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The battle of the punters might be the most compelling storyline of Super Bowl 53

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The history shared by Ryan Allen and Johnny Hekker makes for an intriguing storyline heading into the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Ryan Allen’s face is lighting up as he starts talking about his friend Johnny. We are sitting in a ballroom at Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency hotel but his stories take us elsewhere, to a time when he and Johnny were still teammates at Oregon State University. Johnny, of course, is Los Angeles Rams punter Johnny Hekker and on Sunday he and his former college teammate will meet on football’s biggest stage.

Ryan and Johnny both walked on at Oregon State in 2008 and despite competing for the same job developed a close friendship. “He was told that we had a competition for the punter position, and I was told the same,” Allen told USA Today’s Nate Davis about the two aiming for one role on the team. “There was never any spite or hate coming from either end. We were pretty close throughout our entire time there together.”

“I really don’t believe I was that much better of a punter than he was,” said Hekker about the battle of the punters. “There would be days that Ryan would wipe the floor with me in practice, and I would get ticked off. [...] That competitive atmosphere we had, we both really wanted to get better. It was a deal where we knew that, if I was going to get the job, Ryan was going to make sure he made it a difficult decision.”

After getting beat out for the job, Allen transferred to Louisiana Tech but he and Hekker remained friends and share an appreciation for each other and their development. While Hekker joined the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Allen was signed by the New England Patriots one year later after also going unselected in the draft. Both players earned jobs with their new teams and have not looked back since.

On Sunday, they will compete once again — this time with the Super Bowl on the line — and write the latest chapter in a story that goes back almost a decade.

“What I appreciate about Johnny and how he’s developed… I mean, him and I were there from the get-go — I know where he’s started,” Allen told Pats Pulpit in that very ballroom mentioned above. “I’ve always given Johnny the recognition just how overall well-rounded of an athlete he actually is. I’ve watched him play basketball, I’ve watched him play other sports, intramurals, and he’s very…”

Allen abruptly stopped in the middle of the sentence, and paused for a split second before yelling: “Cup stacking! I’ll never forget!”

And on to an anecdote about cup stacking his story went. “We were in a men’s group, bible study group, this was probably about 2008 and the guy who hosted our men’s group, he had a son and he was into cup stacking,” said Allen, excitedly telling a story that took place during the duo’s freshman year. “Well, Johnny had to figure out how to cup stack and of course he ended up getting it — and he was pretty good!”

“My whole point with that is, he’s very well rounded, he’s got coordination, he can read things, be ahead of the game sometimes,” continued Allen. “That’s just a good athlete, people like that just end up succeeding in the realm of sports. They’ve got it figured out in a lot of different areas. [...] That guy knows what works and he’s always determined to find something new and become even more efficient.”

So far in his career, Hekker has been plenty efficient for the Rams. In only his fourth regular season game with the team — back when it was still playing in St. Louis — he threw a touchdown pass (coincidentally to a future Patriot: Danny Amendola) on a fake field goal. One year later, he broke the NFL’s single-season record for net punting average (44.2 yards) a mark he improved to 46.0 yards in 2016. Hekker has been named to the Pro Bowl four times and either first or second team All-Pro in six of his seven years in the league.

Allen’s individual résumé in the NFL is less impressive. He doesn’t hold any major records, or made plenty of particularly noteworthy plays. But he achieved something Hekker is still missing: earning a Super Bowl ring. In fact, Allen has two of them after helping the Patriots win the 49th and the 51st edition of the AFC-NFC championship game. On Sunday, he can add one more to his already impressive collection.

However, success is no defining factor in the relationship between the two players — a friendship that goes beyond the gridiron and what can or cannot accomplished there. “I’ve got nothing but love for him. We laugh all the time... How cool is this to play against each other?” asked Allen more to himself than to the recorder lying in front of him.

“He’s a true competitor and a true athlete,” the Patriots’ punter continued about his friend Johnny before starting another anecdote to further strengthen his point. “I like playing basketball with him. We actually played in a three-on-three basketball tournament after my second year at Oregon State. It was a summer, they shut the street down and Johnny came down to my hometown [Salem, Oregon] and played with me.”

Allen started laughing, the sound of his voice getting more excited as he continued his story. “And we were in the open division! And we took the best team right down to the wire! They ended up beating us, but Johnny was out there dunking and they were telling him ‘you can’t dunk, that’s against the rules’ and Johnny’s out there dunking!” Allen paused again, this time a bit longer before taking on a more serious tone.

“Me and Johnny have good memories,” he finally said.

Despite their history and them playing the same position, Allen was quick to point out that he and Hekker are different types of punters. “We are all different, our mechanics are all very different. So watching Johnny, you’ll find similarities within guys but truly if you stack up all 32 active guys and you go and you film us three times apiece, watching we’re all going to look like a little different.”

“Our timing’s different, some guys like to skip-step into them and certain guys are known to hit higher balls, some guys like to go for corners… it’s interesting because now you’ve got a pretty diverse group as far as the technical norm is concerned,” continued Allen. “And it’s cool because it’s like golf in a way. In professional golfers, there are some common similarities but there’s a uniqueness to every person’s swing and stance and all that.”

One thing that does make Hekker unique when compared to his, is his ability to also make plays with his arm. Hekker attempted 20 passes over the course of his career and completed 12 of them for a combined 168 yards and the touchdown to Amendola mentioned before. “It seems to me they have a level of comfort with the way Johnny and that punt unit runs things out there,” said Allen about it. “You gotta prepare for him.”

So might we see something similar from the Patriots on Sunday, to up the ante and use Allen himself as a passer or ball carrier at one point?

“You never know, you never know. Element of surprise.”

It’s about time a punter wins Super Bowl MVP, right?

“Yeah, how cool would that be?!”

But even if neither of the two wins the trophy as the most valuable player of Sunday’s game, it will be a memorable day for the two of them. Two walk-on punters who once competed for the same college job and now find themselves under the brightest lights the sport has to offer.