck with me, just him being a class person and man of his word. I hadn’t even talked to him in about four years since he helped me when I was in college. Then when I was drafted, he approached me, and we just picked up where we left off. He remembered my grandfather, my grandfather’s business partner, our time together, and said how he paid close attention to my collegiate career. It was neat to turn into an All-American/Pro and have him be a part of that.
Note: Each year, Bidwell progressed more and more with hard work and persistence, upping his averages to amazing numbers. By his senior year, Bidwell averaged nearly 50 yards/punt and totaled 2,346 yards. Only one punt was blocked in his entire career, a result of backups protecting him late in the game during “mop-up duties” after Oregon had secured the victory.
Q. What was it that led you to going from a very inconsistent freshman campaign to becoming one of the best punters in Oregon history?
Being consistent, mainly. Other than hard work and persistence, there’s no real secret other than just confidence. Once you figure it out, the big thing is finding your comfort level so that you know you’re going to do it more times than not. That was the issue with me – every year I got stronger, but there are tons of kids out there stronger than the guys who actually have jobs in the NFL. They simply cannot mentally recreate that under pressure. For me, punting just got easier to the point where (though sure I felt pressure out there) your repetitions and instincts just take over once the ball is snapped.
It happens SO quickly, once the ball is snapped. From the snap to the time I catch and kick it, it’s 1.3 seconds, and that’s a quick play. Anything slower than that is going to have a chance at being blocked. So, you really have to have some competitive muscle memory to just catch it, kick it, get it going, and do your job. It took time to adjust, but once I did, I got more and more confident. I knew I was getting stronger, I knew I had plenty of strength; but getting consistent is what gets you to the National Football League and keeps you there. If you get a 90 yard punt, followed by two 12-yard punts, that doesn’t matter at all. They’d rather someone who gets a 38-42 yard punt every time.
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