NEW ORLEANS - Thomas Morstead is more than a quick study.
The New Orleans Saints’ rookie punter and kickoff specialist has had a bullet-train fast learning curve since his high school days in Pearland, Texas, playing a critical role in the Saints’ first Super Bowl berth in their 43-year history.
Consider, for a moment, that Morstead didn’t even play football until his senior year at Pearland High School. That when he enrolled at that school, as a ninth-grader, he stood a shade over 5 feet tall and probably got pushed into more than his fair share of lockers.
Morstead’s transformation began with a growth spurt of amazing proportions, and his athletic career took a decisive turn when he was bound and determined to play high school soccer for the Pearland Oilers in 2003.
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See, to help his chances on that front, Morstead tried out for the football team.
And his right leg became a weapon that took the personable, 6-foot-4, 225-pound Morstead from the greater Houston area to Southern Methodist University and finally the NFL.
“I grew 15 inches in my first two years of high school,” Morstead said last week at Saints camp in Metairie, La. “I’d have a lot of pain in my legs at times. But I really liked playing soccer. I’d played organized soccer since I was 4 years old. My mom (Isobel Morstead) grew up in England and had played soccer. Same thing with my dad (John Morstead), although he grew up in Lake Charles, La.
“It’s been crazy, going from Point A to Point B. There’s about 20 points in between. I got cut from the varsity soccer team my junior year in high school. I went out for football in order to get a leg up on soccer, to show the coaches what I could do.”
Morstead has been doing that ever since.
And he’ll be unloading punts, as well as kickoffs, when the Saints (15-3) face the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts (16-2) in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday in Miami.
The Saints are 51/2-point underdogs in the big game, so a solid special-teams performance could have an impact on their chances. Fourth-year Saints coach Sean Payton likes Morstead’s contribution.
“Thomas is having a Pro Bowl-type season,” Payton said. “When you look at his hang time, on his punts, to his ability on kickoffs. You take a returner like Minnesota had last week (Percy Harvin in the NFC title game), and every time he catches a kickoff, he’s a threat. For our defense to start on the opponents’ 20, that’s pretty big.
“And the field position in these games is no different than the turnovers, and the mistakes. They’re all critical as it pertains to winning and losing.”
Morstead averaged 43.6 yards per punt during the regular season, but that number has soared in the playoffs.
He’s punted 11 times, seven of them in the tense 31-28 overtime victory over Minnesota, for a whopping 48.2-yard average.
He has not had a punt blocked. More than half of his kickoffs reach the end zone, and he’s had six touchbacks in the playoffs.
In other words, Morstead is tearing it up.
And he can’t help but laugh about his draft-day experience, when the Saints traded up to grab him in the fifth round. Morstead was one of three punters drafted last spring. And he’s the only one playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“I know there was a lot of people questioning (the Saints’) move. I loved it,” Morstead said. “You guys (the media), fans, draft guys on TV … I took it as a challenge. I’ve had people get in touch with me, tell me they were wrong, that they really like what I’ve done since I got to the Saints.
“I’ve had some flat-out apologies, too.”
Still, Morstead is a rookie, and as such, he is subject to at least some good-natured hazing. When a reporter learned he majored in mechanical engineering and pre-med at SMU, a private school with an excellent academic reputation, Morstead was asked if he planned to someday become a doctor.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees heard the question as he walked by on his way to the team meeting room.
Brees cracked a smile and said, “No, he wants to be a dentist.”
You know, like “The Hangover.”
Brees repeated a sanitized version of one of the hilarious movie’s more memorable lines and went on his merry way.
Morstead would soon join him.
There was nothing left to say.