Special Weapon

By Tommy Hine

Tom Mante’s superstitions as a Yale punter lasted one game - - a miserable performance in the 2006 season opener against San Diego.

“In my first game my freshman year, I had a pretty poor game,” Mante said. “I remember my first punt was a shank. I think it only went about 28 yards, and I averaged only 32 yards for the day. It was a pretty bad game.

“After that, I decided that all superstitions were going out the window.”

It wasn’t like that before the San Diego loss. Like a lot of athletes, Mante had a locker-full of superstitions and little quirks in his pre-game routine.

“I used to be very superstitious,” he said. “I’d wear the same kind of girdle. I’d put on the pads, one at a time, the same way every time. I’d put on the same shoes, the same socks. I did the same pre-game warm-up routine. I listened to the same music before games, in the same order. I’ve strayed away from that the last few seasons.”

Mante has grown to learn he has not needed any outside intervention from his old pre-game superstitions.

As a freshman, he was Yale’s starting punter in all 10 games, averaging 35.5 yards per kick. Mante had a season-long 61-yard punt against Princeton and a season-high 51-yard average against Dartmouth. He forced 13 fair catches, and placed 17 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

His sophomore year, Mante set a school record with a 41.2-yard average, and he had a season-long 62-yard punt against Cornell. He received the Ivy League and Yale Special Team Awards after a 42.6-yard punting average against Brown, and he set a school single-game record with a 48-yard average against Columbia. A 10-game starter, Mante placed 14 punts inside the 20 and at the end of the season, he was named Honorable Mention All-Ivy.

Last season, Mante added place kicking to his resume. The dual role didn’t affect either of his kicking games, and he was named second-team All-Ivy as a punter and honorable mention All-Ivy as a place kicker. Averaging 41 yards per punt, Mante was a two-time Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week, and he had a career-best 71-yarder against Georgetown. Mante placed a league-best 25 punts inside the 20-yard line, and he ranked fifth in the FCS for net punting (36.03-yard average) and 10th for punt return yardage defense (5.26-yard average). He kicked eight punts of 50 yards or longer and as a place kicker, he converted eight of 12 field goals, including a game-winning 34-yarder in double overtime to beat Holy Cross, and he made 23 of 25 extra points.

“He’s a very talented football player and clearly an NFL prospect,” said Tom Williams, Yale’s Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Football. “He’s got a very strong leg, but he is also extremely accurate as a field goal kicker. He does a very nice job kicking the ball off for us as well. He’s a weapon. No doubt about it. We plan on using him as such.”

In the Bulldogs’ 31-10 victory over Georgetown in the season opener two weeks ago, Mante started Yale’s scoring with a 50-yard field goal, and he converted all four extra points. Averaging 42.8 yards with his six punts, including 73 and 65-yard bombs, he was named Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week. He also happened to recover his own on-side kick.

“We had an opportunity in that game, a couple of situations, when we needed to flip the field, and he came through for us with flying colors,” Williams said. “We’re very excited about him and his potential for our football team this season. We’re going to ride him as long as he’ll let us.”

There is a growing sense of confidence among the Bulldogs that Mante might help them go a long way. Last week he tied the Ivy League and school record with a 54-yard FG during a game he set the school record for most (12) punts.

“I’m really excited about the potential we have,” Mante said. “I love Coach Williams. I think he’s a great guy. He brings a lot of energy to the game. We might have lost a lot of seniors, but I think the new coaching staff and their personalities will help to overcome that. I think we’ll be very competitive and in the thick of things come (Harvard) Nov. 21.”

If Mante had made a prediction five years ago, he would have guessed he would be playing baseball in college right now, not football. Baseball was his first love, and it still is.

“To be honest, I was actually getting recruited more for baseball before any of these football teams came into play,” he said. “I was getting recruited by a couple of Division I schools, mostly in the northeast like UMass and the Atlantic-10 teams.

“Baseball was actually my passion, and it still is. I still love watching the game, and I really do miss playing it. I talked to the coaches here briefly about playing, but it never came about, and I kind of gave up on that. It’s kind of ironic how I was recruited for baseball before football.”

Mante may live in Westford, Mass., and he may have gone to high school in Nashua, N.H., but that doesn’t automatically make him a member of Red Sox Nation. Just the opposite. He is a diehard Yankees fan.

“I get a lot of heat for being a Yankees fan here in Red Sox territory,” Mante said “It’s kind of messed up. My Dad and his whole side of the family are from the Bronx, so it’s in my blood to be a Yankees fan.”

Unlike a lot of punters and kickers, Mante didn’t have a strong soccer background. In fact, at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, he never even played varsity soccer. He tried out, and he was denied a spot on the varsity roster.

“I played soccer up until my junior year in high school when I made the switch to football,” Mante said. “I tried out for the varsity soccer team, and I didn’t make it. I was put on the junior varsity team.

“After a couple of games, I had done pretty well and scored a lot of goals, so I went to the varsity coach and asked him if there was any possibility of moving me up in the fall. He politely said ‘No,’ and I guess it kind of worked out. They won a state soccer championship that year without me. So I never really played football until my senior year of high school.”

In Mante’s senior year, Bishop Guertin went unbeaten and won the state championship for the second consecutive year. Mante was named co-MVP of the team after punting for a 44-yard average, converting 47 straight extra points and kicking two game-winning field goals.

College recruiters, including Yale, then came knocking.

“I was recruited as a kicker and punter, and that was it,” Mante said. “They had told me that I would have the opportunity to compete for the starting job to punt as a freshman, so that was one of the bigger incentives for me coming here. They said they were looking for a kicker and punter, and that’s how they recruited me.”

Mante is well-aware of the reputation punters and kickers have for sometimes being a different breed, even quirky, if not just flat-out off-the-wall. He chuckles when he talks about it.

“I tend to not think of myself as just a kicker,” Mante said. “With my background of playing a variety of sports - - baseball, basketball, football, soccer - - I think of myself as more of an athlete who just happens to kick. Having played a lot of big games in high school and college, I’ve come to develop the mindset that I’m not just a kicker and a punter.

“I’m more of an athlete who goes out there the same as the other guys. I just have a more specialized role, that’s all. I’m sure we get a bad rap for being head cases and things like that, but I really try to stay away from that. My background has helped me accomplish that.”

Mante belies the common notion that teammates should avoid a kicker before he attempts to convert a key field goal or make a crucial punt. “We get that generalization where we are not supposed to be talked to, but I actually kind of enjoy talking to the guys, getting me fired up,” he said. “It takes my mind off it. I find out that I kick or punt much better when I’m not focusing too much on the kick.

“Obviously, I want to go out there and make the field goal or the punt to the best of my ability, but I find that when you over-analyze it, that’s when bad things start to happen. So, I get in a groove talking with everyone, talking to coach. Then, as soon as I get out there, I kind of zone in on the kick and put it through the uprights.”