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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2009

Fields, Kern, Baltz give NW Ohio a reason to cheer fourth downs

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Brett Kern and Brandon Fields finally crossed paths on Nov. 2 in Denver.

Kern, the former University of Toledo punter who holds the same position with the Denver Broncos, and Fields, the Miami Dolphins punter and a St. John s Jesuit graduate, met as players generally do before the two teams played that day.

Both expected the conversation to eventually turn to Toledo where Fields went to high school and Kern made a name for himself with the Rockets but the Glass City never came up.

I don t know why, Kern said in a recent phone interview. I thought it was going to. We just didn t have that much time to talk I guess.

Travis Baltz, a sophomore punter at the University of Maryland and an Anthony Wayne High School graduate, has never met Kern or Fields but says they are two of the pro punters he studies.

Former University of Toledo punter Brett Kern punts for the Broncos. Former University of Toledo punter Brett Kern punts for the Broncos.
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Fields, Kern and Baltz may not know each other well if at all but they share more than their punting and Lucas County backgrounds. The three of them also enjoyed extraordinary football seasons in 2008.

Fields punted for the NFL s worst team in 2007, only to have Bill Parcells take over the organization and transform the Dolphins into a division champion and playoff participant.

Kern, an undrafted rookie, had to win his job in training camp, finished second in the AFC in gross punting average and witnessed Denver s firing of famous coach Mike Shanahan after the team s late-season collapse.

Baltz was named first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference after leading the league in net punting. The Terps also won the Roady s Humanitarian Bowl over Nevada in Boise in which Baltz nailed five punts inside the 20-yard line.

Worst to first

Fields, 24, was drafted out of Michigan State in the seventh round in 2007, becoming the first punter drafted by the Dolphins and subsequently the first rookie to punt for them since Brent Bartholomew in 1999.

Anthony Wayne graduate Travis Baltz was named All-ACC punter this past season as a sophomore at Maryland. Anthony Wayne graduate Travis Baltz was named All-ACC punter this past season as a sophomore at Maryland.
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As happy as he was to punt in all 16 games that season, he suffered along with his teammates while the Dolphins went a league-worst 1-15.

It wasn t fun, I can tell you that, said Fields, whose wife, Katie, is the daughter of Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre. Fields spoke with The Blade last week in a phone interview from his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

In need of a new direction, the Dolphins brought in the legendary Parcells to be their vice president of football operations. The two-time Super Bowl champion and former coach hired Tony Sparano to be Miami s head coach, and positive results ensued immediately.

The Dolphins finished 11-5 and edged out New England for first place in the AFC East. They faced the Baltimore Ravens who faces Pittsburgh today with a Super Bowl bid at stake in the playoffs and lost 27-9.

Fields averaged 44 yards per punt in his first playoff appearance nearly identical to his averages for this season and his rookie year and had one downed inside the 20.

Each week was a big game, each week mattered, Fields said. Especially when you look at those last four or five games down the stretch, it s like you treat each kick like it s the most important kick of the year.

As for Parcells, whose personality helps put the big in his Big Tuna nickname, Fields said: As a person, Bill Parcells is a great guy.

He s obviously very knowledgeable, Fields continued, and he s eager to share that knowledge with the players.

Kern, 22, was dejected last year when his NFL combine snub was followed by not having his name called during the draft.

His spirits were lifted a bit when the Broncos called after the draft, but by the summer he was engaged in a fierce training camp battle with Sam Paulescu and didn t know if his pro career would end almost before it began.

I was really on the ropes as to whether or not I would even make the team, Kern said.

Kern did win the job, and in his NFL debut at Oakland had one of his two punts downed inside the 20. He had one of his best games against Fields and the Dolphins, pinning three punts inside the 20 in a 26-17 loss.

(Note: Fields averaged 45.8 yards per punt and had two punts downed inside the 20 in that game).

Kern s Broncos may have fallen to Fields Miami club in early November, but Denver s descent from grace didn t begin for more than a month after that. At 8-5 with three games to play, the Broncos suffered three losses in a row and coughed up the AFC West title and a playoff bid to San Diego.

Kern, who grossed 46.7 yards per punt with a net average of 37.8 yards (ninth in the AFC), couldn t really reflect on his positive individual performance from his rookie season because of the bombshell that was dropped after it.

Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl winner who d been Denver s head coach since 1995, was fired after the Broncos lost to San Diego in Week 17.

I couldn t believe it, Kern said of Shanahan s dismissal. I d grown up watching the games on Sundays on TV, and coach Shanahan was always the coach of the Broncos. It s weird not having him and it still hasn t sunk in yet.

Baltz, 20, who was at home in Whitehouse on break last week, said the key to his success at Maryland was confidence.

That and being relaxed, Baltz said.

Baltz, one of four true freshmen to start for the Terps in 2007, entered 2008 having received freshmen All-American honors from the Sporting News. He also attended the prestigious Kohl s kicking and punting camp in Wisconsin over the summer, where many top high school and college kickers and punters go for extended training.

In a season-opening 14-7 victory over Delaware, Baltz punted four times with an average of 43 yards per kick and two downed inside the 20.

I didn t punt amazing or anything that day but I had a good first game, and it kind of snow-balled from there, he said.

Baltz averaged 41.1 yards per punt for the season and had 24 of 61 kicks downed inside the 20. He s set goals for 2009 that include leading the Atlantic Coas Conference in punting once again and working to land more punts inside the 10 pinning opponents even deeper.

He was named All-ACC first team for this past season.

As for one day shaking hands with Kern or Fields before punting against them in an NFL game?

It s too soon to think about anything like that as a goal, Baltz said. As a dream, maybe.

Contact Joe Vardon at:jvardon@theblade.com or 419-410-5055.



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