INDIANAPOLIS —*Is Pat just being Pat?
I mean, he's got to be joking, right?*
As it turned out, in a bit of sheer irony, the NFL's funniest punter was being dead serious.
It was one year ago that Pat McAfee, at 29 years young, announced that he was retiring from the NFL in the prime of his career to pursue a full-time career in the entertainment industry, as he had signed on with Barstool Sports to become Chief Operating Officer of its new Indianapolis headquarters.
McAfee, who had just been named to his second Pro Bowl and was already the Colts' franchise record holder for punting average (46.4 yards per punt) and net average (39.8) — and had already nailed down the six best individual punting seasons in Colts history — had arguably become the franchise's most popular player, thanks to his elite kicking skills (punting and kickoffs), but also in large part to his huge personality, and generous nature, on and off the field.
So why would McAfee decide to hang up his cleats mid-contract, turning away millions of guaranteed dollars — and millions more for the future contracts he would've assuredly been signed to down the road?
To McAfee, enough was enough. He had worked hard to build the platform he needed to pursue his real dreams; add that on top of having to undergo his third knee surgery in four years, and the answer, to him, was easy.
"Staring down my third knee surgery in four years, with more knee surgeries certain for the future, (injuries were) definitely a part of (my decision)," McAfee said of his abrupt retirement. "My knees have really taken a beating. For the last half of the season, I couldn't really walk much on days that I kicked. I would stay in bed and ice my knees. I felt like a 90-year-old man. Going into work I was like, 'There has to be more to work than kicking balls.'
"When Barstool Sports approached me about the potential of joining their family whenever I'm done with football, I told them, 'I might be done sooner than most think.'"
Big shoes to fill
While the move left McAfee with the exciting prospect of starting anew, it left the Colts — who from team owner Jim Irsay on down were extremely supportive of McAfee's decision — with a huge void, needing to replace an All-Pro punter and kickoff specialist, as well as a solid holder for future Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri.
General manager Chris Ballard originally signed veteran lefty Jeff Locke as McAfee's replacement, but then-special teams coordinator Tom McMahon was quick to offer another suggestion: Rigoberto Sanchez.
Sanchez had just wrapped up his college career at Hawaii, where he was a standout punter and kicker, and McMahon wanted a chance to work him out, and then bring him on board to compete for a job if he was not selected by another team in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Shortly after the draft, McMahon got his wish, and by the end of the preseason, Sanchez had won the job as the Colts' punter, kickoff specialist and holder.
In Sanchez's regular-season debut Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams, he would punt six times for a 50.3-yard average, with a 47.8-yard net average, and have two of his punts downed inside the 20-yard line, proving that this opportunity clearly wasn't going to be too much for him.
By season's end, Sanchez had been named to the 2017 NFL All-Rookie Team by the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA). He was solid as a punter (84 punts for 3,764 yards and a 44.8 average, with a net average of 42.6 yards, ranking fourth in the NFL with 28 punts downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line) and on kickoffs (his 65.7 kickoff touchback percentage ranked seventh in the NFL, while he was a huge contributor to the Colts' special teams units ranking third in the league in both kickoff return coverage and punt return average).
In the process, Sanchez set franchise rookie records for total punts (84) and punt yards (3,764) and, after one season, ranks third in highest punting average (44.8) in team history.
So one year later, McAfee can rest easy — not that he didn't earn the right to regardless. He's already built a successful Barstool Heartland operation in Indy (you can subscribe to his hilarious podcast by clicking here), and the Colts are in good hands with his young replacement.
"For Rigo to come in and have to fill some pretty big shoes of Mr. Pat McAfee and he's done a great job of punting and kicking and holding when he's never done that before," Vinatieri said. "He's got a really calm mind – nothing really rattles him. He's a really well tempered young man that does a good job."