Sydner big on punt returns


POSTED: Friday, July 10, 2009

He's got to fair catch. Right?

Jeff Sydner just stands there, staring into the Halawa night.

The gunner on the punt coverage unit, having shed his blocker, accelerates toward him aiming to plow right through the white-on-green No. 26 on Sydner's chest.

Still no signal from Sydner.

Oh man, he's gonna get creamed.

The ball finishes its interminable descent an instant before the tackler arrives, and suddenly Sydner is a blur. Spinning to his left, he sends the defender sprawling. He then finds the protection of a wall providing one block after another, leading him deep into opposing territory.

“;I didn't like to fair catch, it defeats the purpose,”; Sydner said, reminiscing about his daring as a punt returner. “;Who wants to go back there and waste a play by fair catching when you've got a chance to make something happen?

“;Hawaii in general, the fans, everybody just wanted big things to happen. They came to those games to see big plays and big things and I felt like that's what I was there to do. I never wanted to short the fans anything.”;

Big plays were the specialty of the relatively diminutive Sydner in his three seasons with the Rainbow Warriors.

Sydner's elusiveness as a returner and versatility as a slotback added up to 4,137 total yards, good for third on the program's all-time list.

His 82-yard punt return against Maine in 1990 remains the second longest in UH history and he held the record for punt return yardage until Chad Owens passed him in 2004.

While Sydner's disdain for the fair catch created opportunities for electrifying gains, it also left him open to some jarring shots. Though standing just 5-foot-6, he had left any trepidation over contact back in his youth in Columbus, Ohio.

“;I always had the mentality of you're going to get hit, that's part of the game,”; he said. “;Contact is part of it. Sometimes that's the best part of it.

“;In order to play that game and play it to the level that it's supposed to be played at, there has to be a part of you that is just sacrificial. That's what I enjoyed about it.”;

Sydner rushed for more than 4,000 yards at Columbus East High School and envisioned himself staying home to play for Ohio State and Earle Bruce. When Bruce was fired in 1987, Sydner widened his search and was intrigued when Bob Wagner and Mike Sewak came calling.

Sydner took a liking to the Hawaii coaches and the islands when he took his recruiting visit along with prospects Jason Elam, Travis Sims, Darrick Branch and Jamal Farmer.

But with reaching the NFL as his target, Sydner remained unsure about venturing into the Pacific until he discussed his options with Columbus East head coach Doug Smith.

“;I'm like, 'Coach, what can I do from out there?' “; Sydner recalled. “;He told me, 'Jeff you can do whatever you want to do from out there. Your talent's going to take you where you need to go.' “;

Sydner had to wait another year to truly announce his arrival, sidelined by knee surgery in 1988. He broke into the lineup the following year, with the Rainbows' spread offense highlighting his elusiveness as a runner on the option and his skills as a receiver.

As for returning kicks, some of his most mystifying moves evolved out of quiet moments far from the fray.

“;Some of the things you can't even explain. A lot of my stuff used to come when I'd be resting or have down time and you just visualize things happening,”; he said. “;If you visualize something happening, chances are there'll come a time when that opportunity presents itself and you're probably going to act off instinct.”;





        UH players who entered the NFL Draft after their junior years




Jeff Sydner, 19926th round, Eagles
Ashley Lelie, 20021st round, Broncos
Pisa Tinoisamoa, 20032nd round, Rams
Davone Bess, 2008FA, Dolphins
Ryan Grice-Mullins, 2008FA, BC Lions





One of Sydner's most memorable moments was also part instinct, part choreography.

In Hawaii's 1990 blowout of BYU, the day Ty Detmer won the Heisman Trophy, Garrett Gabriel hit a wide-open Sydner across the middle for a touchdown. Sydner then flipped the ball to an official, and hit the Heisman pose, sticking out his right arm while cradling an imaginary ball in his left.

Until Colt Brennan made it to New York as a Heisman finalist in 2007, Sydner's pose—immortalized on YouTube—was Hawaii's closest connection to college football's most recognizable award.

“;We were riding pretty high at that point,”; said Sydner, who relived the moment with Detmer when they were teammates with the Philadelphia Eagles. “;It wasn't an insult or a slap in the face. He definitely deserved (the Heisman), he played head and shoulders above the rest that year. ... But you know how competition is ... “;

UH's near-upset of Notre Dame in 1991 proved to be Sydner's final college game. After the season, he decided to forgo his senior season to take his shot at the NFL and was drafted in the sixth round by the Eagles. He played three years in Philly before ending his career with the New York Jets in 1995.

“;I just felt like I was ready and you have to take your chances when you can,”; Sydner said of leaving school early. “;I didn't want to look myself in the mirror and say, 'what if.' That's the way I live my life to this day.”;

These days, Sydner is an operations manager for Lowe's in Baton Rouge, La., and another Sydner will soon be looking to make a name for himself on the field. Jeff Anthony Sydner, the oldest of his three children, will be a sophomore receiver at Seven Lakes High in Katy, Texas. He's also the proud dad of Christian, 11, and Sydney, 10.

“;My experience in Hawaii was one of a kind. It has so much to do with why I am who I am today,”; Sydner said. “;It was good prep for life.”;


Jason Kaneshiro covers UH football for the Star-Bulletin. Tomorrow we unveil No. 20.