In football, it’s harder to find a black kicker than a black QB
Ga. Tech’s Pressley Harvin is fighting stereotypes, just like his predecessors
ATLANTA — A few weeks after Geoff Collins took the head-coaching job at Georgia Tech, he got a visit from his punter. Pressley Harvin is no slouch. He’s a business major who plays five different musical instruments, although the guitar remains a work in progress. But punting is his passion, and he takes it seriously.
Collins was selling a new mantra at Tech, hyping his program as a cutting-edge experience that gets players to the NFL. That’s also where Harvin wants to go, so he asked his new coach to come up with a plan to get him there. Collins was happy to oblige.
A week later, Harvin saw a PowerPoint presentation with details on every NFL punter, from speed numbers to hang times to net yardage — all the obvious stuff, but also what an NFL punter looked like. On average, Collins’ staff found, an NFL punter is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 213 pounds, with surprisingly few outliers. Harvin, checking in at 6 feet and 260 pounds, was shorter and heavier than every punter in the league.
Harvin, now a junior, took the information to heart. He started on a new fitness program, changed his diet and dropped about 30 pounds. When his career at Georgia Tech ends, he wants to fit the mold as closely as he can, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
@CoachRyanHorton, @LewisCaralla, and @StrengthGT, yall up to somethin👀👀👀 This transformation is only going to get better! pic.twitter.com/iSHM7hZA4I
— Pressley Harvin III (@pharvin27) August 2, 2019
There’s one detail about Harvin, however, that won’t change, and that makes him utterly unique in the kicking game. Harvin is black.
“At [kicking] camps, it’d be, ‘That’s the black kid who can play,’ ” Harvin said. “I was really about the only one, so I got noticed a lot quicker, but I didn’t want to just be known as the only black kid. I wanted to be known by my name.”
Even now, Harvin will be out in Atlanta, a Georgia Tech shirt pulled tight around his stout frame, and folks will stop to ask if he plays. He’ll smile and say yes, then tell them to guess his position. Inevitably, they’ll suggest running back or linebacker.
Nope, he tells them. Punter.
Jaws drop. Really?
“Every time, it’s the same reaction,” Harvin said. “I understand my size is big, but every time I hear it, it’s funny.”
It’s a stunning juxtaposition that Harvin’s race is so noteworthy in a sport that, at the NCAA Division I level, is composed of more than 48 percent black athletes. But more than 30 years after Doug Williams helped dispel the stereotype that NFL quarterbacks had to be white, the specialist positions — kicker, punter and long snapper — remain almost entirely segregated.
In the NFL, Marquette King is the lone black punter or kicker to see significant action recently. There are nearly 900 scholarships available for specialists at the Division I level, but Harvin and Oregon State’s Caleb Lightbourn represent the rare exceptions to the all-white demographic at big schools, and even at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the kickers and punters are more likely to be white than not. There are a handful of Hispanic kickers and a boatload of Australian punters, but finding a black athlete at those positions is a complete aberration.
“I love a punter or kicker, regardless,” said Greg Coleman, one of the NFL’s first black punters and an alumnus of Florida A&M University, “but it breaks my heart because I know there are kids at these inner-city schools that have the same ability but they’ve not been tutored and nurtured and coached.”
Coleman’s frustrations are echoed by players, coaches and advocates around the country who see special teams as a way for hundreds of kids to earn college scholarships each year but find opportunities for specialists almost entirely restricted to kids who are white or wealthy. But unlike the quarterback color barrier that Williams helped erase three decades ago, the lack of integration of black athletes into the specialist positions is a far more nuanced story that, at its heart, touches on the same socio-economic issues and implicit bias that form the framework of many of the country’s biggest debates about race.
Economics and bias keep certain kids out
Harvin started punting because he had a little leg strength and no one else wanted the job.
Punting is not a glamour industry. If the punter is on the field, the fans are bored, the offense failed and the coach is mad. Who’d want that gig? So from Pee Wee to preps, the starting punter usually wins the job by default and the kicker is a kid who wandered over from the soccer field.
