Record-Setting ‘Leg Talent’ From Texas A&M; One Past, One Present Jack Bell
They say that records are made to be broken. But in sports, there are some records that have, and will endure: Yankees' Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941; Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game for the Philadelphia Warriors (against the Knicks!) in 1962; Ted Williams batting .400, also in 1941; Brett Favre's 297 consecutive NFL games played -- to name but four.
Yet there is a glaring omission on the many lists of unbreakable sports records, one of particular interest to Jets fans: Steve O'Neal's NFL/AFL record 98-yard punt on Sept. 21,1969 at Denver's Mile High Stadium. There have been only seven punts (including O'Neal's) of 90 yards or more in the history of the NFL.
That was the season after the Jets' triumph in Super Bowl III, O'Neal's rookie year when he brought a big leg from his days at Texas A&M to the NFL.
"It was hard in the sense, they had their core group," O'Neal, 74, said in a telephone interview from his home in College Station, Tex. "I was going against Curly Johnson who was a team favorite. He kept everyone laughing. I'm more of an introvert."
The punting pedigree has been strong among Aggies players over the years. The list of notables includes Drew Kaser, a sixth-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2016; Shane Lechler, a fifth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2000; O'Neal, selected on the 13th round pick by the Jets in 1969; and Phil Scoggin, a 14th-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1966. In addition, Yale Lary, the only Aggie player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was picked in the third round by the Detroit Lions in 1952. He was an accomplished punter in the NFL but was not a specialist (he also played as a defensive back).
Now add to that illustrious list the Jets' new punter, Braden Mann, 22, a record-breaker in his own right at A&M. Mann averaged 48.9 yards on 109 punts in his A&M career. He had 57 punts that covered at least 50 yards and 46 that were downed inside the 20-yard line. He only had one attempt blocked. Coming out of Cy-Fair High School in 2016, Mann mostly handled kickoffs in 2016 and '17. He took over punting duties the next season and quickly established himself as one of the best in the nation.
He averaged 51 yards on 50 punts to lead the nation in 2018 and set NCAA records for single-game average (60.8 yards vs. Alabama) and for booting 14 punts of 60 yards or more. He had punts of 69 and 73 yards against Clemson. He had an 82-yard punt against Kentucky. As a senior in 2019, Mann's 47.1 yards per punt ranked fourth in the nation. He won a slew of accolades, including the coveted Ray Guy Award, and his season punting average of 50.98 yards per broke the single-season punting average record of 50.28 set in 1997 by former LSU punter Chad Kessler.
Mann's link to the Jets and the New York/New Jersey area is coincidental and curious. First, there's the A&M legacy he shares with O'Neal. Then there's a bit of long-distance genetic history: Mann took over punting duties at A&M from Shane Tripucka, the nephew of Kelly Tripucka who was a basketball star at Bloomfield (NJ) HS and later at Notre Dame and in the NBA.
"I got pretty informed about that record while I was at A&M," Mann, 5-11, 198, said. "Right when I got drafted [in the sixth round, the 191st pick overall] I heard a lot about the record and was asked about it in a couple of interviews during my senior year. It is a cool piece of trivia, something that means something because at A&M we took pride in our special teams year to year. Now my goal is to come to the NFL and do well. I'd sure like to meet him [O'Neal]."
Mann is the only punter in Jets camp and will replace Lachlan Edwards, who kicked for the Jets for four seasons. Mann will also serve as the holder for whichever placekicker makes the final roster, and he also said he would be comfortable with kick-off duties, if asked.
"I think he's done exactly what we thought he was going to do," said special teams coach Brant Boyer. During the draft, Boyer reportedly stood on a table as he beseeched General Manager Joe Douglas to take Mann with the Jets' final selection in the NFL draft last April.
Boyer added: "I think that he's displayed really soft hands as a holder. He's come in, adjusted really well for the kickers. He does everything you ask, he's a great kid, fast learner. As far as his punting and stuff like that, his hang times are really good, there are some things that we can work on, a little bit with his drop and stuff like that, but he's come in and done a great job and he's got a really good arsenal of kicks that we can use. We are trying to keep him steady and keep it simple for right now and we will expand on his toolbox here at a later time. But he's done a great job thus far."
Before committing to Texas A&M, Mann said he had to contend with family members, nearly all of whom had attended Iowa State.
"A&M was my first offer and it was my No. 1 choice," Mann said. "When I went in I wanted to get the job [punting], but it didn't work out the first two years. In my junior year the waiting prepared me to compete with [Shane] Tripucka. You know, every freshman goes in thinking they would start. I had to wait my turn, at the same time it pushes you to compete."
Mann's prodigious numbers in college aside, Boyer has set about tweaking some things as the rookie prepares for his NFL debut, at Buffalo on Sept. 13.
"Initially, when I got here the emphasis was on hang time," Mann said. "Hang time is huge because it takes longer for the cover guys to get down. Direction and placement are going to be huge. There's also a bit of difference in protection. In college there's a bigger spread in the blocking. The protector doesn't step back. On my first day in practice I not only had the other team coming at me, but my protectors were backstepping. It was weird and will take some getting used."
Like Mann, O'Neal -- as with most kicking specialists who get drafted -- was taken in a late, late, late round.
O'Neal, who went to A&M initially on a track scholarship and was taken in the 13th round of the draft, was playing in only his second NFL game when he setup deep in the Jets' end zone, with the ball at the 1-yard line. With Matt Snell providing blocking ("I told him not to back up, but he did anyway," O'Neal said), the boot in Denver's thin air landed nose down at the Broncos 33 and careened to the goal line. It was picked up by Denver's Bill Thompson, who was smothered inches from the goal line by Wayne Stewart.
"The biggest mistake I made was not going and getting the football, but they didn't do that sort of stuff back then," O'Neal, who retired six years ago after working 40 years as a dentist, said. "Nobody seemed to make a big deal out of it. Weeb Ewbank, the coach at that time, three days later, congratulated me on the punt."
O'Neal had a few final words for Mann: "I know the man likes to tackle [Mann is credited with 11 tackles and a forced fumble in 2018-19] and get in there and mix it up. But when you get one-on-one with a guy who's super-fast. ... I'd like to pass on to Braden that I hope to meet him and wish him luck, but take care, because [mixing it up] could shorten your professional career."