Across the net is Washington’s long snapper, Nick Sundberg, perhaps the club’s top table tennis player before the punter came along in 2014. Now they fight, as they often fight, two fully grown professional football players proving their dominance with rec-room ping-pong paddles clutched in their hands.
The smack of a plastic ball against the wooden table reverberates around the room, each blow bringing gasps. Sundberg grunts. He is about to lose, which is nothing new. Way almost always wins at locker room table tennis.
“Nick and I will continue to climb up, and we will be right there, and then he’ll add some new aspect to his game,” kicker Dustin Hopkins laments about Way the next day. “I don’t know how he does it, but he’s always a step ahead, man.”
It seems there’s nothing the 29-year-old Way can’t do, from dropping left-footed punts inside the 10-yard line to sweeping through a Virginia table tennis league he likes to call “underground ping-pong” to inventing a board game that sold out in minutes after it was featured on national television to seizing the family cooking duties from his wife, Brianna.
In a dreary 2-9 season, Way, who leads the NFL with an average of 49.2 yards per punt, is one of the Redskins’ few bright spots.
“He’s a man of many talents,” Brianna says.
Vanquished teammates suspect he watches instructional ping-pong videos, scouring them for any edge. This is probably true. The same restlessness that allows him to master crafts off the field has led to his development into one of the NFL’s best punters. Over the course of his six seasons, he has perfected subtle new features that might be undetectable to fans watching at home but are monumental in the forgotten world of special teams.
“He enjoys trying new things and trying to get proficient at whatever he is trying to pick up,” Hopkins says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, if I’m going to do something, be good at it instead of going halfway.’ ”
“The first rule of underground ping-pong is you don’t talk about ping-pong,” Tress Way says.
He and Brianna are sitting in a booth at a Chick-fil-A not far from their Northern Virginia home, their standard lunch place on the weekly NFL day off, talking about the ping-pong league at a now-closed table tennis club called Slam. The league wasn’t really secret; the players just called it “underground” because they played once a week in someone’s basement.
But the league, as square as it might sound, perfectly explains the essence of Way: a man who loves to have fun, adores being surrounded by people and yet is fiercely competitive. So much so that after sweeping through the underground ping-pong league’s second division, he wanted to play the league’s top player — a man who represented Britain in the World Games.
It also says a lot about Way that he remembers he lost to the man, 11-4, 11-5, 11-6, winning another point each time they played.
The desire to be good never shuts off. Once, when Way was about 10, he struck out three times in a baseball game, and his father, Leo, awoke in the middle of the night to a loud thwacking sound in the garage of their Tulsa home. He ran down to find Way had dangled a tarp from the garage’s ceiling and was smashing baseballs into it off a tee.
“I got K’d three times today, Pop; that’s not gong to happen to me tomorrow,” Leo remembers his son saying.
Years later, after Way’s redshirt freshman season at Oklahoma, Leo recalls that Way started carrying a football with him so he could constantly practice the most essential element of a punter’s game: the drop. Even now, Way moves through the house where he and Brianna live with their 18-month-old twins bouncing the ball, trying to keep the feel of the perfect drop as children and dogs try to jump on the ball.
“I just hear boomp all the time as he walks around,” Brianna says.
Way quit football once. This was in 2013, and he had just been cut by the Chicago Bears after going unpicked in that spring’s draft. He went back to Oklahoma City, where he had been living since college, discouraged and unsure of what to do. Two days after returning, an old friend from Tulsa offered him a job selling medical supply equipment. The money was good. Way and Brianna were engaged, and he needed to do something, so he said yes.
But then the Redskins called. They were facing a left-footed punter that week and needed someone to punt to their returners in a workout. Way was torn. He had just taken a job that promised stability, yet the NFL was beckoning with the sniff of another chance. He texted Brianna, called his parents and asked his friends, each of whom said some variation of the same thing: Don’t give up your dream.
So he went to the Redskins workout and then several others that fall, and at the end of the season, the Bears called. He and Brianna moved to Chicago, only to have the Bears draft a punter a few months later.
Way knew the Bears were going to keep the punter they drafted no matter how well he kicked in training camp, but he promised himself that he would punt so well that another team would eventually notice. When the cut came just before the 2014 season, it wasn’t long before the phone rang, displaying a 703 area code. The Redskins had claimed him.
Washington special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica’s instructions were simple. The team had a punter who had struggled that summer.
“You have 10 days,” Kotwica said. “If you outkick him, you have the job.”
“I walked out, first practice, and I have one of the best single sessions of my life,” Way says. “Here I am in my Year 6 now; it’s crazy how it worked out.”
Two years ago, Way decided he was going to get better at directional punting. The decision was born from a season-ending conversation with Kotwica, who told him, “You are too good to be an okay punter.” The challenge was to be able to hit punts in a way that the returner won’t know where they are going. This isn’t a simple thing to do. Punters give so many clues about their intent, from the way they stand to how they drop the ball.
Way went to the Redskins’ video people and asked for tapes of two punters in particular: the Tennessee Titans’ Brett Kern, whom Way believes to be the NFL’s best directional punter, and the New Orleans Saints’ Thomas Morstead, whom he calls “arguably the best punter to play the game,” with incredible hang time.
He studied both, searching for pieces to steal, and started to wonder whether he could somehow mold the best parts of their games into his own. He worked that winter in Oklahoma’s indoor practice facility, which has a lower roof than many, forcing him to hit the ball lower and work toward the sidelines.
By the next season, Way was hitting punts he had never kicked before and playing, as he calls it, “checkers vs. chess.” The returner, he says, was playing checkers, trying to figure out which way the punt was going to come, while Way was playing a mind game on an entirely different level.
He watched more tapes — including those of the Los Angeles Rams’ Johnny Hekker and the Baltimore Ravens’ Sam Koch — and soon he had adopted all of it. He knew he had succeeded when, during a game at Tampa Bay last season, he saw the Buccaneers returner turn to the sideline with arms upraised and no idea of where Way was going to kick.
Other punters are starting to notice.
“Hey, man, looks a little familiar,” Koch said to Way this summer, noting how well Way had adopted his pre-punt stance.
Something is working. In the past year and a half, Way has had only one kick roll into the end zone for a touchback, the fewest in the NFL.
“Any edge you have, you’ve got to take it,” Way says.
A few years ago, Way invented a trivia board game. He had so much fun at training camp, quizzing players and coaches on lists he made up of everything from the most successful college football teams to the highest-grossing movies, that he decided to put it together into a game called “What’s Your Bid.”
A few friends from back home helped him. They began a Kickstarter campaign to fund it.
“I’m definitely a people-pleaser,” Way says. “There was this group of guys having so much fun with something I pulled out of thin air. I love that feeling. I love seeing people have fun. I love being the life of the party or the cause of people to have some fun. I don’t sit very well.”
The game was featured before the Redskins’ “Monday Night Football” game in Philadelphia last December. Minutes after the segment aired, the game had sold out and the website crashed. The game has since been redone with new questions, but he isn’t sure what to do with it. It turns out making and marketing your own board game is a lot of work. If a buyer is interested, he might sell the game.
“That’s the tough part,” he says. “It would be hard to let go because of how much fun people have playing it.”
But there are only so many things a 29-year-old punter with two little children and a desire for world domination at everything from punting to table tennis can do.