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No replacing experience

By SCOTT PURKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


TAMPA -- For punter Mark Royals, the 1987 NFL strike looked like a perfect time to launch some footballs -- and a career.

That's because Royals was -- although he said he doesn't like the sound of it -- a "replacement" player. Royals, then 22, was a punter without a team, someone, as he calls it, "looking for any opportunity."

"I respected what the guys on strike were trying to do, but on the flip side, I feel like most players, given the chance to put their foot in the door, would have done the same thing I did," said Royals, who punted in one replacement game apiece for St. Louis and Philadelphia.

"It was a little stressful playing for those teams because there were regular players standing out by the gates telling us not to go in the clubhouse for work. But I did it, and if I had to go back in time and do it all over again, I would do it again."

More than anything, Royals said, the experience solidified his belief that he belonged in the NFL.

"I remember the first time I went to work out with the Cardinals, and the coach, Gene Stallings, saw me kicking and asked, "Why weren't you in a camp?' And I said, "I don't know, but I haven't seemed to get any opportunities. I don't know why.'

"Then he said, "If I was you, I would walk out on somebody's field and say, "Watch me kick." ' He told me to do anything I possibly could to get a look. And the fact that he made a point to tell me that gave me a lot of incentive."

Royals needed it. After losing to Mike Saxon in a Dallas tryout in 1986, Royals followed with his replacement year. He thought the time would be right in 1988 in Phoenix. And it was -- until the Cardinals drafted quarterback-punter Tom Tupa in the third round. He was released. In 1989 in Miami, all Royals had to do was beat out Reggie Roby. Didn't happen.

In 1990 Royals earned a spot with Tampa Bay, and he held the job for two seasons. The he bounced to Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Orleans and back to Tampa in 1999, when he had one of his best seasons. He set a team season record with a gross average of 43.1 yards per punt (ranking third in the NFC) and had a net average of 37.6, the NFC's second best.

In the off-season, several teams were in the hunt for Royals' services, but the Bucs re-signed him to a three-year contract worth nearly $3-million.

Did somebody say replacement player? It almost seems like a lifetime ago.

"I think that if there were a strike now that I would honor it, I wouldn't cross the line," Royals said. "But if there were someone out there who had the talent to make it in this league and they were just looking for an opportunity to show what they could do, well, I would certainly understand if that person did the same thing that I did in 1987. I would definitely understand that."

Q: Mark, what facet of your past would you change if you could?

A: Even though I faced a lot of hardships getting to the NFL, I wouldn't trade any of the experiences because I grew up a lot . . . and I needed to. It showed me it's really not what happens in your life but how you deal with what happens that's important.

Q: How did you see your life unfolding?

A: From the time I was 8 years old I told my mom that I wanted to play professional football. I was a big, big NFL fan. I grew up in Virginia and followed the Redskins, and I was a huge fan of Redskins linebacker Chris Hanburger, which made me want to be a linebacker. I actually played some linebacker as a teenager, but that didn't last. Things happen as they happen, and although I didn't know what position it would be, I always felt I would be playing some position in the NFL.

SUPER BOWL XXI

Jan. 25, 1987

Pasadena, Calif.

Giants 39, Broncos 20

MVP: Phil Simms, Giants quarterback (22-of-25 for 268 yards and three touchdowns).

IN THE NEWS: June 11: Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wins a third term in Britain. July 4: Former Nazi Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, 73, known as the "Butcher of Lyon," is sentenced to life by a French court for war crimes. July 7-10: Marine Col. Oliver North tells a congressional inquiry that higher officials approved his secret Iran-Contra operations. July 15-22: Admiral John Poindexter, former national security adviser, testifies that he authorized using profits from Iran arms sales to aid the Contras in Nicaragua. Aug. 12: President Reagan says the Iran arms-for-hostages deal was a "mistake" and he is "ultimately accountable," though he had no knowledge of it.

BEST PICTURE OSCAR: Platoon

MUSIC OF THE MOMENT: The Joshua Tree/U2

EVERYBODY'S WATCHING: MacGyver

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