Sam Koch is master of the mundane. Give the Ravens punter a tedious chore and he will excel at it. Give him a boring, repetitive task and he will turn it into his own form of artwork.
Whether it's maintaining his back yard in Westminster, playing corn hole in the team's spacious locker room, or dropping the perfect pooch punt in enemy territory, Koch wants to be the best. In order to be the best, he pays an inordinate amount of attention to detail.
Ever the perfectionist, it was not uncommon for Koch to keep Morgan Cox, his long snapper, late after four-hour practices in training camp to address their timing on snaps or his own drop technique on punts.
"Billy [Cundiff] and I describe Sam as very hungry to be the best punter," Cox said. "He never wants anybody to outwork him, and he never wants anybody to expect any less [than his best]."
It's not just punting, though, that has this effect on Koch. He took up golf a few years ago and already shoots in the mid- to low-80s. He is king of Ravens' corn hole; so rare are his losses that on one such occasion when he got beat by Michael Oher, Oher had to tweet about it. (Koch then beat Oher two straight matches and had a team public relations executive tweet that result.)
Search for a common denominator in Koch's portfolio of athletic accomplishment, as Cundiff did recently, and you find a unique trait that is often overlooked but always vital to a punter's success.
"Take his corn hole game, for example … seriously," the Ravens kicker said. "Corn hole is a monotonous skill. Same thing repeated over and over. Punting — same thing. Catch the ball, your steps have to be short and compact, you've got to be able to drop the ball perfectly and swing up through. Everything needs to be the same. But it's that mental ability to really focus in on what some would believe is a really mundane task. Sam does that extremely well."
Cundiff appreciates Koch even more for another overlooked attribute — the punter's athleticism. As holder on field goal attempts, Koch is charged with getting the ball down, laces to the front, angled just so. He does that with a deft touch that involves not only great hands but adroit body control.
In the Ravens' playoff game at Indianapolis during the 2009 season, Koch had to come off his knees to grab a high snap from Matt Katula, and he still got the ball down for a 25-yard field goal that tied the game 3-3. Those were the only points the Ravens scored in a 20-3 loss.
"People don't associate athleticism with holders," Cundiff said. "You're sitting down to start with. If anything, it does show athleticism because you're in a very unathletic position and he's being forced to make athletic plays."
Folks back in Seward, Neb., where Koch grew up, knew about his athletic prowess long before the onetime Nebraska punter entered the NFL in 2006 as the Ravens' sixth-round pick. He was born in Ulysses, a tiny rural town of 270 people and one grocery store, but moved to Seward at an early age.
He wanted nothing more as a youth than to play sports. He played year round — football, basketball, baseball and soccer. If he had one love then, it was baseball, where he was cleanup hitter for his American Legion team and a dominant pitcher with good control.
In football, Koch pretty much did everything for his Class B high school team. At 200 pounds, he could play any position in the offensive line, as well as tight end, fullback, linebacker, kicker and punter.
"He was always a gifted athlete," said Steve Kosek, who coached Koch in baseball, basketball and soccer and owns fast-food franchises in Winona, Minn. "Sometimes I don't think he knew how good he was. He was the biggest, fastest, strongest player. He never saw himself as a superstar; he was always a team player. Everybody loved Sam."
Bruce Potter was one of Koch's best friends in Seward. He played beside Koch on the offensive line and remembers him for his sterling work ethic, his one-liners, and his always-shining black Camaro Z28. Potter, a machinist in Lincoln, told Koch in high school he would watch him play in the NFL some day.
"I remember on Sunday, I'd be driving through town and he'd be at Concordia College kicking. He was always kicking. When it came to practice, Sam was all business," Potter said.
Even when Koch went home to visit friends last summer and played a round of golf with Potter, he was still all business.
"I wanted to go have lunch after golf," Potter said, "and Sam said he had to go kick."
That is the perfectionist in Koch. It is what allowed him to put 149 punts inside the 20, a franchise record, including 39 last year to tie Kyle Richardson's single-season team record. In five years, Koch is averaging 43.7 gross yards and 38.1 net yards per punt.
Koch's game escalated, however, with the arrival of special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg in 2008. Among the suggestions Rosburg made was a new drop. Perhaps not coincidentally, Koch had his best production (45 gross, 39.9 net) that season.
He also became more of a directional punter under Rosburg. That showed last season, when he was named the AFC's alternate punter to Oakland's Shane Leckler in the Pro Bowl. He also reaped a new five-year contract in the offseason.
The quest for perfection comes with a price, though. Koch, 29, seldom allows himself to enjoy the moment. Even when he punted the Ravens to an overtime victory in Houston last year — his kicks were huge field-position changers — he was unable to let go of what else he might have done to help win the game.
"He's the kind of guy where he could have eight punts — hopefully we don't — but if we had eight punts and he made seven good ones, he wouldn't be happy with his performance," Rosburg said. "He holds himself to a very high standard."
Even his wife Nikki notices the demands her husband places on himself in a game.
"He'll call after he showers and say he could've done this or that better," she said. "I understand how he is. Sometimes I wish he would give himself a pat on the back. He's so hard on himself."
Koch, who hit a 74-yard punt in Houston three years ago, acknowledged that his competitive nature has always pushed him to extremes.
"Trying to be a perfectionist in this job kind of ends up hurting you in a way because you're trying to be too precise in a way, rather than just relaxing and going out and hitting your ball," he said. "As far as never being satisfied, I always feel I can do better."
Being precise and meticulous is also Koch's mantra at home, where he and Nikki raise three boys. Off the field, Koch has a keen interest in construction and design. This summer, after hiring a contractor to renovate his basement, Koch reduced the cost by more than half by helping with labor. He mows his own lawn, too.
There are very few surprises with Koch. Cundiff said his teammate fits the industrious, hard-working profile of Midwesterners.
"You know what you're going to get," Cundiff said. "I think that's what the coaches really like. He's very dependable, you just see him for what he is. He's going to give you his best effort every time. He's so precise and that's the sign of somebody who really knows what they want to get accomplished."