NFC-AFC PRO BOWL
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mat McBriar is the first former Hawaii player to be selected to the Pro Bowl since Jason Elam kicked for the AFC in 2001.
McBriar punts his way back to Hawaii
He became great when he mastered the art of the drop
Since perfecting the art of the drop, Mat McBriar has enjoyed a steady ascent in his NFL career.
Leg strength was never a problem for the former University of Hawaii punter, often drawing oohs from the Aloha Stadium crowd for his booming kicks during his college days.
But more than the yardage he covered with his kicks, McBriar quickly learned that the secret to surviving in the pros lay in the relatively short distance between his hand and foot.
2007 PRO BOWL EVENTS
Today: Kickoff rally at Bishop Square, noon.
Tomorrow: Festival at Kapiolani Park, noon to 6 p.m.
Friday: All-Star Block Party in Waikiki at Kalakaua Ave, 7-10 p.m.
Saturday: Pro Bowl, 1 p.m. at Aloha Stadium, followed by Sunset on the Beach at Queen's Beach at 7 p.m.
"I was still really raw when I left here," McBriar said yesterday. "I didn't realize that. I thought I was just about ready, but I wasn't.
"For me, punting is really all about how good your drop is. I know it's not really exciting stuff to talk about, but that's basically what it is. I had to fine-tune that, I was moving the ball around all over the place. The key is to keep it as still as you can."
With a steady hand to go with his powerful leg, McBriar returns to Aloha Stadium on Saturday for the first time since ending his UH career, as a member of the NFC team in the Pro Bowl.
McBriar, one of seven Dallas Cowboys selected to the NFC roster, is the first UH product to be selected to the NFL's annual all-star game since Denver's Jason Elam kicked for the AFC in 2001, his third
appearance in the game.
McBriar brought an entourage of about 18 family members and friends over for his first Pro Bowl appearance, rewarding his long snapper Louis-Philippe Ladouceur with a trip to Hawaii.
Though McBriar had precious little exposure to American football growing up in Australia, he learned quickly enough, to end his UH career second in school history in punting average behind Elam at 42.2 yards per kick.
His pro career got off to a bumpy start and he was without a job after being released in training camp in 2003. But he hooked on with Dallas in 2004 and earned a trip back to Aloha Stadium by leading the league in punting with an average of 48.2 yards per punt.
He killed 22 of his 56 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line and booted a long of 75 yards.
"It took a little while," McBriar said.
"I don't know why it was my third season when everything clicked. I just felt really good out there and I'm stoked to be here."
McBriar played Australian Rules Football as a youth and found his way to Hawaii through a connection with another Australian punter, former Chargers Pro Bowler Darren Bennett.
Bennett kept in touch with Dennis McKnight, UH's special teams coach, and alerted him to the promising young kicker.
"Mat sent me a film of him kicking," McKnight recalled, "and with his leg extension over his head and the power he attacked the ball with, I said, 'Geez, if we can get him to learn to catch the ball and get the kick off in 1.3 seconds we could really have something.' "
As McBriar picked up the nuances of the game, he developed into an All-Western Athletic Conference punter and signed a free-agent contract with the Denver Broncos. He was traded to Seattle during training camp, but was released just before the season.
The Cowboys invited him to compete for the job in 2004 and McBriar has been their punter ever since.
Now a Cowboys veteran, McBriar has witnessed just a bit of drama in Big D. Over the last season, the team dealt with the perpetual media circus surrounding receiver Terrell Owens, the stunning playoff loss to Seattle, the retirement of coach Bill Parcells and the ongoing search for his successor.
"It's definitely never boring," said McBriar.
As far as T.O. as a teammate, "He really wasn't that distracting," McBriar said. "He was one of the first guys to congratulate me for making this. I can only say good things about him."
In a meeting of former Warriors, McBriar had a chance to punt to fellow UH product Chad Owens, then the Jacksonville Jaguars kick returner, this season.
"That was really exciting," he said. "We had a chance to talk before the game. He said, 'just give me a chance.' I'm like, 'Oh yeah you'll get one.' "
To McBriar's relief, the Dallas coverage unit did contain Owens well enough to prevent an on-field reunion.
"Me and him in the open field? You don't want to see that," McBriar said. "I don't want to see that."
Among McBriar's Cowboy teammates here for the game is quarterback Tony Romo, who played against Hawaii in 2002 with Eastern Illinois and earned a Pro Bowl berth in his first season as the Dallas starter.
"We talked about (the 2002 game)," Romo said. "It's fun, me coming from a small school and him out in Hawaii. It's a random occurrence. Hawaii had a real good program and they still do. It's always fun to get out here and play against them."
Romo's position means regularly spending quite a bit of time in front of cameras and microphones, and he obliged reporters again after the NFC's practice yesterday. But even he couldn't outlast McBriar, the last player to leave the field.
"He deserves it," Romo said. "He's a great player and he did great things for us this year, so we're real happy with him