Trying to Kick a Couple of Bad Habits

The Redskins' Derrick Frost trips up Tampa Bay returner Mark Jones in the third quarter Saturday, which left Frost with an aggravated cornea and slightly cloudy vision.
The Redskins' Derrick Frost trips up Tampa Bay returner Mark Jones in the third quarter Saturday, which left Frost with an aggravated cornea and slightly cloudy vision. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Donna Frost heard her phone ring late Saturday afternoon and wondered, for a fleeting second, if it might be best to ignore it.

Her son, Washington Redskins punter Derrick Frost, called after every game, and precedent told Donna that this week's conversation would stand out as particularly unpleasant. An hour earlier, Frost had shanked a 14-yard punt in the fourth quarter of Washington's 17-10 playoff win at Tampa Bay. It was the type of mistake that had sent the punter spiraling several times before.

Maybe Frost would be angry, like when he missed field goals in high school and sent his kicking tee whistling down the sideline, where it sometimes struck teammates.

Maybe Frost would be sullen, like after the game when he hit a seven-yard punt for the Cleveland Browns and then stayed in the locker room for almost two hours to avoid five family members waiting for him outside.

"He's never been good at handling failure," said Donna, who answered her phone and talked with a relatively calm Derrick. "He's gotten better at it, but he's still a perfectionist. When he makes a mistake, they really stay with him."

How quickly Frost shakes his most recent mistake could weigh heavily on the outcome of the Redskins game at Seattle on Saturday afternoon. The 25-year-old from St. Louis said he has teetered on the edge of misfortune for much of this season, and his reaction to Saturday's miscue likely will push him one of two ways: He could either lose his cool and struggle or he could refocus and perform as well as he did before the 14-yard shank.

"In the past, I was basically out of control," Frost said. "My anger was unbelievable. I was basically a lunatic out there -- throwing stuff all the time, having temper tantrums, destroying stuff and just taking everything too seriously. I know I can't do that anymore. It ruins how I play."

From the outset, Frost tried to react to Saturday's mistake differently. When he stood back at the Washington 27-yard line and waited for the snap with about one minute left against Tampa, he felt as confident as he ever had. For a young NFL punter, he had found relative stability. After an up-and-down rookie season with Cleveland, Frost came to Washington in the fourth week of the season and played regularly. He avoided making any colossal mistakes and averaged about 40 yards per punt. And now, against Tampa, Frost finally felt like he had hit his groove.

His performance, up until the late fourth quarter punt, had been "almost perfect," Frost said. He had delivered standout kicks of 51, 48 and 41 yards and made a tackle early in the third quarter, stopping Tampa Bay returner Mark Jones after a 24-yard return. Jones had poked Frost in the eye before both players fell to the ground, leaving the punter with an aggravated cornea and slightly cloudy vision. Still, an open-field tackle by a punter was cause for celebration.

So as the snap sailed toward him late in the fourth quarter, Frost felt fine. He repeated a mantra -- quick feet, get it off -- that hurried him into frenzy. He rushed his steps and booted the ball off the side of his foot. He watched it sail 14 yards before it crossed out of bounds.

Frost shook his head, then walked to the bench and took several deep breaths. He watched silently as Marcus Washington made an interception on the next play, negating Frost's gaffe.

"You could tell he was ticked off," long snapper Ethan Albright said. "He's the kind of guy who is always beating himself up, and he was worried he let down the team. He stayed pretty quiet."

Silence, though, registered as a mature reaction. At Clayton High School and the University of Northern Iowa, Frost built his football reputation on outbursts and histrionics. He played four positions for his father, Larry, in high school. He also spent a lot of time on the bench because officials demanded Frost either sit down or be penalized.

"He was always on the verge of a 15-yard penalty," Larry said. "If he got mad, you'd have to be ready on the sidelines if you wanted to keep your eyes. It got pretty dangerous."

Frost became exclusively a punter at Northern Iowa, and that role -- big pressure packed into small seconds -- only worsened his problems. Bad punts stuck with him for weeks, creating depressing funks that left a chasm between his potential and his results. Three games into his senior year, Frost -- an all-American candidate -- averaged about 30 yards per punt.

Those who tried to help him walked away discouraged. His parents sometimes came to home games and went a full day without seeing him. Former NFL punter Louie Aguiar gave him lessons but became slightly discouraged when, he said, "Derrick didn't let go of the bad ones."

"I look back, and I don't know if my parents or anybody really understood me or knew what to say to me because I would get so mad," Frost said. "I just carried all the weight by myself all the time. That's what scared people about it."

He mellowed after college, turning to religion to calm him and marrying his college girlfriend last summer. But relaxing on the field, Frost said, still requires constant attention. His career in Cleveland ended largely because of the aftermath from one mistake, the seven-yard punt that cost his team a game against Baltimore. "That put a black eye on the whole season," Frost said. "Everything went down hill after that."

It's a blunder he now calls a blessing, since he's taken to his life in Washington--even if the Redskins haven't entirely taken to him.

He told his mother that some teammates still don't recognize him. Because he came after the start of the season, he still feels a little like a visitor. On Monday afternoon at Redskins Park, Frost accidentally sat down in a chair outside of owner Daniel Snyder's office. Two minutes later, an assistant came and politely told him to move.

With special teams coach Danny Smith, though, Frost believes he has found a perfect fit. The coach values hang time over distance, and has helped Frost refine his punting technique. Together, they work on muscle memory and consistency, two weaknesses that have plagued him.

A 6-foot-4 athlete who played baseball in college, Frost thrives because of a strong, athletic leg. When he hits a ball well, it flies forever, Aguiar said. Frost's problem is he doesn't hit it well consistently enough.

"I'm still hitting too many bad ones," Frost said. "Physically, it's just a matter of repeating the same thing over and over. I'm getting closer to that.

"What people don't realize is that it's more mental. People look at it like, 'Oh, he's snapping the ball and he's kicking the ball.' But what goes on through your head in between those things -- whether it's nothing or something -- that really affects the punt. It's all in your head."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company