By his own admission, Danny Ford was never a kicking guru. But he knew others who were.
In the summer of 1979, the then-Clemson assistant coach was sent over to watch the Tigers’ prospects camp, in particular a high school junior from Cheraw who was punting on the soccer field behind Fike Field House. With Ford was former Clemson great Fred Cone, who had punted in the NFL in the 1950s.
“They told me, ‘Get over there and talk with Fred, see if this boy can help us,’” Ford recalled with a chuckle. “Fred walked over, saw that boy hit ‘em as high and as long as you could imagine.
“Fred told me: ‘Don’t bother him; just let him kick. He knows what he’s doing.’”
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And so Ford kept his distance. And Dale Hatcher — in a manner of speaking — kept his, too.
From 1981-84, Clemson won a national championship and was 37-7, a portion of the Tigers’ success can be attributed to Hatcher. A second-team All-American as a senior, he is the lone Clemson punter to average 40-plus yards, and to lead the Tigers in punting, four consecutive years.
“As far as punting, I think he was the best we had,” Ford said. “Dale had tremendous hang time, good distance, never outkicked his coverage. He cared more about his hang time (averaging 5.0 seconds); many games, he just held it up there.”
The tall, lanky blond would fulfill his childhood dream of playing in the NFL, spending seven seasons with the then-Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins. And he would earn a couple of spots in pro football’s record books, albeit one a rather dubious honor.
But for all that, Hatcher — 45, married for a second time with two young daughters, employed by Freightliners and living in Gaffney — still gets the same question he heard all his life: Is/was he the best kicker to come out of his hometown — or for that matter, his high school class?
Hatcher laughs. So, too, does Harry Newsome, his childhood friend and, for all their athletic lives, his competitor.
“We’ve always been competitive,” Hatcher said. If theirs was a “rivalry,” though, it was, and is, a friendly one.
“We’d go out and kick together, even in first grade,” said Newsome, who also retired from an NFL career and returned to South Carolina. “When we played kickball, all the other kids wanted us on their team.”
Their skills carried over to other sports; both excelled at baseball, and Newsome played basketball. Each used the other as a measuring standard. To a certain extent, they still do.
“They had a home run derby in 1998 and I went home (to Cheraw) for that and won it, hit 8 out of 10,” Hatcher said. “Then I went back three years ago and Harry beat me out.
“I was home again for my mother’s birthday and Harry came up and told me, ‘I won it again.’”
RIVALRY WITH NEWSOME
The two were practically inseparable as youngsters, self-taught as kickers. Newsome estimates they punted “hundreds of thousands of footballs. We pushed each other, but we got no help from anyone else. We just went out and practiced.”
Dale reached the national Punt, Pass & Kick semifinals twice, at ages 12 and 13; at Cheraw High, he was the Braves’ punter from day one.
“I wanted to be Ray Guy, and Harry was Danny White,” he said of their NFL heroes. “People would see us warming up, kicking 60-65 yards, and say, ‘If you two don’t go pro, something’s wrong.’”
Newsome, by his estimation a better all-around athlete, kicked field goals as well as playing quarterback and strong safety. But he never punted for Cheraw.
“Obviously, you can only have one,” he said. “I did punt in practice and a couple of scrimmage games. Dale got a lot of interest (from colleges), which is how I got noticed.”
Noticed and recruited by Wake Forest, where the “rivalry” continued. Clemson’s Hatcher was the All-ACC punter as a freshman and senior, Newsome as a sophomore and junior.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to take his job (in high school),” Newsome said. “To me, he was one of the best in the nation. I wasn’t as good, but I was probably better than most.”
Hatcher did not mind sharing the spotlight; there was plenty to go around. He met Kevin Butler on a recruiting trip, and afterward “he’d call me about going to Georgia,” Hatcher said. “He’d say, ‘You be the punter, I’ll be the placekicker.’”
