Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Year Of Hell : The Harry Newsome Story
When Harry Newsome was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the eighth round of the 1985 draft, he was being asked to replace the incumbent punter Craig Colquitt. It wasn't the first time that Newsome was facing an obstacle like this.
Newsome grew up in Cheraw, South Carolina, a town that held just 4,000 people. One of those people was Dale Hatcher, a man who would be drafted in the third round of the same draft by the Los Angeles Rams. The two friends would attend many of the NFL Punt, Pass, and Kick competitions together as children.
It was Hatcher, while growing up together, who was lauded for his punting ability. Newsome, however, was an exceptional athlete in his own right. He played quarterback, strong safety, and place kicker in high school. He was also an excellent baseball player who got scholarship offers from such powerhouse programs like Arizona State University and Stanford University.
When it was time to go to college, Hatcher became an All-American punter at Clemson University while Newsome also chose to stay close to home by choosing Wake Forest University so that he could also play football.
Newsome would be named All-ACC three times in college, yet his friend Hatcher was a member of the 1981 National Championship Tigers. Hatcher is a member of Clemson's Centennial Team after becoming the only Tiger to average over 40 yards a punt in four seasons and lead the team in punting for four straight years.
While Newsome set records himself, the Deamon Deacons never qualified for a bowl game in his time at the school. He ranks third in career punting average, and holds the record for punting average by a junior.
Colquitt, part of a long line of Colquitt's to play for the University of Tennessee and the first of three to play in the NFL, was drafted in the third round of the 1978 draft to replace Steelers legend Bobby Walden. He was a member of the 1978 Super Bowl winning team and had just come off one of the better seasons of his career.
Newsome beat him out for a roster spot, and he would not return to the NFL again until 1987. He played one game that year and attempted three punts, including having one blocked the only time in his career, before being cut. Craig Colquitt never played in the NFL again.
The 1985 year was successful for both Newsome and Hatcher. Newsome was given the Joe Greene Performance Award, which names the Steelers Rookie Of the Year. Hatcher made his only Pro Bowl squad that year, yet he would be cut by the Rams after the 1991 season despite leadng the NFL in punting yards in 1987 in just 15 games played.
Hatcher returned to the NFL in 1993 with the Miami Dolphins, but his career ended after the season was completed. He is perhaps known by some for participating in the first game in NFL history to be decided by a safety. The Rams were facing the Minnesota Vikings, and former Steeler Mike Merriweather blocked Hatcher's punt through the end zone in overtime. Both of the Cheraw natives would have a punt blocked in their rookie years as well.
Though he was the holder on place kicks for Pittsburgh, Newsome also served as the emergency quarterback. During a game against the Chicago Bears in 1986, the Steelers lined up for a field goal attempt. The snap was bad, so he threw the ball 12 yards to tight end Preston Gothard for the only touchdown of his career.
Blocked punts became a theme for Newsome during his time in Pittsburgh. He had an NFL leading three punts blocked in that 1986 season. After having another one blocked the following season, he would then face a season in 1988 that no punter would ever want to encounter.
Hall Of Fame head coach Chuck Knoll was known to many as one of the best coaches in NFL history, but special teams was one area that Knoll did not have much interest in. He did not have his teams practice on special teams until Saturdays. Pittsburgh went through several long snappers during this time, but could not find a consistent player at the position. Six players tried to long snap for Pittsburgh during Newsome's time with them. Knoll even used Hall Of Fame center Mike Webster, but Webster's bent up fingers from all of the games he had played prevented him to long snap well enough to help.
No season spotlighted the Steelers special teams problems more than 1988. They went through four long snappers that year, which caused major problems in the punting game. The "get away" time on punts were bad due to slow snaps to Newsome.
"A good total time of snapping the ball, handling the punt, then getting it away was 6.7 to 6.8 seconds.", recalled Newsome. "The handle time of the punter himself should be somewhere between 1.2 to 1.3 seconds. I spent my time in Pittsburgh always trying to hurry my punts because the ball took so long to get to me. I even went from a three step punter to two steps. It didn't help because the extra tenths of seconds on the snaps, along with protection problems, left us often exposed. It would amp up the opponents even more knowing this."
So exposed that Newsome had an NFL record six punts blocked that year. It wasn't like he wasn't punting well, despite all the constant pressure and blocks, because he was. He led the NFL with 45.4 yards per punts average on 65 attempts. What makes his accomplishment of leading the league in punting average more remarkable was because of the six punts that he had blocked.
Due to Knoll's disinterest in special teams, the only real attempts at trying to fix the problem that year was trying a variety of players at long snapper. This continued into the 1989 season when Newsome had a punt blocked again. It was the 12th time in five years in Pittsburgh that he had a punt blocked.
He became a Plan B Free Agent after that year, and he found himself highly sought after by many teams. Though teams like the San Diego Chargers offered him the most money, he chose the Minnesota Vikings. A big part of his reason for joining the Vikings was because former Steelers coaches Tony Dungy and Tom Moore, along with Merriweather, were part of the team. They held bible study meetings, and Newsome was a part of it.
He had a punt blocked in his first season in Minnesota, but his fortunes began to change when the Vikings signed long snapper Mike Morris in 1991. " He was the best I ever saw do it, and easily the best I ever had snap me the ball.", Newsome says. It was the first season in his career he did not have a punt blocked, and he averaged a career best 45.5 yards per punt on 68 attempts.
The 1992 season saw him punt a ball a career long 84 yards, which led the league. It is the 13th longest punt in NFL history, and his teammates gave him the game ball. He also had another punt blocked, the last of his career, when a blocker fell while engaged with a defender.
After punting the ball a career high 90 times for 3,862 yards the next season, he developed knee problems, due to tendinitis, and chose to retire from the game. He returned home to Cheraw, where he still resides to this day. Hatcher lives in Gaffney, SC and the two remain friends. Newsome ranks Mel J. Gray as the best punt returner he ever faced.
Newsome grew up idolizing Oakland Raiders legend Ray Guy. Though he thinks place kickers get more respect than punters, because they account for scoring, he hopes Guy will be soon inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.
"I don't think a punter will ever be inducted", he said, "If one ever does, it will be him."
He is currently ranked fourth on both the Steelers and Vikings in career punting yards, and his 45.5 punting average in 1991 ranks third best in Vikings history behind Chris Kluwe and Bobby Walden. His 45.4 average in 1988 ranks third in Steelers history by anyone with more than 11 attempts. He also is 50th in NFL history in punting attempts and yards.
The NFL records that Harry Newsome owns are what some fans may best remember him by in his nine year NFL career. His 14 blocked punts in his career is tied with Herman Weaver as the most ever. The other record is having those six punts blocked in 1988. That is a type season some punters may consider a year of hell.