He’s the guy no one wants to see trot onto the field at Giants Stadium. An appearance by Jeff Feagles means something went wrong with the Giants’ offense. But few people are better at salvaging the moment and the 43-year-old punter has been doing it for a remarkable 22 NFL seasons.
In an era when dangerous punt return specialists lurk like pumas, Feagles owes his staying power to a unique skill—he is a directional punter. Through rain, snow or swirling wind—all common occurrences at the Meadowlands in December and January—Feagles can drop a football down a chimney and handcuff even the most dangerous return man.
“A lot of punters are going to it these days because of the quality of returners in the league,’’ Feagles said. “I was a little ahead of my time. When you have Darren Sproles, DeSean Jackson and Devin Hester, players who can change a game on a punt return, directional kicking becomes even more of an asset.”
It’s transformed him into an unsung magician; a strategic weapon who can turn the tide of a game by altering field position with a single boot of his resilient right foot.
Feagles never had a powerful leg. He went undrafted out of the University of Miami in 1988 only to emerge as the surprise winner of the job in New England. By the mid-1990s as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, his third team, Feagles began his mastery of a technique only a handful of other punters showcased. Instead of driving the ball deep, Feagles finessed the ball like a golfer on the green. His game is about angles, trajectories and touch.
“It is a rare talent,’’ Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “And of course we are a directional punt team and a field-position-conscious special teams outfit. And he does a very good job of that.”
After five seasons in Seattle, Feagles landed in New York in 2003. And the ageless wonder of the Meadowlands has padded his resume ever since. He won a Super Bowl with the Giants in 2007 and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season.
No NFL punter cracked the 40-yard net average—a benchmark on par with Maris’ 61 in 61—until 2007. It’s been done six times the last two seasons with the veteran Feagles earning a trip to the Pro Bowl with a 40.2 net in 2008. Feagles, 13 years between his last Pro Bowl, joined teammate John Carney as the oldest players to ever make the game.
That staying power has Feagles hoping to play into the next decade. Feagles, a team captain, has played in 344 consecutive games, an NFL record that may never be broken. He is third in league history for total games played (Morten Andersen kicked in 382 games over 25 seasons).
Too bad the position gets no respect. Take his consecutive games streak. Former Minnesota defensive end Jim Marshall, the next closest player on the list, played in 282 straight games. You’d expect Feagles to get more attention for his Iron Man feat. Just the opposite.
“There are people who don’t think it’s a big deal because I’m not in the game on every play and I understand that,’’ Feagles said. “That’s fine. But just to be able to show up and play for 22 years straight and not miss a game, there’s a lot that goes into that. You have to be lucky and avoid injuries. You have to be in great shape. More importantly, I’m proud of it because it shows how consistent I am. There’s only 32 guys in the world who do what I do. My team can depend on me.”
Numbers don’t lie. Feagles entered 2009 as the NFL career record holder for most punts (1,649), yards (68,607) and punts inside the 20 (531). Those are Hall of Fame stats. Just one problem: No punter has ever been enshrined in Canton, something that draws the ire of the otherwise affable Feagles.
“To not have a punter in the Hall of Fame to me is a disgrace,’’ Feagles said. “One day there will be one in there. Ray Guy is certainly deserving. It needs to be represented because it is an integral part of a football game. Field position is a huge aspect of football. For them not to recognize that—I think they’re blind.’’
This may be the final season for Giants Stadium, but Feagles has no plans to retire. Feagles is in the final year of a two-year contract. His negotiating strength lies in his accuracy. Feagles has the ability to pin opponents inside the 20 or point a punt toward either sideline.
“Coming out of college I really didn’t think I was going to get a shot at the NFL,’’ Feagles said. “You never think you’re going to play 22 years. You take them one at a time.”
Feagles has been around so long that former Hurricanes assistant Butch Davis—both members of the 1987 national championship squad—is now the head coach at the University of North Carolina, where Feagles’ son, C.J., is a redshirt freshman punter.
Distractions tug on Feagles, who lives in New Jersey. Spending time with family is important. He wants to see his sons play. And Feagles, an avid golfer, collects great golf courses the way teens stockpile Facebook friends. He spent a picture-perfect day in the Hamptons in July playing a round at Shinnecock Hills.
He understands like few pro athletes ever could, that each day in the NFL is a blessing.
“I’d like to play another couple of years. It all depends on the Giants,’’ Feagles said. “I know one day it’s going to come to an end. It’s difficult at 43 to keep in shape. There are a lot of things you battle on a daily basis when you get into your forties. Aches and pains and other things that act up. You wake up some days and go ‘Why does this hurt today?’
“I know I can keep going,’’ he added. “The tough part is one day someone is going to say you can’t. And you always are going to believe you can.”
Opposing players are not the enemy. The bracing winds of Giants Stadium no longer faze Feagles. He’s conquered them all a lifetime ago. Age is his greatest foe. The NFL’s Iron Man will soldier on in relative anonymity, putting the finishing touches on one of the great careers of any New York Giant, until he can no longer.