Scott Fowler

Scariest part of football for Panthers punter Andy Lee? It’s not punting

Carolina Panthers punter Andy Lee enters his 14th NFL season trying to recover from a hamstring injury he suffered last November.
Carolina Panthers punter Andy Lee enters his 14th NFL season trying to recover from a hamstring injury he suffered last November. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers punter Andy Lee actually has two jobs on the football field, and the one he’s not as well-known for makes him way more jittery than the actual punting part.

“Punting is harder,” Lee said, “but holding is more nerve-racking. I’m 100 percent more nervous on a game-winning hold than I am on a big kick at the end of a game. Now granted, you can’t screw either one up. But you still can kind of mess up on a punt and not hit your best ball and have it turn out and be OK. You screw up on a hold and there’s no coming back from it.”

Lee, 34, is the heavy favorite to be the Panthers’ punter again this season as well as the team’s holder for placekicks. A 14-year veteran, Lee got traded by Cleveland to the Panthers last August. He was one of the few Panthers having a great season in 2016 – including a 76-yard punt against Denver – until he tore his right hamstring Nov. 13 in a game against Kansas City.

Lee actually hurt his kicking leg while stretching before he punted, then didn’t help himself by kicking a ball into the kicking net and then trotting out on the field to punt once in the game.

“I had never torn anything before,” Lee said, “so I didn’t know exactly what it felt like. ... But after they called for the punt team and I did one, I knew something was wrong.”

The reason for No. 8

Thus ended Lee’s first season with the Panthers. He has spent the nearly nine months since then trying to get back onto the field. The hamstring tear didn’t require surgery, and he has been punting full-out since late January.

“I’ve been hitting the ball well,” Lee said. “I feel about normal. I haven’t had any issues here at camp.”

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This was the last punt that Carolina Panthers punter Andy Lee tried in 2016 -- he had torn his hamstring on the sideline while stretching just moments before, but didn’t realize it. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Winning the job is not a given. The Panthers have brought Michael Palardy to training camp, too, and it was Palardy who replaced Lee last season for the final seven games in 2016 and punted decently. Palardy would be a cheaper alternative than Lee, although Lee offers experience, a stronger leg and a résumé that includes three previous Pro Bowl appearances.

Lee was the rare Panthers player who actually lived in Charlotte before the Panthers were ever on his radar. He grew up in Westminster, S.C., about 150 miles southwest of Charlotte. His wife Rachel is from Columbia, S.C. After Lee went to Pittsburgh and got drafted in the sixth round by the San Francisco 49ers in 2004, the two decided to make their permanent home in the Carolinas.

They first spent six years in Greenville, S.C., and then moved to Charlotte in 2012.

While the Lees have enjoyed the Queen City along with their two young boys, it has also been the scene of their worst heartbreak. The Lees’ daughter, Madelyn Elizabeth, died in 2015 barely a week after she was born in Charlotte.

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Rachel, Adam, Andy and Ryan Lee posed for a family photo for The Observer in May. Andy and Rachel lost their daughter, Madelyn Elizabeth, eight days after she was born in Charlotte in 2015 and have established “Madelyn’s Fund” in her name. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Madelyn had a complicated birth and then an infection that quickly escalated into the sort of crisis all parents dread. The Lees have since created “Madelyn’s Fund” to try to help other families in similar situations with the financial stress that also occurs.

Lee also wears the No. 8 in honor of his daughter, who lived for eight days.

Can he hit a 100-yard punt?

As for the stretching maneuver that caused Lee’s injury in the first place – one in which he does a split and leans to one side – it took him awhile to become confident enough to do it again. But now he does it regularly and also chooses to warm up for a longer period of time than he used to.

He remains confident in the right leg that has kept him in the NFL for 14 years. When I asked him if he could punt a ball from one end zone to the other on a good day, he hesitated and then said: “Possibly – if there was wind, or if I was in Denver.”

Lee says his personal list of the best punters in the NFL would include (but not be limited to) Johnny Hecker of the L.A. Rams, Sam Koch of Baltimore, Thomas Morstead of New Orleans and Shane Lechler of Houston.

Short of those two conditions, Lee believes his most well-struck punts can still travel 60 to 70 yards on the fly. More importantly, though, Lee is a master at the “pooch punt” or “mortar kick,” dropping it inside the 20 without knocking the ball all the way into the end zone. For his career, Lee has 343 punts inside the 20 but only 99 touchbacks.

As for holding for placekicks, Lee knows you will never notice him out there. Unless he messes one up.

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