Jarzynka & the Art of the Kamikaze Punt Return

There was a time in 1998, during a meaningless game against meager Utah State, that Husky Stadium roared to vigorous life. A diminutive former walk-on had just trotted out to attempt a field goal. His name was Joe Jarzynka. By that point, his fiery style of play had resonated with the fan base, transforming him into a lightening rod for the crowd's enthusiasm.

He was known for being a jack-of-all-trades. Recently, Jarzynka was asked to describe kicking his first field goal, catching a touchdown pass in the Apple Cup, and returning punts with the mentality of a Kamikaze pilot.

"I took the initiative in becoming the placekicker," said Jarzynka. "I was used to never coming off the field in high school. It was fun to play offense, defense, special teams. I was looking for ways to get involved and help the team. I was looking at our kicking game, which was pretty pathetic. So I strolled into coach Rick Mallory's office during the summer, as I was already there (on campus) taking classes and working out with the rest of the team. I said `Coach, I'm gonna be your kicker this year.' He had no idea I could kick. After my workouts, I would grab a bag of balls and go out to the field and start thumping kicks. It was like riding a bike. Then during the season, they started giving me shots in practice. It made the other kickers nervous, put a little pressure on them. That one kicker named Nick... I can't remember his last name, blonde kid... Anyway, he left school, he thought he was better than he was... Then Jim Skurski missed a few kicks early in the season, and that put the heat on.

"In practice, I was dropping dimes," he said. "Then one day, in the Arizona game, Jim missed a couple of kicks from about 25 yards, and coach Mallory points at me and says `You got the next kick.' And I was like, YEA BABY, IT'S ON.

"I didn't get an opportunity that game, but the next game I had the opportunity."

That next game was against Utah State, a 53-12 Husky triumph. It was the fifth game of the season, and still no Washington kicker had converted a field goal. Jarzynka describes what it was like when he drilled one through the uprights.

"I have never lacked in confidence or focus or staying cool under pressure," said Jarzynka. "But I tell you, I ran out there to kick my first collegiate field goal, and (Husky Stadium) absolutely erupted, and my legs were like jelly. I almost didn't think I could kick. My legs were like rubber and numb. But I nailed it down the middle, man. It was money.

"Later in the game, I got cocky and I absolutely wanked it, a PAT. Banged it off the cross bar. Lost my focus for a moment..."

It was in his final home game, in 1999 against Washington State, that Jarzynka hauled in a 55- yard touchdown pass. It was thrown by wide receiver Dane Looker, as part of a double pass. It was Jarzynka's most exciting moment for the year. But it also spoke to the underlying adversity he was facing that season.

"That was a pretty fun situation actually," he said. "I wasn't supposed to be in the game at that time. That play had been put in for Chris (Jeurgens) or Gerald (Harris), I can't remember. One of those guys was hurt and on the sideline. I jumped in there and said LET'S GO. I was definitely not supposed to be there.

"It was a double pass. I fake like I'm gonna block the corner(back), and then I ran by him. Dane Looker lofted the ball up, he actually under-threw it a little and made me come back a bit. And I pitched Dane hell for that. But I scored on it. That score put us ahead by about two touchdowns and really gave us a commanding lead (17-6).

"I'm running off the field. (Washington Head Coach Rick) Neuheisel is there. He doesn't look at me. All he says as I walk by is a (flat-toned) "congratulations". And I said to myself, well thank you very much coach, we just secured a firm lead in the game, and that's the best you got for me? Alright, thanks buddy.

"Right when Neuheisel had come in as the new coach (earlier that year), he pulled me off the field goal team immediately. He pulled me off of everything but the punt return team, and he would have done that quick as anything except that there was a bit of feedback from fans and some other people; so he threw me a bone and I was ALLOWED to stay on the punt return team.

"I just shook my head and looked at Bobby Hauck and I was like, I have no idea what you're doing. I have been on the kick return team ever since I was eligible to play. I'm a senior. I'm the only guy out here that knows exactly what has to be done at all times. The performance of this team is going to go down. Sooner or later, you're going to have me back on this team. I'm just a little upset that you'll have to learn this yourself. Sure enough, we went from first in the nation in kickoff returns the year before at something like 26.4 yards a return, to the next year, Neuheisel's first, when we were dead last in the Pac-10.

