By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Reggie Roby would have turned 58 this past Tuesday, but sadly, his life didn’t resemble his booming punts.
He passed away on Feb. 22, 2005 at the age of just 43.
Roby averaged more yards per punt as an Iowa Hawkeye than he lived in years.
The Waterloo native set an NCAA season record with a 49.8 average during Iowa's 1981 Rose Bowl season. In 1982, Roby led the nation with a 48.1 average per punt. His career average of 45.4 yards per punt ranks among college football’s best and is still a school record.
Roby would go on to play 16 seasons in the NFL where he punted 992 times for 42,951 yards and a 43.3 average. He was named All-Pro in 1984 and 1994, played in three Pro Bowls in 1984, 1989 and 1994 and made the NFL All-Decade team for the 1980s.
But there is so much more to the legend of Reggie Roby than just his staggering numbers as a punter, and I was reminded after having paid tribute to him on Twitter on what would’ve been his 58th birthday.
The response was overwhelming as one fan after another paid their respects with either a story about Roby’s incredible punting prowess or just a statement recognizing his talent and impact.
“Loved seeing him play for Waterloo East, even though I went to West,” said Charlie Zimmerman, who used the hashtag respect on his tweet.
This from Todd Coulter:
“In the summers he would practice at the park near where I lived. I used to “TRY” and catch his punts. Epic fail. Ball sounded like a cannon when it left his leg. I am a 1985 East High graduate and former AD there as well. Our weight room is named after him.”
And this from Romelle Slaughter II:
“And one of the best athletes that walked through the halls of my alma mater, Waterloo East. Fans would show up, just to see him punt the ball. My uncle said the ball looked like it kissed the moon before it came back down when punted.”
And yet another from a high school classmate of mine named Bob Bettendorf, and maybe the funniest of all the responses.
"Probably the only punter in history that made you look forward to a 3 and out on offense."
Roby was a multi-sport star at Waterloo East School. He also played basketball and was good enough as a pitcher to have been drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. But Roby chose football instead, much to delight of Hayden Fry and his coaching staff at Iowa.
Fry was hired at Iowa in December 1978, and he immediately made Roby a recruiting priority.
Iowa desperately needed a punter and Roby was considered one of the top high school punters in the nation.
But he was also coveted by numerous schools, so Fry had to put forth his best sales pitch with help from assistant coach Dan McCarney, who was Roby’s chief recruiter.
Fry wanted to make a statement that his staff could land a top in-state recruit and he went out of his way to make Roby feel special.
Iowa hadn’t had a winning season since 1961, so Fry had to convince Roby to take a leap of faith.
Fry addressed Roby’s recruitment in his autobiography titled “Hayden Fry a High Porch Picnic,” that was co-written by former Iowa Sports Information Director George Wine.
“The night before the signing date, we took our whole coaching staff to Waterloo to show Roby how much we wanted him,” Fry said. “I don’t know if that was the deciding factor, but the next day he signed with us.
“I was never so happy to sign a punter. Getting Reggie helped us convince Iowa kids that playing for the Hawkeyes was a thing to do. And he helped give us one of the best kicking games in college for the next four years.”
Iowa was limited on offense when Roby joined the program in the fall of 1979 due to a lack of personnel, but there was potential on defense with a group of hungry and talented players who were eager to please the new coaching staff.
It only took Fry three seasons to turn Iowa from a habitual loser to a Big Ten champion, and it was defense and Roby’s punting that led the resurgence.
Don Patterson was an assistant coach at Iowa throughout Fry’s 20-year reign from 1979 to 1998, and Patterson remembers Roby being the key factor in multiple victories, including the 17-7 win at Wisconsin during the 1981 Rose Bowl season.
“We were playing at Wisconsin and it was a big showdown game, and I remember we had totally sucked on offense that day, and we weren’t that good on offense to begin with,” Patterson said. “But one thing we could do was protect the ball and we could flip the field with Reggie as the punter.
“And that’s how the game went. It was an ugly football game because Wisconsin would drive down the field and stall out or turn it over on downs or miss a field goal or whatever. Something would screw up the point production for them. It probably wasn’t every time, but it seemed like it, we’d be three-and-out and we’d punt the ball back to the other end of the field and here they’d come again.”
With thighs the size of tree trunks, and with his incredibly flexibility, it seemed that Roby was born to be a punter. The ball would just explode off his right leg with a sound that became easy to identity.
“You could blind fold an NFL scout and you could put up ten pro prospects at punter and they would still be able to identity Reggie from the other nine because the ball would sound differently coming off his foot,” Patterson said. “We called him Thunder Foot for a reason.
“It was a boom for lack of a better word. The ball would just boom off his foot. It would be a loud noise and there’d be no doubt in your mind that was Reggie that punted that one.”
Roby died from an apparent heart attack at his home in Franklin, Tenn. He was survived by his wife, Melissa, and six children.
"All we know is he was getting ready for work this morning, and his oldest son found him in the bathroom," said Mike Roby, Reggie's older brother to the Waterloo Courier.
Roby's obituary that ran in the Waterloo Courier included a quote from Roby’s high school coach, Roger Kittleson, about the fact that Roby had to kick toward the south end zone at Sloane Wallace Stadium because of the school buildings located adjacent to the field at the north end zone.
"When he kicked at the other end of the field (the north end), the footballs ended up on the roof of the school," Kittleson told the Waterloo Courier. "By the end of warm-ups, we'd be out of footballs. We lost a lot of balls when he was kicking."
Roby also handled kickoffs while at Iowa and he routinely kicked the ball through the uprights for touchbacks.
Roby was so popular with fans that many of them would arrive early for the games at Kinnick Stadium just so they could watch him warmup.
He helped to popularize the now-standard two-step approach and often wore a watch to gauge his hang time.
Roby also influenced others to become punters because they were mesmerized and inspired by his greatness as shared in this tweet by @attysbrewd.
“Pat, I remember walking two streets down to be able to try and punt over the above ground power lines as a child. Led to me punting in HS, JC, Div 2 and then a couple tryouts post college. HUGE influence and a few pulled hammy's trying to emulate!”
Roby used to challenge himself by punting over houses and buildings or anything that stood tall.
“That’s how strong his leg was,” Patterson said.
Roby had a gift and he used that gift to become arguably the most important recruit during the Hayden Fry era at Iowa.
“I’ve always said for every great punter, there is about five great kickers,” Patterson said. “Punting is a lost art. It’s hard to be a great punter. I think it’s more difficult to be a great punter than it is to be a great kicker, maybe if only because a bunch of guys played soccer and they transitioned in to being a great kicker.”
The size and thickness of Roby’s thigh helped to fuel his legend.
“Safe to say his thigh was bigger than the average punter,” Patterson said.
There was nothing average about Reggie Roby when it came to punting.
He was a pioneer and a trail blazer as one of the few black punters or kickers to have played in the NFL.
And you could make a strong case that he was the most valuable player for Iowa’s 1981 Big Ten champion team. He led the nation in punting with a 49.8 average that season while constantly shifting field position.
He became a legend along the way, and helped to make Hayden Fry a legend.
Reggie Roby died way too soon, but at least we still have memories and stories about his greatness that will last forever.
RIP Thunder Foot.