But Hatcher said his mother — a third-shift worker who often retrieved balls for her son — “cried like a baby” at the idea of him going so far away. “We didn’t have much (money), but I knew I could get a ride home from Clemson on weekends,” he said.
In a favorite story about recruiting Hatcher, Ford says he left his team in its road-game hotel on a Friday night to fly to Cheraw to watch a game in which the Braves and Hatcher never punted.
“He was as sorry as he could be,” Ford said, laughing. “He apologized after the game. But we knew he could punt.”
One moment proved that.
In 1981, his freshman season, the Tigers played Tulane in the New Orleans Superdome. During a Friday walkthrough, Ford saw Hatcher staring up at the huge building’s ceiling and the scoreboard hanging from it.
“I thought, ‘Dale’s probably thinking they’ve got nothing like that in Cheraw,’” Ford said. “I figured he was overwhelmed. So I asked him, ‘What’re you thinking?’ and he said, ‘I believe I can hit the scoreboard.’
“I said, ‘No way.’ But (in pre-game warm-ups) he hit it twice. I’d never heard of anyone doing that.”
Hatcher had. “In seventh grade, I watched NFL Films and saw (Ray Guy) hit the gondola during the Pro Bowl,” he said. “That’s why it meant so much to me. Coach Ford said, ‘Hatchell, I want to see you hit it,’ and I did on my fifth try.”
He laughed. “I actually had dreams of hitting it. When I got into the pros, they moved it up where you can’t touch it, but I’d tell guys, ‘You know, I hit that.’”
MIXED FEELINGS ON NFL CAREERS
Hatcher and Newsome both have mixed feelings about their NFL careers. Hatcher remembers the thrill when Rams coach John Robinson called to tell him he was the team’s pick in the third round of the 1985 NFL Draft — Newsome was taken by Pittsburgh in the seventh round — and also his excitement when Robinson called him after he led the NFL with a career-best 43.2-yard average as a rookie.
“(Robinson) said, ‘Hatch, you’re our Pro Bowl punter,’” he said. “I got to meet Walter Payton, Lawrence Taylor; that was really something.”
Later, he made history. In 1989 against Minnesota, Hatcher had a punt blocked for a safety in overtime by Vikings linebacker Mike Merriweather — the first NFL overtime game decided by a safety.
“First thing I thought was, ‘Was I too slow?’” Hatcher said. “Then the next week, I was in a restaurant and coach Robinson walked in. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it; (teammate) Mike Wilshire missed his block.’”
Hatcher calls his NFL stint “a dream come true.” The finish was something less. Torn cartilage in his left knee was discovered when he left the Rams in 1991 to sign with Green Bay, and the Packers cut him.
He re-signed with Los Angeles, but the next year he was cut by San Francisco, joined Miami — “I thought they were going to use me to make (Dolphins’ punter Reggie Roby) better,” Hatcher said — and, after flirtations with San Diego and the new Carolina franchise, hung up his cleats.
Newsome’s departure was similar: The highest-paid punter in the NFL by the end of his career (a princely $60,000-$70,000), he suffered a tendon tear and tendinitis and was released by Minnesota. After negotiations with Washington and San Diego, which were complicated by his third child’s difficult birth, Newsome also called it quits.
And though they do not see each other as often, Newsome stays in touch with Hatcher. Two years ago, Hatcher was back in town when Cheraw High retired their jerseys.
Ford said Hatcher has not changed much in all the years. “He’s about the same ol’ kid, like he never graduated,” the coach said. Hatcher said working on a truck assembly line the past 10 years has been hard but well-paying work, and his family keeps him busy.
Still, on those trips to Cheraw when he talks with Newsome, the memories are still there: of carefree days when the two would spend hours bombing footballs into the sky.
“Nowadays they have all these special-teams coaches,” Newsome said, laughing. “We never thought about all that. Our main thing was, just get it and kick it.”
As history proved, Hatcher and Newsome knew what they were doing.
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.