One play is all it takes

One of my favorite former clients to watch was Curtis “The Hit Man” Buckley, a true special teams assassin. I learned about Curtis in 1992 while talking to Jerry Angelo, at the time the personnel director of the Bucs and now the current Bears general manager. We were discussing a few of my new clients when Jerry said, “Jack, you need to take a look at this safety at Texas A&M-Commerce. When I walked into the stadium, it sounded like bombs were going off. This Buckley kid was blasting people on special teams and on defense. I don’t think he’ll make it as a safety, but he might have a shot as a special teams player.”

So I took Jerry’s advice and painstakingly tracked downed Curtis after the season. This was before every college kid had a cell phone, so finding him wasn’t easy. After a few weeks, I finally met him at a mall in a small Texas town. I brought a contract and he happily signed it, and all he asked me was to loan him $50 so he could eat for the next month. I gave him $200. He never asked me for another thing -- no loans, no training, no phone, nothing. He was old, old school.

There was no all-star game or Combine invitation for Curtis, and only a few people showed up for his college pro day. He ran an unimpressive 4.78 in the 40. Now I’m starting to wonder, “What in the hell was Angelo thinking?” The draft came and went with no calls. A few days later, Angelo and the Bucs finally signed him as their last undrafted free agent.

A few weeks before the start of camp, I called Jerry to check on my guys. He told me that Buckley wasn’t fast, wasn’t big and was struggling to learn the safety spot and that he would probably be cut before camp even started. I pleaded with Jerry to give Curtis at least two preseason games and reminded him why he originally recommended Curtis to me: special teams. Jerry agreed to give him a few more weeks.

What happened next is the reason Curtis made the Bucs. During a live intra-squad scrimmage, he was lined up as a gunner (the tackler farthest to the outside) on the punt team with two defenders in his face trying to prevent him from getting down field. Standing five yards away on the sideline were head coach Sam Wyche, GM Rich McKay and Angelo. The three decision-makers were chatting and watching the practice when Cutis did something that blew all three away. When the ball was snapped and the defenders tried jamming him at the line, Curtis did a somersault between and over top of them, landed on his butt, picked himself off the ground and ran down the field to make the tackle. Sam’s jaw was on the ground. Rich and Jerry looked at each other in amazement as Sam asked Jerry, “Who the hell is that kid?”

That was the moment, the one play, when Sam fell in love with Curtis and the brass witnessed something they had never seen before.

That play led to Curtis getting some prominent reps on special teams. While lining up for the opening preseason kickoff, he again did something unusual for a rookie. He started to ignite the crowd by waving his arms and then performed a back-flip, which fired up the crowd even more. He then blasted his way down field, made the tackle and then did a front flip. This might be the kind of thing some coaches would cut a guy for, but it ingratiated Curtis to Sam and launched a four-year love affair with Bucs fans.

Curtis went on to be a legendary NFL special teams player for seven years. His antics were such that he’s still a special teams coach’s best tale. I’ll share more Curtis Buckley stories over the next few days.

I once had a player who was cut by Bill Parcells. His personnel director told me, “Jack, with Bill and a lot of head coaches, it can be one thing, one play, that makes or breaks a player’s chances.”

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