Former Oregon State walk-on earns All-Pro recognition in his second pro season

by: COURTESY OF MICHAEL WORKMAN - St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker, a former Oregon State walk-on, gets one off against the Seattle Seahawks.Oregon State football fans remember Johnny Hekker as somewhat of an enigma.

During his four seasons as OSU's punter, the 6-6, 225-pound former prep quarterback boomed a 74-yard punt, was most valuable player in the Beavers' 3-0 Sun Bowl victory over Pittsburgh in 2008 and had 52 punts covering more than 50 yards, with 87 landing inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Hekker also had several shanks each season, including one that covered minus-4 yards to set up Wisconsin's first touchdown in a 35-0 loss as a senior in 2011.

But Hekker, who came to Oregon State as a walk-on, has made a career out of surprising people.

The Bothell, Wash., native, who made the St. Louis Rams' roster as an undrafted free agent in 2012, capped it by making Sunday's Pro Bowl at Honolulu in his second NFL season.

Hekker punted four times for a 49-yard average, including a 56-yarder and two inside the opponents' 20, in helping Team Rice to a 22-21 victory over Team Sanders.

"I punted pretty well," Hekker says. "I had a couple of hits that could have been a little better. I wasn't nervous. It's a very laid-back game atmosphere, and even to be there in my first Pro Bowl, I wasn't too caught up in everything. All in all, it was an incredible experience."

Making it even better was the presence in Honolulu during the week of his parents, his four brothers and their families. Unable to make the trip was his girlfriend, former OSU gymnast Makayla Stambaugh, now coaching at Division II Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.

It was the culmination of an outstanding second NFL season for Hekker, who averaged 46.3 yards per punt and set a league record with a 44.2-yard net average, breaking the mark of 44.0 by San Francisco's Andy Lee in 2011.

"I'm really proud to contribute to the record," Hekker says. "The way the punt team covered the heck out of my punts, it's really a team thing. They played at incredible heights. It was a joy to be around those guys."

Though he enjoyed a terrific season -- earning first-team All-Pro honors -- Hekker didn't expect to be one of two NFL punters to be selected for the Pro Bowl.

"I was pretty shocked, really," he says. "There were some punters who had very good seasons. I wasn't expecting it. When I heard the news, I was ecstatic. It's a huge honor."

Hekker had an up-and-down rookie season with the Rams in 2012, averaging 45.8 yards but with a net average of only 39.9.

One game that season typified his career: a 24-24 tie with the 49ers at San Francisco in November that was the first NFL game to end deadlocked in four years.

Hekker averaged 44.7 yards on four of his five punts in that game, and he may have set an NFL single-game mark with two passes completed out of punt formation. The first came near the end of the first half, with St. Louis, ahead 14-7 and facing fourth-and-4 from its 10-yard line. Hekker threw a pass to gunner Rodney McLeod that covered 21 yards for a first down. Later, with the Rams in fourth-and-8 from their 33 and trailing 21-17 in the fourth quarter, Hekker connected with Lance Kendricks for 19 yards and another first down.

But Hekker also had a 13-yard punt and, as the holder for kicker Greg Zuerlein, made a mental miscue that ultimately cost the Rams a victory. On the final play of regulation, the Rams lined up for a 53-yard field goal. Zuerlein kicked it through the uprights, but the play was nullified on a delay-of-game penalty. As holder, Hekker was responsible for making sure the snap got off in time. With the Rams moved back five yards, Zuerlein missed the subsequent 58-yard attempt.

"Johnny just lost track of the time," then-St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said afterward. "That's OK. Well, it's not OK. But he was focused on Greg and on protection, and time right out on us."

As always, Hekker persevered. In training camp, the Rams brought in hot-shot rookie Brett Baer out of Louisiana-Lafayette to compete with him for the starting punter job. Hekker won out, and proved that the coaching staff made a wise choice.

"From year one to year two in the NFL is huge," says Hekker, who turns 24 on Feb. 8. "I had a huge boost of confidence as far as how the whole season went. There was so much that I learned as far as taking care of your body, being comfortable with the place you live, the work environment. That was paramount to my success this season."

Imagine the feeling Hekker had when surrounded by the greats of the game in Honolulu, including "coach" Jerry Rice, the best receiver in NFL history.

"It was incredible to get to meet him, shake his hand, talk to him," Hekker says. "It was pretty awesome."

The Pro Bowl appearance was the culmination of a lot of work Hekker has put in since he stepped onto the OSU campus, a wide-eyed walk-on with a big leg and dreams to match.

"I always had the goal (of the Pro Bowl) in my mind," he says. "There were times in my career at Oregon State when those goals seemed attainable, and others when they seemed so far away. But I always believed in myself. I continued to work with that goal in mind, and was able to make it happen."

Hekker, who has maintained close contact with the OSU coaching staff since he left school, will attend the football recruiting dinner on Feb. 5 in Portland. It will be a nice opportunity for Beaver Nation to congratulate the big redhead for a job well done.

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