Neither Reggie Roby nor Dwight Stephenson has ever received a letter from a black kid who wants to grow up to be a punter or center.
That surprises them. When they were growing up, which wasn't all that long ago, their role models were white.
Roby kicked footballs over his house in Waterloo, Iowa, and watched Ray Guy nick dome roofs. Stephenson asked to play tight end in Hampton, Va., stayed at center, and started to keep his eye on Mick Tingelhoff and Mike Webster.
"I wanted to be different," Roby said today. "I wanted to be someone who, when I was older, young kids would model me and grow up and try to be like me. Positions like quarterback, punter and kicker were dominated (by white players), and being a punter was what I liked to do most of all."
Roby and Stephenson punt and block for the Miami Dolphins. At 23, in two seasons, Roby has become the NFL's best punter. At 27, in five seasons, Stephenson has become its best center. Their selection to the all-pro team was unanimous.
Roby, whose services were called upon just once in three different games this season, finished second in the league in average with a 44.7-yard figure, but was first in net average (38.1). He had six punts 60 yards or longer.
Stephenson, who had, at worst, one bad game (in a loss to the Los Angeles Raiders), started all 16 games and anchored an offensive line that, for the second consecutive year, allowed the fewest quarterback sacks. Dan Marino was tackled just 14 times behind the line.
Neither man is exactly blazing a trail, considering that men of their race have gone before -- most notably punters Horace Gillom of Cleveland in the 1950s and Greg Coleman, recently of Minnesota; and centers Ray Donaldson of Indianapolis and Kevin Belcher of the New York Giants.
But Roby and Stephenson still are unusual; black men playing their positions are few and far between. The old, hardened line was that black athletes played the "skill" positions. The trenches and kicking game stayed white.
"Punters aren't athletic, most people think," Roby said. "With me being black, I guess people think I should be athletic, not a punter."
Stephenson: "The kids, the black kids, never want to play center. It's not exciting for them. Most of them want to play running back."
Punters certainly have a higher profile than centers. But both Roby and Stephenson still are relatively anonymous superstars.
"It isn't glamorous," Stephenson said today -- the second day of mass interviews for Super Bowl XIX. "This is the only position I could really play, because I never was fast enough for linebacker or tight end."
For Stephenson, it was center by default. For Roby, it was punting at first sight.
Roby had a humble start. When he was 6, he stood alone in his front yard, kicking a football over his family's one-story house, "with attic," Roby added. His parents shooed him into the backyard, but he always returned to the front. "The grass is always better in the front yard," Roby said.
He was kicking 25 yards then.
In high school, it was 39. He also asked to play tight end or linebacker, but never did. "I was a chub," he said. His scale, which read 170 pounds in seventh grade, agreed.
He says that during a practice one day during his junior year at Iowa, he kicked a football 130 yards. Kicking from the back of the end zone, he watched the ball bounce at the other 20-yard line, roll through the end zone, and bounce high into the stands.
The Iowa coaches stopped and looked at Roby. "Do it again," they said to him.
He kicked once more -- and shanked the ball.
"It was one of those moments . . . " he said.
About that time, Roby was getting a little tired of his routine, kicking 100 balls a day, four days a week. His style had been like most punters'; as his right foot hit the ball, his left foot left the ground.
"I got lazy in practice, and decided not to jump with my left foot that day," Roby said. "I just left the foot down and the ball went almost straight up, higher than ever before."
Since then, he has kept his left foot on the ground as he two-steps through his routine.
"I haven't seen anyone else do that, at least not in the NFL," he said.
Roby doesn't lay the ball out to kick it, as most punters do. He points the football up, and actually kicks underneath it. The ball doesn't flutter to a return man; it sails through the air, spinning tightly, not turning end-over-end even once.
No one else manages to kick the ball that way quite so consistently.
"Maybe they don't know how I do that," he said. "It takes a lot of leg strength to kick a ball that way with distance."
He punts higher and longer than any other punter. His hang time averages five seconds. He hit the New Orleans Superdome TV screen in practice. His coaches don't try to coach him. "They all say, 'I'm not going to say anything to you,' " Roby said.
Yet he hardly plays. He had the fewest punts (51) of all NFL regulars this season.
"The first part of the year, I was kind of upset," Roby said, "but then I realized we're not losing. We're winning all our games with me sitting down. Suddenly, I became a cheerleader.
"I still get paid just to watch the game."
Stephenson does more than watch. Coach Don Shula called him "all-world" today.
Quiet, and much shyer than Roby, Stephenson said that's not so. "I know I'm not the best center in the league," he said. No one believed him.
Stephenson is 6-2 and 255 pounds, and was so good in college at Alabama that Bear Bryant once said he was the "greatest center" he had ever coached.
In his first three seasons with the Dolphins, he blocked for a running team. When Marino arrived, he became a pass blocker.
He said he looks good because Marino is so good.
"His quick release is the extra edge," Stephenson said. "Another quarterback would have 10 to 12 more sacks. And it works both ways. We know if we give him the time, he'll make the big play."
In his mind, Stephenson is just a cog in a machine that works extremely well. Roby is an irreplaceable part, but is fitted in rarely.
They are big names in their small worlds -- small by NFL standards.
"Ray Guy and Coleman were around at the same time," Roby said, talking about punters. "I never heard of Coleman. But Guy . . . everything he did, I did. He was the best.
"I just want to be a role model . . . just the first black punter in the NFL who was known."