ENGLEWOOD – Craig Colquitt, who won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, feels like he handed down a family business to his sons Dustin and Britton.
The brothers each signed offseason deals with the Chiefs and Broncos, respectively, that made them the highest-paid punters in the NFL at nearly $4 million a year – about 45 times as much as their father ever earned in the pros.
The Colquitts are to punting what the Mannings are to passing, and this first family of punters had an inauspicious start – a safety on the patriarch’s very first punt at the University of Tennessee in 1975.
Craig was 21, having worked at a department store for two years after high school, and the Volunteers were playing Maryland.
Punting from his end zone, “I was so nervous, the ball hit my hands, hit my facemask and went straight up,” Craig said. “And just as I grabbed it I could see this guy coming off my right side. So, I fell down, and he fell on top of me.”
Time to go back to stocking shelves, he thought.
“I really wanted to run out the back of the stadium because I figured this is the end for me,” Craig said.
George Cafego, Tennessee’s renowned kicking coach, instead greeted him with a hearty, “Great job!”
Those two words would be repeated many times over the next three seasons as Craig, driven by Cafego’s vote of confidence, rewrote the school record book, averaging 42.5 yards per punt – a mark that would be bested by three more Colquitts.
His nephew, Jimmy, averaged 43.9 yards from 1981 to 1984. Dustin averaged 42.567 from 2001 to 2004 and Britton 42.569 from 2005 to 2008.
After Craig’s senior year in 1977, Chuck Noll personally worked him out before drafting him in the third round.
By 1979, he had two Super Bowl rings.
He averaged 41.3 yards in six seasons in the pros, earning $85,000 in his final year in 1984, before settling down with his wife, Anne, to raise a family in Tennessee.
He made a brief return to the NFL in 1987 when the players went on strike. He was in financial straits at the time and the chance to get back into the game – and more importantly, to earn an $8,000 weekly paycheck – spurred him to cross the picket line.
In his one game with the Indianapolis Colts, he had the only blocked punt of his pro career.
That was the low point of an otherwise joyful journey across America’s football fields.
Looking back, Craig, who’s now a sales rep for a janitorial company in Nashville, said that safety he took as a sophomore in college was the turning point in his life.
“This was my opportunity to get a scholarship and take the financial burden off my parents,” he said. “So, I really saw a lot of things go through my head that were all negative. It could have been a calamity, and it wasn’t. It was a great experience.”
Had he been benched, he doubts he would have passed punting onto his sons.
He didn’t push them, though.
After his playing career, Craig ran a punting and kicking camp, and Britton helped him out, but Dustin didn’t.
“I was swimming in the pool when they were punting,” Dustin said. “He wanted us to be two things, holy and happy, and that was good enough for him.”
Two weeks before Dustin’s senior year in high school, the football coach told him his kicker had gotten hurt, and he also needed a punter.
“And he knew nothing about punting,” Craig said.
So, Dad and baby brother gave him a crash course, and Dustin, who’s left-footed and right-handed, which complicated matters, quickly caught on.
Craig always was a mixture of coach and Dad to his boys.
“When the kid’s trying to get up the steps, you’ve got to push them a little bit. Yeah, there was a little bit of that, a little parenting, but nothing like if you don’t do this, you’re not eating today,” Craig said. “We did not live through our children. We lived with our children.”
Britton said his father never pressured them to follow in his footsteps.
“It was the opposite. He didn’t let us play football until high school. That was the rule. He taught us before that, and so it might look like it, but I think he was just preparing us, and I think he knew that soccer was going to train us up, too,” Britton said.
Britton, who always wanted to play football, said Dustin’s real reason for shunning the sport was “he didn’t like tight pants. And then at his very first game, some girl whistled at him and said, ‘Nice butt.’ And after the game, he told my dad, ‘OK, I think I can do this.’”
Good thing, because Dad surreptitiously was preparing him all along.
“The way we grew up he was always putting us in crazy situations where we had to kick a ball over a tree, so we’d already been in those situations,” Dustin said.
It paid off this year when Dustin signed an $18.75-million deal and Britton got an $11.7-million extension.
“People tell me you must be proud,” Craig said. “I’m glad they have jobs. They just happen to have exceptional jobs.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta from Kansas City contributed to this report.