INDIANAPOLIS — He might be the only 23-year-old in the city who’s in bed by 9 p.m. each night. While his teammates hoot and holler in the locker room, jawing over games of Nerf basketball, he’ll sit silently at his stall, pouring through film on his iPad. He’s quiet. Modest. Reserved. Precisely everything you wouldn’t expect in a budding NFL talent.
Rigoberto Sanchez probably wasn’t supposed to make it this far, not after switching sports at 18, not after two years at tiny Butte College, not after the first punt of his NFL career wobbled 35 yards out of bounds. “A shank,” his coach says. That kick could’ve cost him his job right then and there.
It didn’t. Four months later he’s still standing, one of the best players on a bad roster.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: The Indianapolis Colts’ season is a lost one, the playoffs an impossibility before the calendar flips to December, and one of the few bright spots is … the punter. Only this time his name isn’t Pat McAfee.
Sanchez happens to be one of the most unlikely culprits: He’s undrafted, the son of Mexican immigrants, the California kid who took up football in high school only to appease his friends. One field goal in, this is what the coach told him on the practice field that day: “You’re not going anywhere.” Four years later he’s authoring one of the finest seasons for a rookie punter in NFL history.
And it all feels a little improbable. If you would’ve predicted Rigoberto Sanchez would become one of the best players on this roster back in training camp, just about everyone would’ve asked, “Who the heck is Rigoberto Sanchez?” He likes to blend in. Boasting isn’t his thing.
“I was a shy person when I first went out for football, and I’m still a shy person,” Sanchez says.
His right leg isn’t shy. Eleven games in he’s first among rookie punters in net punting (43.4 yards per kick), tenth in average, sixth in percentage of punts downed inside the 20 (33.9), second in touchbacks and first in return percentage (since detailed punting statistics were first tracked in 1976). Stacked against the game’s current punters, Sanchez is fifth in the league in net average and the Colts are second as a team in return average allowed.
No, he’s no McAfee. But he’s still plenty good. And he’s just getting started.
“His ceiling is astronomical,” Colts special teams coordinator Tom McMahon said.
Sanchez was McMahon’s pet project. First discovered by the Colts’ west coast scout, Dave Razzano, while he set records at Hawaii the past two seasons, Sanchez bloomed late in his senior season, flashing the sort of NFL potential that caught Razzano’s eye.
So McMahon flipped on the tape last winter, desperate to find a punter to fill McAfee’s stead after his January retirement. Three games in, McMahon was ready to turn it off.
“And I’ll be honest with you,” McMahon says, “a lot of guys would’ve turned it off. He was good. He just wasn’t … different.”
McMahon kept going. He eventually saw different.
“Then I flipped on his last seven games, and all of a sudden, he was punting at an NFL level. He just popped off the screen. He just … took off.”
So McMahon went to Colts’ first-year General Manager Chris Ballard and made his case. “We need to bring this kid in,” he told him. Ballard obliged. He promised the kid a shot and nothing more.
The Colts had signed a veteran punter, Jeff Locke, to replace McAfee back in free agency. McMahon wanted competition. It’s what he got. The duel would stretch across summer workouts and into the preseason. Neither was promised a thing. One would earn the job at the end of training camp; one would be sent home.
“One-on-one every single day,” Sanchez says. “I was getting a chance to prove myself. I said, ‘Let’s see who wins this battle.’”
What McMahon had seen on the tape carried over; Sanchez’s leg talent was legitimate. He had a cannon. Two weeks into camp, the coach started to sense it was his job to lose.
There was just one problem: Holding. Locke had done it before. Sanchez hadn’t done it once in his life. With McAfee gone, it was a job that needed filled.
Enter Adam Vinatieri. The Colts’ ageless kicker, closing in on some of the game’s most untouchable records – most points scored, most field goals made in NFL history – called up McAfee and asked if he’d run Rigoberto through a crash course in Holding 101. McAfee obliged. The new retiree spent a few days at the Colts’ W. 56th Street facility this spring teaching an undrafted rookie from Hawaii how to hold field goals for the greatest kicker in NFL history.
Sanchez caught on quickly.
“Oh, I tell you, the offseason was filled with work, work, work, work, work; and we’re still working nonstop with those guys,” Colts special teams assistant Maurice Drayton said of Sanchez and the team’s rookie long snapper, Luke Rhodes. “The punting, the holding that aspect of football is not something you just get overnight. You have to put work in. And it doesn’t hurt when you have Adam Vinatieri barking down your back as well, too.”
Over the ensuring weeks and months, Sanchez unleashed his staggering raw potential – the former soccer player from Chico could boot the heck out of the football. His talent began to trickle through, his punts routinely flying five, ten, 15 yards further than Locke’s. Even after that calamitous opening kick in the preseason – “A lack of focus on my part, might’ve been the jitters,” Sanchez admits – McMahon believed the rookie would recover. He did.
“It didn’t make me hesitate at all,” the coach says. “One punt isn’t what defines you.”
By the end of camp he’d won the job over Locke; 11 games in he’s making McMahon look like a genius. Just four years ago, Sanchez gave up his boyhood passion – soccer – to chase his football dream at a community college close to home. After two seasons at Butte, he landed at Hawaii, set program records and hoped some NFL scout, somewhere, wrote his name down. Good thing Dave Razzano did.
“Punted the football as good as anybody in this league, and his numbers stand behind that,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said this week.
Sanchez likes feeling refreshed in the mornings rather than groggy, so he’s in bed by 9 p.m. most nights, at the team facility bright and early. He spends 20 minutes with Rhodes after every special teams meeting, snap after snap after snap, fine-tuning his holding. They run through 20 more minutes of work after practice each day.
He can’t be the guy who screws up the hold for the greatest kicker ever.
“Vinny is serious, man, in a good way,” Sanchez says. “Love that guy.”
McMahon drills that right leg of Sanchez’s during practice, placing two practice dummies 60 yards down the sideline. “Hit them,” he tells the rookie, so Sanchez does, blasting the football over and over and over, until he gets it just right.
“I like to be that guy where I don’t settle,” Sanchez says.
To think: Five years ago he was a center midfielder on the high school soccer team, weighing a future in that sport against the dream of kicking in the NFL. And he’s just scratching the surface. Sanchez knows it. McMahon knows it.
The Colts lost a Pro Bowl punter last offseason. They might’ve picked one up, too.
Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134 and follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.