INDIANAPOLIS – In the NFL, a specialist rarely will be seen on the front cover of a team's media guide or have his jersey on the front of the racks at local gift shops. However, any coach will say that special teams, and especially field position, are a key element that can determine teams that play deep into January from the ones that are at home watching.
This was the case for former Colts punter Hunter Smith. A 10-year veteran with Indianapolis, Smith and the Colts finally reached the pinnacle in their Super Bowl run during the 2006 season.
In the AFC Championship Game against New England, Smith delivered when his team needed it the most.
Smith's four-punt average of 52.8 against the Patriots is the highest in Colts franchise playoff history and his 58-yard punt during the 38-34 victory ranks as the fourth-longest in team history in post-season play.
The eventual Super Bowl win over Chicago would give the Colts the title of 'World Champions' but Smith says his fondest memory still was that magical comeback against the Patriots.
"I think I'm with a lot of people around here when I say the AFC Championship Game the two weeks before against the Patriots was really a special victory. I think we actually celebrated that victory more than we did the Super Bowl because the Super Bowl, to me, was such a relief, to get there and finally win and to play football for that long for that particular year," Smith said.
"The realization that we were going to the Super Bowl might have been more exhilarating than actually winning the Super Bowl. I know that's hard to imagine. But that victory, being down by so much before halftime (21-3) and then coming out and winning it, I really can't say enough about that experience of that whole game and post-game."
From 1999-2008, Smith was the punter for the Colts and was a part of a team that annually was among the best in the NFL. The winning culture developed in Indianapolis was something even Smith admitted he took for granted.
"My first year (1999) was 13-3. It's kind of like, 'Wow, this is easy.' I think throughout your career, going to the playoffs every year, you kind of start getting real disappointed when you lose in the second round of the playoffs. Being a winner for 10 years in a row and maybe winning only one Super Bowl is probably better than losing for eight years in a row and winning two Super Bowls. Maybe people disagree with me on that, but I think being a perennial winner is much more important than being a sporadic winner."
A three-sport athlete in Texas during high school, Smith accepted a scholarship to play football at Notre Dame.
An underrated athlete at the punter position, Smith was recruited as a quarterback out of high school before becoming a four-year starter on special teams in South Bend.
Perhaps the individual play that the Texan is most remembered by Colts fans came early in his career against the Dallas Cowboys.
Despite being told by former Colts coach Jim Mora to punt the ball out of bounds and away from Cowboys return man Deion Sanders, Smith 'mis-hit' the punt. The ball went to Sanders, who eluded 10 members of the coverage unit. It was up to Smith to make the touchdown-saving tackle on "Primetime."
"The interesting thing was before the game Deion had spoken to me on TV. He said, 'I know who you are. I know your whole family is going to be at the game.' It was funny. He was in Dallas. My whole family's from Dallas. I don't know if somehow he had looked me up or something, but he knew who I was. He told me, 'If I can see the whites in your eyes, you'd better just close up shop.' I saw him say it on TV in an interview because he was real hot that year with returning punts. I was maybe a little bit intimidated," Smith said.
"I don't think he thought he could possibly be caught. When I tackled him, we hit the ground…I remember this, it is an interesting little tidbit and I don't take too much credit for it, but I do think it's worth mentioning…we hit the ground really, really hard. If you watch the YouTube video of that, I grabbed him and I landed on him and I slammed him pretty hard. I was a young guy, and I was quite a bit bigger than him. I've not taken credit for this but I will say this, the rest of that game Terrence Wilkins and Marvin Harrison took him to the cleaners. I'm not saying anything, but it very well could have been the tackle that won the game for us (laughing)."
Even though Smith is four years removed from playing for the Colts that still hasn't changed his love for the Indianapolis area. Smith and his wife have three kids and make their home in Zionsville. Ten of Smith's 12 years in the NFL were spent with Indianapolis and he doesn't want to see the city ever change.
"From playing in every other city in the NFL, I can tell you this is the best football town. One of the ugliest things I've found in traveling around playing different places and playing against different teams are fans that don't stand behind their team in the bad times. Indianapolis is a Midwestern city with a Midwestern ethic. To me what that says is, 'We stand and are strong and weather storms together.' I would encourage fans, regardless of the output by your team, regardless of the execution, the wins and loss column, stand behind the Colts. It means a lot to the players. It means a lot to the fans. It means a lot to the city, our state. It says a lot about our character."