"The whole deal with Neuheisel and Huack was track guys, they wanted to put raw speed back there. It has so little to do with raw speed. But, I don't know, they just didn't get it... Toward the end of the season, we were winning, it's a team game, and I certainly didn't want to be the guy complaining about not getting enough playing time. However, nobody would look me in the eye and say why that I, as one of two returning All Pac-10 performers on the team, wasn't even on the field."

What had elevated Jarznka to the All Pac-10 team were his electrifying punt returns. At Dawgman.com's request, Joe Jarzynka went on to describe the art of the Kamikaze punt return.

"I had always returned kicks since I had played football," he started. "I really enjoyed it because it was the one time in football that you could improvise and express yourself individually . As coach Al Roberts used to say, "Express yourself WITHIN THE SYSTEM". So there was some room for improv.

"(My aggressiveness) all started when (Washington Head Coach Jim) Lambright chastised me for fair catching a punt against BYU when I was a sophomore (1997). I came in for Jerome Pathon, who was kind of tired. I was the third receiver at that point. When I was preparing to catch the ball, I thought I had a fair amount of pressure, so I fair caught the punt. Then I looked up and saw that I had a clear path to the end zone. It was really bad. And I got HAMMERED on in the team meeting that Monday by coach Lambright in front of the entire squad. That was very unpleasant, to say the least. So after that, I was a bit more focused, more determined and more risky each time I stepped on the field.

"What a lot of people don't understand about punt returns is that if people are running full speed at you, those are the easiest people to make miss. If you can just catch the ball cleanly, it only takes one move to get past those guys and then you've got five, maybe ten yards before you see another tackler. If you run straight at them instead of toward the side and giving them an angle, then you can make those guys miss too by running straight back at them.

"That's the way I've approached not just returning punts, but a lot of things in life. Just hit it hard. I've always been one to take risks, whether it be on the football field or anywhere else.

"But if you can catch that ball cleanly, you can do some big things. Especially when the plays don't go as they're designed. Especially when a guy shanks his punt - those are opportunities when nobody expects you to go pick up the ball. What I liked to do was even on those shanked punts I would run my ass off to get over there; if there was the slightest chance to pick that ball up - if it took a nice soft bounce, man - you could take everybody off balance.

"Then you're in their head. They're thinking more about you than winning the game."

Jarzynka concluded the conversation by describing his 91-yard touchdown, off a punt return against California, in 1997.

"Cal had come up to Seattle," said Jarzynka. "We were supposed to firmly beat them, which I think we did (UW won 21-13). Nick Harris was their punter, he was one of the best in the Pac-10. He was absolutely dropping bombs. He absolutely lit one up, I had to turn and run backwards. I knew it was inside the 10 yard-line, which is normally the area that is hands-off for punt returners. But I was awarded a little bit of leeway from Coach Mallory. Man, I knew I had five to seven yards before anybody got there. Sticking with my strategy, I just headed straight up field, made the first couple guys miss, got a couple of great blocks by the punt return team, made another guy miss, and the next thing I know I'm up to the punter, and I'm thinking HOLY SMOKES.

"I made one move on him, and I should add here that the punter has really been the downfall for me in my career in getting to the end zone. I think I was tackled by the punter three times in my career. It was brutal. Kind of embarrassing, actually.

"...But I made it by the punter, and started truckin'. I took a lot of flack from my teammates later because as I was running, I looked up at the Diamondvision to see where the defender was on my heels. So everybody was pitching me hell about that afterwards, because everyone could tell I was looking up.

"And after I scored the touchdown I went straight to the (chain-link) fence behind the end zone. I was kind of excited about everything that was happening that year, and I wanted to provide a spark for our team. I wanted to get everyone fired up. So I ran to the fence and started shaking it like an animal. It was fun."

Joe Jarzynka is a Sports Fishing Consultant at Royal Journeys. Visit their website at RoyalJourneys.com and drop Joe an email at Joe@RoyalJourneys.com

Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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