Life is still a party to Greg Montgomery. But the years have taught him to turn the volume down while living it to the fullest.
Put him on a Harley motorcycle. Give him a pair of skis on a killer slope. Or a surfboard on a cool wave. Either way, Montgomery is a happy man. He is the first to admit he has lived a charmed existence.
Take, for example, the way he turned the most crushing news of his youth into a career as one of the NFL's premier punters. Montgomery was a jock of all trades at Red Bank High School in Little Silver, N.J. Baseball, soccer, football, golf and, especially, ice hockey. You name it, the kid could play it well.
At 17, he envisioned himself skating in the NHL someday soon. Then, one day in football practice while he was blocking a dummy, Montgomery felt pain shoot through his lower back. One doctor's exam took his breath away again. He was told never to play contact sports again, or risk permanent damage to his spinal cord.
Montgomery, now a 31-year-old employee of the Ravens, had a sacral lumbar injury that caused bulging in his disks and nerve aggravation in his spinal cord. He said it was alleviated through rehabilitation and the strengthening of his stomach and back muscles. "I'm totally cured now," he said. "There's no more risk."
But back then, "I was devastated. I thought my life was over," said Montgomery, who had played linebacker and tight end. "But I always had strong legs, so I started working on my kicking more.
"Looking back, it was almost a blessing. It put me in a position where I could get better at something and maybe be the best at something."
If he retired tomorrow, Montgomery could look back and say he was the best at something. In 1993, his sixth season with the Houston Oilers, Montgomery led the league with a 45.6-yard average and was a first-team All-Pro.
Then Montgomery walked away from the game for a year. Huh? Healthy players in their prime and at the top of their games don't do that anymore, do they? Well, most players aren't like Montgomery.
When he strolls into the Ravens' locker room, Montgomery can't help but stand out. For one, he's 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, towering size for a punter. Then there are the blue-tinted, prescription glasses, the goatee, the sideburns, the Grateful Dead tattoo on his right arm, the chaw and the swagger. He could pass for a character out of "Easy Rider."
"He's what you would call 'out there,' " kicker Matt Stover said of Montgomery. "Greg kind of makes himself known. And he doesn't care what you think about him. Accept him for what he is. Greg is sincere."
Ask him about why he ditched the NFL for a year, and Montgomery cites two reasons -- contract squabbles and burnout. After his second Pro Bowl appearance, he tested the free-agent market and said he got nothing but insulting offers, as teams across the league were strapped by the salary cap. And the grind of living up to his own, high expectations had begun to wear on Montgomery.
"It was the pressure I put on myself, the stress of it all, maintaining the status of being the best," he said. "You can't blame people for getting caught up in the stats, because this game, this society, promotes it. Any player in pro sports will tell you what they know now, they wish they knew when they were young."
When he was younger, Montgomery was well-versed in playing hard. Off the field, one beer would turn into two, then three, then a very late night. Most times, it didn't matter what night of the week in which the party unfolded. He remembers waking up in his share of foggy states.
His partying ways bought him a one-way ticket out of Penn State, where he was recruited as a punter. He transferred after his freshman year to Michigan State -- where his father played quarterback in 1957 and '58 -- and earned a scholarship after walking on.
"I was immature, partying a lot, didn't stay focused, and Joe Paterno didn't like that," Montgomery recalled. "The type of people who went to Penn State at that time weren't like me, and many people aren't like me. I take pride in that."
Penn State's loss was Michigan State's gain. Over three seasons with the Spartans, despite playing in the bad weather that
dominates the Big Ten, Montgomery averaged 45.4 yards per punt, the highest career average in school history. He was drafted in the third round in 1988 by the Oilers.
With his strong leg and the cozy indoors of the Astrodome,
Montgomery thrived instantly in the NFL, even while he lived on the edge off the field. He continued to party liberally as a young player, and would play ice hockey -- against the advice of his doctors -- in the off-season.
Montgomery said he grew up a lot during his self-imposed sabbatical. He realized how much he missed the game on Sundays. He started listening to his body more, cutting the late nights short and spending more time in the gym. He traded in his Harley for a Buick. He even fulfilled a dream by opening a coffee house/bar in Houston, called "Strict-9," a play on his uniform number.
All the while, he continued to practice his punting, and when the Ravens lost Tom Tupa to the New England Patriots, Baltimore hooked Montgomery with a five-year contract.
Since the day he reported to minicamp, Montgomery has felt like a new punter. Much of that has to do with his new approach. His average no longer captivates him.
In the Ravens' season-opening, 19-14 victory, Montgomery averaged a seemingly ordinary 38.0 yards on six punts, but his performance was outstanding. Four times, he pinned Oakland inside its 20. The Raiders had 14 punt return yards.
"As an older player, this approach is something new for him, and it has rejuvenated him," Ravens special teams coach Scott O'Brien said. "It's a new challenge. Greg is quite a colorful guy. He's not intimidated, and he has fit in well from the beginning."
Montgomery said his best punting is yet to come. He said, physically and mostly mentally, he has never felt this fit. He has averaged 43.7 yards for his career, but the last thing on his mind these days is gross average. He wants to be the first punter in NFL history to average a net distance of 40 yards. That is the truest gauge of a punter's performance.
"Punting is not about having a 50-yard average. It's about being the best you can be in the situation you are given," Montgomery said. "It's about paying attention to details. I'm into the art of punting like never before. I'm fixing the little things I've never bothered to fix. I've still got a long way to go to be the guy I can be."
Pub Date: 9/06/96