Harvin began his football career on the offensive line. His Pee Wee league had a weight limit, and he was always over it, so he was relegated to blocking. He moved to tight end from there and played a little on defense, but when he started kicking, he realized he had a knack for it.
By ninth grade, Harvin was going to a few kicking camps, and his raw ability was obvious to everyone. He started talking to other punters, guys who’d played in the NFL. There was good money to be made, and because the punter rarely gets hit, it can be a long and lucrative career if you’re good enough. Harvin thought that sounded like a pretty good plan, and his parents agreed. He told his coaches he wanted to punt full time, and within a year, he was getting looks from recruiters and winning scholarships at kicking camps as one of the elite punters in his age group.
Still, Harvin cycled through three coaches in his four years at Sumter High School in South Carolina, and each one pushed him to consider playing a different position. A kid who looks like him — wide, strong and black — didn’t he want to be a linebacker?
It’s a refrain Coleman knows well. Even after being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1976, Coleman was forced to work at receiver at the behest of the team’s owner, Paul Brown. Coleman was fast — his cousin, Vince Coleman, is one of baseball’s all-time leaders in stolen bases — and his coaches didn’t want his athleticism wasted on special teams. Coleman hated it. He was no receiver. He was a punter who could run.
“You have to be strong in your conviction,” Coleman said. “I remember people telling me there were no black punters or kickers in the league, and I’d just say that’s not my problem.”
Everette Pearsall, the executive director of the National Alliance of African-American Athletes, said encouragement is critical. Kids in general don’t typically get excited about punting when they’re young, he said, but somewhere along the way, white kids get encouragement that black kids don’t.
“The skill positions are so much more enticing to kids who get into sports, and no one, especially not in African American communities, is stressing that a kid can develop kicking skills,” Pearsall said. “It’s a process of elimination as opposed to finding the most talented kid.”
There’s an image, an expectation of what a kicker or punter should look like, and race is part of that. Coaches see a white kid who lacks height, has a few extra pounds but can kick a football, they think punter. They see Pressley Harvin, they think linebacker.
“That’s why these kids suffer,” Coleman said. “It’s not because of the interest. I vehemently disagree that black kids are looking for the spotlight or the SportsCenter sound bite.”
Punting is a family affair
Mike Rivers Sr. still walks across the tape on the kitchen floor of his Wilmington, North Carolina, home every day. When his son, Mike Jr., was in high school, Mike Sr. taped sections of the floor so his son could work on his punting approach. It was part of a routine he’d learned from pestering other coaches for advice on punting, and while he’d taped the floor in the garage too, it got a little too cold out there to work year-round, and his son wanted to practice all the time.
The younger Rivers is now the starting punter at North Carolina A&T. He attended one camp there and earned a scholarship offer that day. Aggies coach Sam Washington says he got lucky finding Rivers. It’s tough to uncover good specialists, let alone a black punter who wants to play at an HBCU. But luck had little to do with Rivers’ development.
Rivers Sr. recognized his son’s talent early — his son was 6 when he went to his first kicking camp — and while the kid also played a little quarterback, it was clear that wasn’t a long-term option. But punting had a future, so Rivers Sr. learned all he could about the craft.
He got advice from Dan Orner, who runs a popular kicking and punting camp. Bill Renner, a former NFL punter, gave him tips to perfect his form without actually kicking the ball, which led to the tape on the floor. Rivers Sr. met NFL punter Ryan Quigley, who invited the family to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to work out anytime they liked, so the pair would pile into the car and drive three hours each way to practice with Quigley. They practiced in the backyard, the high school, anywhere with a little grass. When the weather was bad, they’d drive to Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base near their home, to work on the turf field there.
“We were all over the United States, and I don’t think there’s a field from here to South Carolina that we haven’t stopped by and kicked a few balls,” Rivers Sr. said.
