Marquette King’s path to greatness makes him the quintessential Raider.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie is currently being lauded as one of the league’s top executives, and rightfully so. In essentially four years, he has undone a decade and a half’s worth of dysfunction and disorganization, and has all but fully restored one of the NFL’s most recognizable franchises to its proper place among the ranks.
I feel like I’ve read a thousand different versions of the previous paragraph just in the last month, as the national media continues to rehash what is probably the favorite narrative around the league this season. The Silver and Black is back. The Raiders have returned. Derek Carr is the MVP. No, wait — Khalil Mack is the MVP. So on and so forth, et cetera, et cetera, ten times over.
But perhaps the most impactful move of McKenzie’s tenure didn’t happen during his lauded 2014 draft, or even his almost equally-impressive 2015 haul.
It was the signing of an undrafted free agent punter out of Fort Valley State University in 2012.
See, I’m old enough to remember when the Raiders were so bad, so spectacularly dreadful, that the only thing the fans could take pride in was their special teamers. The games that the Raiders were good enough or lucky enough (usually the latter) to have a shot at winning in often came down to a big-time kick from Sebastian Janikowski, or consistently-maintained field position via Shane Lechler’s punts, or both.
Seabass and Shane were each drafted by the Raiders in 2000 — Jano was famously selected 17th overall, and Lechler, taken in the 5th round, was the only punter drafted at all.
In their twelve years together, as the teams around them ranged from Super Bowl contenders to mildly competitive to ESPN comic relief, they remained the one sliver of consistency that anybody cheering for the team could recognize, seen as more institutions of the franchise than players, almost.
So when McKenzie took over as GM in January of 2012, it would’ve been all too easy for him to simply see re-upping Lechler’s expiring contract as a forgone conclusion more than a decision to be made, and not a single person would’ve thought twice about it. Even today at age 40, Lechler remains one of the top punters in the league with the Houston Texans.
Instead, McKenzie signed Marquette King after the draft, and the message was clear to all parties involved: we’re prepared to move on. And move on both parties did. Suffice to say, it was a bold stroke –- a testament to Reggie’s eye for talent, and commitment to exorcising the Raiders from financial hell.
More than just picking out physical talent, however it would seem McKenzie has an incredibly keen sense for a particular personality trait. Take a look at some of the names of 2016’s younger and lesser-known contributors: Jalen Richard, Darius Latham, Seth Roberts. Look further still at some of his free-agent reclamation projects: Michael Crabtree, David Amerson. What do they all have in common? What makes them all happen in Oakland, when other places said that they couldn’t or wouldn’t?
That’s just it — they’re all guys that, at some point in their lives or careers, have been discounted, counted out or not counted at all.
And of that group, King stands a foot above the rest (yes, pun intended –- this is an article about a punter, for Christ’s sake). Of everyone on the Raiders roster, he most embodies that unmistakable edge you only see in a man that’s been overlooked one too many times for his liking. Yes, more than Derek Carr, the quarterback who fell to the second round because of his last name. Yes, more than Khalil Mack, the linebacker who was ignored by Division I colleges and given a rating of 46 in the last NCAA video game installment.
That might seem like a stretch to say, but consider King’s path. Consider that he was originally recruited to Division II Fort Valley State University to play receiver, but when his coach found out that he could punt (and punt well), he threatened to take Marquette’s scholarship if he didn’t switch positions.
Consider that even after the Raiders were confident enough in his abilities to let go of a surefire Hall-of-Fame punter who still leads the league all-time in career punting average, the team brought in veteran Chris Kluwe to compete for the job in 2013.
And then remember, during the first couple of games of Marquette’s first year as a starter, that a minor controversy arose when the (then) normally-reliable Janikowksi missed a couple of field goals that were well within his range. He attributed the misses to King’s holding — rather, his being used to how Lechler had held his kicks for a decade prior. Whether the reasoning was founded or not, the pointed finger led some to wonder aloud if it was wise of the Raiders to let Lechler go if it was going to essentially cost them Janikowski, as well.
Marquette endured it all, embraced it all, and simply kept honing his craft.
But the fact remains that Marquette King’s entire existence is a bit of a paradox. He is and remains the league’s only black punter, and is only the fifth in the history of the entire league to play solely that position.
Likewise, Marquette doesn’t express himself like a man with a chip on his shoulder. He smiles perpetually. He is a costume aficionado. He makes and tweets videos like this:
To me, he embodies everything this renaissance Raiders team is about — having fun, playing hard, and defying expectations.
Every single time King steps on the field, he eschews some preconceived notion surrounding himself. Whenever the Raiders send him out to boot on 4th & short, I find my eyes peeled for the fake, despite the fact that I don’t recall him ever even attempting one. The scramble earlier this season against Jacksonville seems to have been a fluke, which confirms both the ever-present threat of a fake, and the fact that he’s far too good a punter to ever truly warrant taking a chance on one.
In the most important way, however, Marquette King falls squarely in line. With a franchise that boasts the two greatest punters of all-time in Ray Guy and Shane Lechler, King is right on path in etching his name next to theirs in the pantheon of great players. It’s why I’m so okay with all of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties he has earned and will potentially earn in the future. I’m okay with the dancing and choreographed celebrations after he pins a team inside their own five-yard line.
Remember how hard of a fight it was to get Guy into Canton? Almost three decades after his retirement kind of hard, in case you’d forgotten. Meanwhile, what other punter have you heard being given props by Good Morning America via tweet?
What other punter in the league has people buying his jersey?
King is reshaping the way everybody looks at the punter position, and he absolutely refuses to be denied.
But hasn’t he always?
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