Prefontaine's more than just a kicker

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:38 AM ET

"Noel just isn't much of a football name. Noel, to me, is not somebody who would hit somebody or get physical. That's part of my game," said, ah, Pre.

But hold it here. Noel Prefontaine is a punter; a kicker. Kickers aren't supposed to come with old-time bruiser-type names like Bubba, Bronco, Buster, Rock, Chuck, Gronk or Gork.

Prefontaine insists he isn't your average kicker. He sees himself as an actual football player.

He likes to hit and tackle people. More than that, he sees himself as having missed his era by about 60 seasons.

He thinks he'd have liked it back when the Eskimos came into being in 1949 when the rosters were so small there weren't many more guys in the team picture than one of today's hockey team pictures.

He'd have loved to play a position on offence, a position on defence and punted and kicked.

"I see myself as an old-school player when guys went both ways and the fullback punted and wide receiver kicked field goals and you had to learn to do everything on the field. That's how I think I am.

"Those guys just tied up their laces and went out there and played football. I think I would have fit in back then."

We're just getting to know Prefontaine in Edmonton. For 10 years he played for the Argos, the team the Eskimos play tomorrow night at Commonwealth Stadium and play again the following week in Toronto.

Born to a Canadian father and a Vietnamese mother on an American armed services base (Camp Pendelton in California), Prefontaine's life and career path have been fascinating.

"My father was in the military. He was born and raised in Verdun, Que. and allowed me to live with my grandmother until I left Verdun when I was about six to go back to my parents in the States in the San Diego area."

He claims to have been a normal enough kid, although he admits he didn't look much like somebody who would grow up to have a future in pro sports.

"I played baseball and soccer. When I started up in football, I played offensive tackle. I was a little chubby. I was a little bit on the fat side."

While today most players will tell you that Prefontaine is a lot less quirky than your average kicker, he did become a kicker by purchasing a set of inflatable goal posts when he was about to hit high school, something not entirely sane for a kid of that age.

"I was one of those kids trying to think of different ways improve myself as an athlete.

"I was a quarterback in high school and I'd go out and throw footballs at trees. I'd throw footballs to invisible receivers running routes in a park and then go have to pick the ball up," he said, admitting there were people who probably thought he was a few bricks short of a load.

And that was before the inflatable goal posts made their first appearance.

"I found it at Toys R Us. It was for kids aged seven and up. I was way too old to have that particular toy. It was for kicking field goals in the house. One day I popped it and all the air came out. I went back to get another but they stopped selling it. I've never seen one since."

Not many kids go from offensive line to quarterback to punter and kicker.

"I just started growing upward instead of outward," said the chubby kid, who ended up a 5-foot-11, 205-pound slim, trim, knows-his-way-around-the gym sort of guy.

"I kind of took up the skill positions more when I got older."

Prefontaine was 22-1 as a starter at El Camino High School in San Diego. He won two league titles as well as the California State Championship in his senior year.

"When I played quarterback in high school I did all the punting and kicking as well," he said.

His punting made more of an impact on college scouts than his quarterbacking despite going 22-1.

"I wanted a scholarship as a quarterback but I wasn't fast enough. The only scholarship I could get was as a punter at Cal State Fullerton.

"When I made the transition from quarterback from just kicking, it was tough to deal with; almost to the point where I was ready to leave the scholarship to go to junior college and play a position.

"My university journey was pretty interesting. They folded the program at Cal State Fullerton right after my first season.

"I led the entire state of California in punting average that year, beating the punters at USC, UCLA, Stanford, all of them that year. After the program folded, I was allowed to transfer anywhere.

"And suddenly, I was a hot commodity. Now I went through the whole recruiting thing. I had 20 or 25 offers. I turned down Michigan, Michigan State, Georgia, LSU, Texas ... I turned down an opportunity to play at a lot of national power houses.

"Looking back I may have made a different decision. I chose Arizona State because it was close to home and my best friend was going to a technical institute in Phoenix. I wanted to be close to family and friends.

