By Kathleen Nelson
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/16/2005


Sean Landeta has been gone only a year, but he has too much catching up to do.

The Rams' former punter said he hoped to see some of his non-football friends when he returns to St. Louis with the Philadelphia Eagles for their game with the Rams on Sunday.

"These guys I've known since '95," said Landeta who lived in St. Louis for a pair of two-year stints with the Rams. "They made my stay so great. They really made you feel welcome."

He mentioned Gus Torregrossa of Gus' Fashion and Shoes and restaurateurs Charlie Gitto, Charlie Fazio of the Joe Fazio Bakery, Mark Cusumano of Kemoll's and Tony Catarinicchi from Gian-Tony's. Even for a bon vivant like Landeta, that's a lot of food and shopping in 24 hours, especially when he has to squeeze in a football game.

"He might know just about everybody in every city, as long as he's been playing," Rams punter Bryan Barker said. A 16-year veteran, Barker delivered the line with a grin, a backhanded complement to Landeta's longevity.

Landeta, 43, is in his 21st season in the NFL and is one of only nine players who have spent at least 20 seasons in the NFL. He ranks second on the all-time list with 1,379 punts, trailing Jeff Feagles of the New York Giants, who has punted 1,425 times. Landeta also is second in career punting average: 43.3 yards. He was a member of both the All-1980s and All-1990s teams and made Pro Football Digest's All-Time All-Pro team.

Landeta had little time to bid adieu to friends because of his abrupt departure from St. Louis last year. He entered his last game with the Rams on Nov. 21, 2004, ranked second in the NFL in net punting average. After the Bills returned punts 53 and 86 yards, Landeta was the fall guy. He was released five days later.

"I was so disappointed that I wouldn't be there," he said. "Everybody there, the coaches, players and the organization were so great to me."

Landeta was replaced by Kevin Stemke, who lost the job in camp to rookie Reggie Hodges. The youngster lasted five games before being replaced by Barker. Landeta spent two weeks in the Eagles' camp before being released but continued to train on a high school field near his home in Manhasset, N.Y.

The injury bug that plagued the Eagles at key positions also hit punter Dirk Johnson. The Eagles signed Hodges, who lasted three games before being replaced by Nick Murphy on Nov. 22. Landeta was signed the following week.

"I brought a lot of young guys in and tried them out," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "I figure Sean might not kick it the furthest, like he used to, but I at least know it's going to be the same depth every time."

Considering the short leash on which most punters are kept, longevity is a gift that the veterans treasure. Landeta, for example, moved with the Rams to St. Louis from Los Angeles but left after 1996. He returned in 2003 and played 10 games last year. His career also included more than eight seasons with the Giants and a season each in Tampa Bay and Green Bay. He's in his second stint with the Eagles.

Barker, 41, has traveled almost as much. He was cut three times before landing a gig in Kansas City, followed by stops in Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Washington and Green Bay.

The old-timers agree that because each team carries only one punter, they would seem to be in a more tenuous position, than, say, a defensive lineman. If the starter has an off-game or two, he's demoted.

"There is no second string in punting, but the security is no different than any other position," Barker said. "This is a performance-based business. You either perform, or somebody else does your job."

The two have exchanged pleasantries and war stories before and after games through the years.

"There's only one punter on each team, and it's a very small fraternity," Barker said. "Those of us who are lucky enough to play this sport for a few years get adopted into the fraternity. It's always fun to catch up with everybody on a weekly basis."

Given the vagaries of the profession, Landeta said he relished yet another chance.

"You have to enjoy it. It's a privilege, and it's so fleeting," Landeta said, seemingly unaware that few would consider a 22-year career fleeting. "On the one hand, that's true. On the other, it's gone by so fast. And you never know how long it will last."