Column: Remembering Ray Guy, who was one of a kind

Nov. 4—I was piddling around Thursday when I received a text from a friend in Augusta.

He asked if I could call him, and I figured he had some Masters scoop for me. Turns out it was bad news, the kind you don't like to hear.

Ray Guy, the legendary punter from Thomson, Ga., had died. The friend was Ed Presnell, someone who was deeply connected to Guy through his time as a past president of the Augusta Sports Council.

I've been fortunate in my career to meet and interview some of the top golfers in the world. But for all of the other sports I've covered, no one else compares to Guy. He was the best to ever play his position.

As accolades poured in Thursday from all corners, I remembered the few times I got to meet Ray. He would insist that you call him that; he was as humble and down-to-earth as a person could be.

Guy turned pro football on its collective head with his remarkable right leg. He was a No. 1 draft pick out of Southern Miss by the Oakland Raiders, and people thought Al Davis and John Madden had flipped their lids.

Guy's booming punts changed the vocabulary of pro football. "Hang time" and "coffin corner" became part of the vernacular. Not to mention my favorite, "outkick your coverage." Guy did that frequently.

Ray understood that it wasn't all about distance. He regularly aimed for the corners, inside the 10-yard line, to nail his opponent deep in its own territory. With the height on his punts — he once hit the hanging scoreboard at the Superdome — he allowed his coverage team to surround the return man and not gain much yardage, if any.

How's this for a stat? Of his 1,049 career punts in the NFL, none were ever returned for a touchdown. That's how good he was. He also ended his career in 1986 with a streak of 619 punts without having one blocked.

I became sports editor of The Augusta Chronicle in 2000, and that was about the time the Augusta Sports Council was rolling out a new award it had helped create.

Presnell had gotten wise to what many other similar bodies were doing: they would create an award to give to someone with close ties to their area who had excelled at a certain position in football. The inspiration, Presnell said, was the Palm Beach (Fla.) Sports Commission and its Lou Groza Award for top collegiate placekicker.

As Presnell tells it, it was a "light bulb" moment when he thought of Guy and his connection to the Augusta area. No one was honoring punters, either.

"On the plane ride back, I told them I had an idea. We need to create a national punter of the year award. And we've got the best guy in the world," Presnell told me Thursday. "I said we're going to do this, and I think it will put Augusta on the map for a long, long time."

Not everyone on the council agreed with Presnell. But if you know the longtime businessman, he's relentless when he gets an idea.

This was in the spring of 2000, and by the fall of that year the Ray Guy Award had been created.

"I called Ray and asked him about putting together the award," Presnell said. "He said, 'Yeah, man, you'd do that?' I said it's the right thing to do."

Establishing the award provided much-needed recognition for a key position in football, and it also opened the door for a lot of high-profile football types to come to Augusta.

The biggest was Al Davis, the man behind the Raiders' mystique and "commitment to excellence." A very private person, it was a major coup for him to come speak in Augusta at the sports council's annual football banquet.

Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, Larry Csonka and Dan Marino all followed. I'm sure there were others I'm forgetting. And, to a man, they all made a case for why Guy should be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Year after year, Guy was habitually turned away by the voters who put football's best player in the shrine in Canton, Ohio. Many prominent people were lobbying on his behalf, but it seemed like the old guard was slow to recognize what they considered a specialist.

"If that is not a position, don't have it," Guy once said. "If it's not important, why in the hell have (punters)? Why spend the time drafting them? Why spend money on them?"

He led the NFL in punting three times, was selected All-Pro six times and finished his career with an average of 42.4 yards per punt.

After seven times as a finalist, Guy's time finally arrived in 2014. He was enshrined in Canton later that summer, and everyone from Thomson to Southern Miss to Oakland shared in his big day.

By that time, the Ray Guy Award was firmly established. Now it includes preseason watch lists and weekly awards during the season. It's always fun to hear it mentioned on a national broadcast.

Guy was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. He could, and did, play any sport in high school. In college, he confined his talents to football and baseball. He was drafted multiple times by Major League Baseball teams, but decided to stick with football.

If you scroll through the Pro Football Hall of Fame members by position, there are multiple players for every category except one. It's fitting that only one punter, Ray Guy, has that lofty status.

Thanks for reading.