"My experience at Arizona State wasn't what I wanted it to be. I was a year-and-a-half there. My parents divorced and I wanted to move closer to home to be near my mother.

"I walked away from a full-ride scholarship and walked on at San Diego State. I had to sit out and red-shirt for a year and that was the most fun I had. I got to be the quarterback on the 'look team.'

"I grew up a lot. I was All-Conference as a punter in my junior year and first-team All-American as a punter in my senior year, the highest award you can receive as a punter. It was very satisfying."

Normally, first-team All-Americans get drafted in the NFL. Not this one.

"I went to the NFL Combine where the format is that you get 10 punts.

"That's it. Ten punts and you go home. It was different. I didn't kick as well as I wanted to. But I figured as a first team All-American I'd get a chance, at least to be a body at a camp somewhere. It didn't happen."

Mike Vanderjagt was the Argos kicker at the time and got the call to the NFL.

Prefontaine, because of his Canadian status, got the call from Toronto.

He may have qualified as a Canadian but Canadian football was a whole new animal to him.

"I was blind to the fact that it was so different for a kicker. But I quickly saw that this was perfect for me.

"I've always had the issue that kickers don't count very much. But the CFL game is for the kicker.

"The CFL game is perfect for the kicker. With these rules in Canada I never had the issue of the kicker being non-existent.

"In my first pre-season game in Toronto, I recovered two punts. It might have been the best game of my entire career. I had four tackles, two recoveries, four field goals and averaged 43 yards per punt."

Prefontaine began both punting and kicking but ironically lost the kicking part of the job after a game against the Eskimos.

"I went one for six. That ended that. They had to make a change. It was killing me and killing our team. I was glad they brought somebody in. I really concentrated on the punting and ended up second in the league."

After 10 seasons with the Argos, Prefontaine left to join the XFL.

"I had the chance to play for Jim Barker, who was an offensive coach in Toronto. I went to the L.A. Xtreme and signed on at quarterbacks' money.

"The salaries were broken down to quarterbacks, who made the most, everybody else and then kickers. Barker knew I could play quarterback so he made me third-string quarterback - because they hardly ever play - and punter.

"In our first pre-season game against Las Vegas, I played the whole fourth quarter as quarterback."

After the XFL, Prefontaine got his first NFL shot with Baltimore but pulled the plug during camp, in his opinion blacklisting himself for the future in the NFL, to rejoin the Argos.

"I probably should have stayed there."

Prefontaine made it a full meal deal career in Toronto, ending up with 282 field goals and a 69.1% mark, a career punting average of 46.4 yards.

He was the East All-Star punter in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 an 2006 and the CFL All-Star punter in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006.

But in a twist of irony, the kicker who got his first break in Toronto with the departure of Vanderjagt to the NFL ended up losing his job to Vanderjagt returning from the NFL. The trade to Edmonton made him feel abandoned.

"That's one way to put it. I understand trades are part of this business. I've had conversations with my wife about that.

"We understand it," he said of Tanya, who is pregnant with their first child due on October.

"It's when you have relationships with people and something like this happens and they don't talk to you ... it didn't show the respect I expected.

"I have some ill feeling to some of those people now. After what I did for them 10 years it was extremely hurtful. It is going to remain with me for very long time.

"I don't know when this feeling is going to disappear." Not that Prefontaine hasn't enjoyed Edmonton so far.

"From an organizational standpoint and facilities standpoint this is 10 times better than Toronto.

"Having so much in-house is such a bonus to an athlete. I think I'd have been a better player playing 10 years here than I would have been playing 10 years in Toronto.

"And I'm really in awe of the stadium, even more so than when I came in.

"You really get a feel of all the traditions and everything that you don't get to soak in when you've only been here a couple of days.

"And I got my first 'Prefontaine Sucks!' when I missed a 34-yarder in my first home regular-season game."

Ah, home sweet new home.


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