Sometimes folks would stop their cars along the side of the road and watch Rivers boot footballs again and again. It was nice to see a father and son working together like that, they’d say. “Too many boys these days” — and the sentence would trail off, the stories of absent fathers and troubled kids left unsaid. The point was still clear: The Riverses were special, inspiring.
The cost of kicking
Most kids, black or white, don’t share a kitchen with their kicking coach. Few colleges and almost no high schools employ a full-time coach to work on special teams. Players who want to learn the craft have to look elsewhere, and that means time, money and travel. Camps can cost upward of $300 for a weekend, while hotels, gas and time away from work add to the bill. By Rivers Sr.’s estimates, he’s spent more than $11,000 a year on training, and those figures don’t include equipment such as cleats, tripods and balls or necessary therapeutic work such as massages and yoga designed to increase flexibility and recovery. The entire experience is prohibitive to a huge swath of players and requires an immense amount of sacrifice, even from parents who can take on the financial burden.
“We always told him, ‘You create the opportunity,’ ” said Harvin’s mother, Adrienne, “and your father and I will worry about the money and get you where you need to be.’ ”
But Adrienne was also dealing with her own challenges. In 2015, during Pressley’s junior year of high school, Adrienne got sick. She had a stroke, which paralyzed the right side of her body. She was on dialysis, and she was in and out of the hospital.
The first time Pressley flew on a plane was for a kicking camp in Wisconsin. Adrienne was in intensive care. Pressley flew alone. By the end of the weekend, he was named the camp’s top punter.
That it all worked out, that his family found the money, Pressley managed camps on his own and Adrienne continued to encourage him even amid her own struggles — that’s a genuinely inspirational story, but it also begs the question of how many other kids who look like Pressley Harvin weren’t so lucky.
“He’s been through a lot of adversity in his life,” Adrienne Harvin said. “I think that’s helped prepare him for the specialist position and being one of the only African Americans.”
Soccer is often the first step
Long before he walked onto a football field for the first time, Jon Brown was used to the stares. He came up as a soccer player in Mississippi on the Central Jackson squad in 2010 that was nearly all black. That, in the soccer world, simply doesn’t happen.
“We had two white guys, and we were really good,” said Brown, whose first year kicking for Louisville was in 2014, the same year he had his first football kicking workout. “When scouts would come out to tournaments, they’d just sit and stare at us.”
In the world of youth soccer in the United States, black participation is frustratingly low for many of the same reasons — lack of role models, lack of money for private coaches and camps — as the specialist positions in football. And while empirical data can be difficult to find, the anecdotal evidence is robust.
Amir Lowery played college soccer at Wake Forest from 2001 to 2004, and after nearly a decade playing professionally, he returned to his hometown of Washington, D.C., to coach kids. One of his first positions was coaching a travel team of high school freshmen and sophomores, and despite being in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, his team was almost entirely white.
“I knew there were talented kids,” Lowery said, “so I started thinking about how to tip the scales a bit to get things a little more balanced.”
Lowery started a program called the Open Goal Project to help bring soccer into cities and offer some funding to cover the costs of playing on club teams. It’s had real success in some communities, he said, but the job is massive.
“We haven’t scratched the surface at bringing the game into their communities, and that takes time, energy and money,” Lowery said.
These days, Lowery also coaches at a D.C.-area high school, and every year the football coach invariably comes by for a visit. The team needs a kicker, and Lowery’s soccer players represent the pool of candidates.
The experience is commonplace across the country. For years, coaches begged Brown to try out for the football team too, but he had little interest. His passion was soccer, and he was good. And when it came to kicking footballs, well, why would a black kid do that?
“I always said no black people kick,” Brown remembered. “You see a few black punters, but I’ve never seen an African American line up for a field goal in my life.”
Football needs kickers. Kickers come from soccer. Soccer is overwhelmingly white. As Lowery has found, it’s a cycle that’s incredibly difficult to break. For Brown, however, the turning point was entirely practical. After a few years of international competition, Brown realized his options in soccer were dwindling. He was good, but not good enough to make a sufficient living. Football kickers, however, can do pretty well for themselves in the NFL.
