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VOL. 43 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 2, 2019

Kicking duo more than footnote in Titan history

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Except for one game – Oct. 11, 2009 – when the Tennessee Titans were in the midst of an 0-6 start, only two men have ever served as punters for the home team in what is now Nissan Stadium.

Craig Hentrich and Brett Kern. Between them, the two have kicked 1,622 punts over 21 seasons as Tennessee’s punters.

Not only do Hentrich and Kern share the distinction of being the only two punters in team history, they also share a seldom-used secret weapon. More on that later.

Hentrich had been signed by the then-Tennessee Oilers in 1998 as a free agent and served as the Titans’ reliable punter until back issues forced him to injured reserve and eventual retirement during that 2009 season.

For a four-game stretch (all losses, including the infamous 59-0 beatdown at New England), after Hentrich went to IR after two games, the Titans employed the ignoble Reggie Hodges, who punted in that 31-9 Oct. 11 loss to the Colts and in three road games, ending with the historic loss to the Patriots.

And while the football world remembered Jeff Fisher causing a stir by donning a Peyton Manning jersey the next day at a speaking engagement, the Titans would make a little noticed move that same week claiming Kern off waivers from the Denver Broncos. He has been the Titans’ punter ever since.

Tennessee Titans punter Craig Hentrich leaves the field after a 34-31 loss to the Houston Texans in 2009. Hentrich was injured in the game.

-- Ap Photo By Mark Humphrey

“It’s been a great run. Brett is such a good guy. He’s a hard worker and takes pride in his work. That’s the way I tried to do my job also. It’s been a great run for a long time with two punters,” Hentrich says.

Kern remembers relishing the chance to learn from Hentrich when he arrived in Nashville during a bye week in 2009.

“Craig Hentrich was here, and he was one of my favorite punters to watch and was learning how to punt when I was in high school,” Kern recalls. “To be able to come here with him and kind of pick his brain about things, it was really important for me, especially mentally to kind of get over the fact of being cut and getting a fresh start in a new city.”

It was out of Hentrich being injured and Kern coming in that Kern not only became friends with one of his punting idols, the veteran taught Kern his top-secret knuckleball punt that he had invented a few years earlier in Green Bay.

Tennessee Titans punter Brett Kern chats with Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch before an NFL football game in 2018 in Nashville.

-- Ap Photo By James Kenney

“I was on injured reserve that year, and he and I spend a lot of time together. He was in his first or second year in the league at that point,” Hentrich remembers. “We just got to talking one day, and I said, ‘This kick has really helped me out. It’s kind of fun, the possibility of getting an extra possession or two a year by someone fumbling.’ He said, ‘Teach me how to do it.’ So I did.”

The knuckleball punt is almost exactly as it sounds, a high, short, floating type of kick that doesn’t really turnover like a regular punt. But when done correctly, it can be extremely difficult to catch. Somewhat like the knuckleball in baseball, it is a small fraternity that can master it. And this fraternity’s roll call is even shorter. Namely two people – Hentrich and Kern.

“It’s a pretty difficult punt to master, because it can get real ugly, real quick, and to get enough confidence to do it takes a little while. Brett got really, really good at it,” Hentrich explains.

Kern recalls the difficulty of mastering the punt, saying it took him a year of working on it in practice before he ever attempted one in a game.

“It took me a year to really feel comfortable with it. There were a couple of times I tried it. Coach Fisher wanted me to try it in warmups, and I shanked a couple. One went straight up, and Kenny Amato actually caught the ball 10 yards down the field,” Kern says.

Kern eventually became so good at the knuckleball punt that opponents simply stopped fielding it, preferring to let it hit and roll, which sometimes with the bounce would neutralize the benefits of the punt.

“One year we did it, I think it was 2013, I hit 20 knuckleballs, and 19 of them, the returners let it hit the ground. The only one to catch it was Darren Sproles,” Kern says. “That’s when I kind of started to switch over to that end-over-end, flip-flop punt, just because it’s easier to control that ball and get some spin on it. Whereas with the knuckleball, I was getting some bad bounces – and some good bounces too. That’s when I made the switch.”

Adds Hentrich: “It was that people would just let it bounce, and they wouldn’t try to catch it, which can be a good or bad thing. You can get a good roll, or you can end up with a bad roll.”

When trying to pooch punt, Kern now says he almost exclusively uses the end-over-end punt and with great success. Still, occasionally, the trick he learned from Hentrich a decade ago is pulled out of the bag of tricks in certain situations.

“In the preseason, you might get a couple of young guys to try and field it and they’ll drop it,” Kern says. “A lot of times I’ll use it in warmups, just so the other returners can see that it’s in the arsenal and it’s a nasty ball to kind of put in their head, knowing that I can kind of use it anytime I want.”

It also once served as a ‘told you so’ moment for Hentrich in a 2005 Titans practice involving Pacman Jones.

“It was his rookie year, and he was just a hair confident as people know. So Coach Fisher had me kicking some knuckleballs before practice,” Hentrich remembers. “I kicked him one, and it wasn’t very good, and he started telling me how easy it was to catch. And Fisher looked over at me and said, ‘Give him another one.’ So I gave him another one, and it bounced right off his forehead.

“You’ve got to bring it out once in a while. You get one of those cocky little returners, and you knock it over there to them and make them fumble it, that’s when it all pays off.’’

As to whether the endangered knuckleball punt that Hentrich invented will be passed down someday to another punter like a family chili recipe, it’s not likely, according to Kern.

“He taught me, and it’s lock and key. I’ve demoed it before, but I’ve never taught anybody how to hit it. I’ve seen others say they’ll watch me and try to replicate it, but it’s just a really tough ball to hit,” Kern says.

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