by C.J. Bowles
"You just have to block it out. The more you think about anything, the more you're going to have a problem. You know there's 100,000 people there, and you know they're yelling, but once the snap is coming at you, you try not to hear anything."
Typical words from a punter making his first start in Columbus, Ohio, against the defending national champions. Garth Erickson, however, is not a typical punter. In fact, until recently, he wasn't a punter at all.
"I was a receiver and a defensive back growing up," says the Husky senior, who shined at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Wash. "Senior year, we needed a punter. It was something I had worked on before anyway, so I gave it a shot."
Fast forward to August of 2003 - senior year again for Erickson. With two-year starter Derek McLaughlin gone on a Mormon mission, the Huskies, too, needed a punter. Erickson answered the call, with a 42.5 yards-per-punt average that would rank second in UW history if the season ended today.
Erickson's path from the sidelines at Gonzaga Prep to the record books at Washington is far from typical. The 6-foot-1, receiver-turned-punter turned down several scholarship offers to play both baseball and football at smaller schools, focusing instead on gridiron success at a higher level.
Each spring and fall, Washington welcomes a handful of walk-on kickers for an open tryout. The head-to-head competition can be intense, and one bad day - one bad kick - can dash a hopeful's dream.
"It was tough," Erickson says of his first couple of tryouts, at which he was beaten out by other punters. "I don't know what made me decide to keep going, but I did. My mom told me, 'If you want to do it, then do it.'"
Erickson continued to hone his craft, eventually earning one of the few coveted walk-on positions. Passing the tryout, however, is only the first stage in a long process to gridiron fame. In addition to competing with the team's scholarship kickers for the starting job, incumbent walkons must also endure bi-annual challenges from fellow aspiring kickers, forcing players like Erickson and placekicker Evan Knudson to earn their spot on the team again and again.
For Erickson, who only had a year of competitive punting experience, the transition was even more awkward.
"I had to adjust from high school, where I never came off the field, to only being on the field, eight, 10 plays at the most," he says. "It was hard, and might have been why I struggled punting at first."
After taking a year to adjust, Erickson felt ready to challenge for the starting job this fall. Though McLaughlin was gone, the senior faced a new challenger in scholarship punter Sean Douglas of Bellevue, Neb., ranked by one internet recruiting service as the No. 16 prep punter in the nation last season.
"I felt like a had more to prove this time around and I realized, as a senior, that this was my last shot," Erickson says of his mindset entering fall camp. "I worked a little harder in the offseason on everything, and really tried to take advantage of every shot I got."
With all eyes on Douglas as fall camp began, it was Erickson whose kicks impressed the coaches most, earning the senior the opening-day start in Columbus.
Thus far, Erickson has given coaches no reason to rethink their decision, and his impressive play has earned the senior a good deal of recognition. All this from a player who was not on the Huskies' initial 105-man roster this fall (he was added just prior to the team's departure for camp in Olympia), and does not have a bio in the team's 2003 media guide.
"It's good to know I'm helping the team out," he says. "I don't want to get caught up in what other people think; I just have to do my job. Before the season I heard the media complaining about our kicking game, but I ignored them. Now they love us."
"Us" includes Erickson and fellow walkon Knudson, the latter of whom also beat out a scholarship freshman this season, to earn the team's No. 1 placekicking role.
"Because we were walk-on kickers we were together all the time," Knudson explains. "All the walk-on kickers are pretty good friends.
"I am excited for him because I think, personally, punting is a lot harder than kicking," he continues. "For him to go out and do as good as he has, that's awesome.