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Punt for Your Life

Inner Toobin

By Jeffrey R. Toobin

"You can't be a high-strung punter," says Steve Flach, and he should know.

Harvard's junior punter endured an afternoon of nearly constant emotional and physical abuse in Harvard's 14-13 victory over Holy Cross Saturday, and his cool head--and eventual emergence as a hero of the game--confirms his assessment of the spiritual make-up required of the loneliest booter.

After an uneventful 32-yd. punt for a touchback following the Crimson's first possession, Flach's day turned ugly. He faced his next effort standing on his own 6-yd. line, his team ahead, 7-0, with 9:06 remaining in the second quarter. He called the signals, then watched Mike Jacobs's snap from center sail widly over his right hand. Flach scampered after it helplessly, but the Crusader's Bob Ireland had fallen on the ball at the Harvard 2-yd. line.

Normally a quality snapper, defensive back Jacobs had coated his hands with stickum to help grab Holy Cross passes; indeed Jacobs had made an interception just minutes earlier. But the stickum skewed the snap, and Flach wound up in a pile of bodies at the two. And on the next play, Crusader Doug Pietrick pushed it over to tie the score.

So Jacobs took himself out and sophomore Jeff Lawrence took over the snapping chores. And in Harvard's first possession of the second half, at the Crimson 11-yd. line, Lawrence came on with Flach and promptly sent the ball sailing high to the punter's right--the same side from which a strong Holy Cross surged. Flach lept, snagged the ball, and lurched into a semi-punt. Not surprisingly, a pair of Crusader linemen blocked it and the ball bounced toward the goal line.

"When that happens," Flach says, "what I probably should do is put it in the end zone and down it for a safety. I'm even supposed to try to kick it out of the end zone so they can't fall on it for a touchdown." But Holy Cross's Curt Bletzer fell on the ball at the 1-yd. line before Flach could get to it. "When I came off the field," Flach says, "Coach Restic said to me, 'You gotta fall on that ball for a safety.'"

Had he fallen on the ball, Harvard probably would have lost the game. The Harvard line held the Crusaders for one play, then forced Mark Covington to fumble on the next. The Crimson's Tim Palmer recovered.

So although Harvard had staved off another special team disaster--or at least paying the price for a disaster--Flach now had seen two straight snaps fly over his head. "All I kept thinking was I wanted to get out there again," Flach says.

He got three more chances in the late third and early fourth quarters, and the Rockford, Ill., native (Rep. John B. Anderson lives down the street) lofted punts of 50, 31 and 51 yards. As Restic said after the game, "Those two long punts bailed us out."

But Flach wasn't finished yet. The Crusaders' Matt Michaud's missed 45-yd. field goal attempt with 1:24 remaining would seem to have settled it, but the Holy Cross defense clamped down on the Crimson offense, and Flach had to return with 33 seconds remaining.

So with the ball on the three, his feet inches from the back of the end zone, ten block-minded Crusaders growling at the line, a shanked punt meaning another potential Holy Cross field goal attempt and a safety meaning sure defeat. Flach took the snap. Lawrence fired it perfectly, and Flach hurried a 40-yarder, saving the game.

"The punt wasn't as pretty as I wanted--I try and put a priority on aesthetics," Flach said, deadpan. He paused. "It sure is a fine line between saving the game and losing the game." Steven Flach saw both sides of that line Saturday, and--lucky for Harvard--he wound up on the winning side.

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