Brown scheduled a workout with former NFL kicker Brett Baer, and he immediately started booming 50-yard field goals. He talked with his parents, enrolled exclusively in online classes at Louisville and began driving more than four hours, back and forth, every day to work with Baer.
Brown eventually landed a job on Louisville’s football team handling kickoffs, and he’s been invited to NFL camps each of the past two years, including with the San Francisco 49ers in 2019. It’s still an uphill battle though. He started late, and no matter how strong his leg is, he’s always the outsider.
“For kickers, coaches want someone who’ll be reliable,” Brown said. “And when you have that position being predominantly white, in the back of your head, you just know that person will be more reliable because you haven’t seen the other.”
But the game is changing
Coleman and Reggie Roby broke down color barriers for punters in the 1970s and ’80s, but the floodgates never opened.
Marquette King went from small-college Fort Valley State to the NFL, and he’s the first name mentioned by any black specialist these days as a template for how to fight for a spot at the highest level of the game. But King is notoriously media-averse — he declined multiple requests to speak for this story — and is currently a free agent.
Washington, North Carolina A&T’s coach, said the trend he’s seen in recent years is fewer black specialists, not more.
But the game is changing.
Nathan Chapman spent two years with the Green Bay Packers in the early 2000s, and when he returned home to Australia, he opened a kicking school that siphoned off guys who’d topped out in Australian rules football or soccer and taught them how to punt. Interest was meager at first, but after a few guys landed in the U.S. and American coaches began to understand the advantage of rugby-style kicking and a more specialized approach to the job, Chapman’s camps became immensely popular. Chapman’s website now lists a few hundred alumni who’ve gone on to kick at the NCAA Division I level in the U.S. He launched Prokick Australia in 2007.
While the arrival of so many more white punters from Australia hasn’t changed the racial dynamic of the position, Oregon State’s Lightbourn believes it has changed the perception of punting.
Both of Lightbourn’s parents were athletes, and at 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds, he’s had his share of coaches who insist he belongs at linebacker or receiver. Truth is, Lightbourn said, with some practice, he might be able to carve out a role in one of those positions, but he’d rather change the image of a punter.
“I’m an athlete who punts,” Lightbourn said.
Donald De La Haye gained internet fame by posting videos of his punting on YouTube. His channel has 1.8 million subscribers, a potential gold mine for convincing young, black athletes that kicking is cool. In a frustrating blow to the marketing of specialists, however, the NCAA ruled him ineligible to play in 2017 because his YouTube channel generated revenue. He left UCF and is now a member of the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League.
Harvin also has been posting photos and videos of his offseason workouts on his Twitter feed, with no revenue coming in. It has served as a reminder that punters can be tough guys too.
“I can tell you with Pressley Harvin doing what he’s done,” said Jamie Kohl, who runs one of the nation’s top kicking schools, “he’ll inspire someone out there to go out and work hard and say he can do it too.”
That’s already happened in Harvin’s hometown. Sumter High has two black punters on its team, both inspired by Harvin’s success. And when Harvin’s home for a visit, he makes sure to stop by the school and kick a few footballs.
“I reckon he made it cool to be a punter in our town,” said Mark Barnes, Sumter High’s coach.
Lightbourn said he’d like to join forces with Harvin and King, maybe run a few camps that prioritize giving opportunities to minorities or raise money to help kids whose families can’t cover the costs of camps. It’s up to them, the guys who are breaking the mold, to ensure that others follow in their footsteps, Lightbourn said.
This summer, Harvin worked out at a kicking camp in Atlanta. There was one other black punter there. He punted for his high school team in nearby DeKalb County. Instructors talked with the student about working with private coaches, but he wasn’t sure his family could afford it, so Harvin passed along his cellphone number and invited him to work out to learn from Harvin’s expertise.
Harvin was hopeful. He wants to make it a priority to encourage other black children to follow in his footsteps. But he was realistic too.
It’s been a few months since he gave the high schooler his number. He’s seen him around at a few other camps. He’s still punting. But he’s never called.