The sky above was nearly empty of clouds but filled with footballs.
They spun, spiraled or wobbled overhead before landing with a soft THUMP on the turf, only to be picked up and sent skyward again.
At midfield, a crowd had gathered to watch as several dozen kickers were cut down to eight. Then six. Then three.
And near one end zone, a cluster of players hollered each time a long snap lit up the radar gun.
By then, the sun had mercifully sunk below the grandstand at Perkins Stadium on the campus of UW-Whitewater. Long shadows covered the field, providing relief from Friday’s cruel heat and humidity.
Welcome to Whitewater—for three days, the home of Kohl’s football camp and the kicking capital of the world.
“This is our home. It’s where we started,” Jamie Kohl said.
When Kohl held his first camp in Whitewater in 1999, only a handful of players attended. Invitations had to be sent through the mail.
There were around 150 players on the field during Friday’s evening session. Over the course of the three-day camp, which began Wednesday, nearly 800 players worked out.
“It started very, very slow, very, very gradually,” said Kohl, the camp’s founder and director. “It started organically and now it’s an awesome thing.”
Some might find it strange that Whitewater, of all places, becomes the center of the kicking universe for a few days each summer. It wasn’t always that way.
But the camp’s results spoke for themselves.
And now it would be difficult to find an NFL or college specialist that hasn’t been shaped by Kohl’s.
“You can’t really turn on the TV anymore without seeing a kicker, punter or snapper that’s been here at Whitewater,” said Kohl, a Waukesha native. “In the last 10 years, about 83% of NFL draft (specialist) picks have come through our system.”
Kohl’s hosts camps throughout the country—mostly for high school specialists. But the Whitewater camp is the “only major” one tailored toward college players, Kohl said. He estimated 130 of the athletes working out Friday represented Division I schools.
Given the camp’s place on the calendar in late July, many pro and college players see their trip to Whitewater as their final chance to make adjustments or get their competitive juices flowing again before they report to training camp or fall practice.
“We do it purposely to prepare them for their seasons,” Kohl said. “That’s really one of the main reasons these guys come is to see where they stack up amongst each other.”
Here are the stories of four players who were at Friday’s camp:
Braden Mann has an NFL-ready leg. In all likelihood, he’ll be selected in next year’s draft.
But even after producing a junior season that ranks among the best ever by a college punter, the Texas A&M star continues to push himself. The time he has spent in Whitewater the past four years, he said, has helped transform his game.
“You’re never going to go anywhere that has this many college starters or potential draft picks,” Mann said. “Every time I’ve come out here, I’ve come back to fall camp right after this so much better.”
He won the Ray Guy Award in 2018 as college football’s best punter, averaged 51 yards per attempt and set an NCAA record with 14 punts of 60 yards or longer.
His best was an 82-yard monster against Kentucky last October.
And yet ...
“I see guys here that are hitting huge footballs and I’m like, ‘I’m going home and making a goals list for the season,’” Mann, 21, said. “Here, you get to tune very little things. You sit in a classroom with 12 guys that all saw your film.”
Mann, clad in a maroon shirt and gray shorts, didn’t seem affected by the heat that blanketed the area.
“This is like a vacation,” Mann said with a laugh, noting it was even warmer in College Station, Texas, at the time.
The free agent
Cole Tracy is still waiting for his NFL breakthrough.
You might remember him as the kicker who went from playing in front of fewer than 1,000 people at Assumption College to drilling a 42-yard field goal as time expired to beat Auburn last September, prompting LSU fans to flood the tiny DII school with donations.
He was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award—the honor given to college football’s best kicker—and set seven program records during his lone season in Baton Rouge.
But Tracy was not one of two kickers to be selected in April’s NFL draft. He earned minicamp invites from the Packers and Saints but was not offered a contract.
Kicking at Whitewater offered Tracy another chance to keep his name on the radar of NFL teams looking for another specialist.
“You never know when your number is going to get called,” Tracy said. “I’m not with a team right now, so I’m trying to still keep that competitive feel going.”
Tracy has kept himself in good shape. He was one of three kickers to connect on a 63-yard field goal Friday, joining Texas sophomore Cameron Dicker and Central Michigan senior Ryan Tice as co-winners in the camp’s final kicking contest.
The second-year snapper
Hunter Bradley is in the early stages of his professional career.
The Packers took the Mississippi State product in the seventh round of the 2018 draft and made him their starting long snapper—the heir to longtime snapper Brett Goode.
Bradley, 25, who spent Friday coaching the camp’s snappers, will report to Packers training camp Thursday in De Pere.
“Everybody’s just trying to fine-tune their craft,” he said. “It’s cool to get with the other pros and talk about the things you do. You try to incorporate everything you learn from everybody.”
Bradley said nearly every NFL team was represented in Whitewater this week. Most of the pros were in town Wednesday for a private workout. Some helped coach the camp Thursday and Friday.
“You can talk to any specialist, they’re going to know where Whitewater is because of this camp,” Bradley said.
“I don’t think anybody’s probably ever heard of Whitewater other than the people here in Wisconsin, or avid DIII football fans or Kohl’s kickers, punter, snappers.”
The former pro
Tim Masthay’s NFL shot has already come and gone.
He didn’t miss a game over six seasons playing for the Green Bay Packers and won a Super Bowl in 2011. He ranks second in Packers history in punting yards (17,230).
Masthay, 32, last played in the NFL in 2015. These days, he spends his time coaching college soccer and football in his native Kentucky.
But he returns to Whitewater each summer. Masthay said he met Jamie Kohl ahead of his senior season at the University of Kentucky and has traveled to Whitewater almost every year since.
“I think in 11 years I’ve only missed being here once,” Masthay said while overseeing punting drills Friday.
The trip to Whitewater was easier when he was with the Packers.
“I would just drive a few hours down the road from Green Bay,” Masthay said. “For the pro guys and for the college guys, they are getting ready to go to training camp. After this, they’ll have whatever it is, a week or two weeks before they’re reporting.”