ATLANTA — It is flattering, to be sure, but also just a bit, well, if not strange, certainly unusual. Johnny Hekker, the Rams’ towering, talented punter, has heard it all before, how Patriots coach Bill Belichick has this affinity for him that borders on an infatuation.
“I was aware, it was mentioned a ton on Twitter and my mom texted me saying ‘Did you see this?’ ’’ Hekker said Monday at the Super Bowl Opening Night event. “It brought a lot of pride to people around me, and myself as well. It’s fun to be able to make an impact at this position.’’
Hekker has certainly made an impact on Belichick, who came up through the ranks with the Giants as a special teams coach. Belichick often cannot be prodded to comment on anything of significance but get him going on a punter or a long snapper and he waxes poetic for minute after minute.
Last week, in the early buildup leading to Super Bowl LIII, Belichick described Hekker as “a weapon on the field.’’ There is no doubt a fertile thinker like Belichick is intrigued by Hekker, a huge 6-foot-5, 241-pound punter who does much more than power the ball with his heavy right foot. Hekker was a quarterback in high school in the state of Washington and the Rams use him on fakes so often he actually has a significant passer rating: 102.1. Hekker in his seven-year career has completed 11-of-19 passes for 156 yards, 10 first downs and one touchdown.
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In the NFC title game in New Orleans, the Rams were down 13-0 and in need of a spark. Hekker gave it to his team. John Fassel, the aggressive special teams coordinator — the son of former Giants head coach Jim Fassel — called for a fake on the Rams 40-yard line. Hekker delivered a strike to gunner Sam Shields for a first down, leading to the first points of the game for the Rams on a field goal.
Such versatility draws Belichick to Hekker. A few years ago, Belichick could hardly contain himself, calling Hekker, “a tremendous weapon,’’ and adding, “this guy looks like as good a player as I’ve ever seen at that position.’’
That takes in decades of punters. Belichick in the past has sung the praises of Ray Guy, Dave Jennings, Sean Landeta and, more recently, Thomas Morstead.
“Those guys are all in that discussion and they were all great players. I’m not taking anything away from them,’’ Belichick said. “But I mean this guy, this guy is a weapon. I mean he’s not a good player; he’s a weapon.’’
Despite the accolades, Hekker has never spoken with Belichick but said “I wouldn’t mind it. He’s a guy’s brain I’d love to pick.’’
This is heady stuff for a 28-year old about to take in his first Super Bowl.
“It definitely felt good to get that acknowledgment from such an established and respected coach,’’ Hekker said. “It was a deal where I took it for what it was worth. I have a lot of career ahead of me, I believe, where I’ve got to earn a lot more respect. It’s not about myself getting admiration from another team’s coach. It’s about helping our team win games.’’