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Punter has issues to kick about

Patriots punter Ken Walter has been scarce. It was true when he led the AFC in net yardage (38.1) two seasons ago, and it has been true this season, the most trying and challenging of his professional career.

He knows the deal: Punters should be seen and not heard, so he rarely conducts interviews. If he's doing his job, you shouldn't be thinking about him.

But you are. You have been dwelling on him, at times, because in your mind he's one part of this New England team that worries you.

You haven't been afraid to tell him about it, either. In case you are wondering, he's heard you -- loud and clear.

"It's been a learning experience," said Walter yesterday. "It's been humbling. I have this strong sense of never making any excuses. It's been one of those years where you have a solid kick here, and one that wasn't so good there, and suddenly you develop this bad rap.

"I don't think anyone is going to know my true feelings about this until it's all over. I've had a lot of things bottled up inside me."

Walter has made some bad kicks at bad times. He averaged 37.7 yards a punt (a net of 33.6), but he never has staked his reputation on distance. He has lasted seven years in the NFL because of his ability to pin the ball inside the 20-yard line. The average fans are bound to miss the nuances of Walter's job (he's also the team's holder), and when they look to him for results, they want to know how far he boomed the ball.

Walter's struggles (he was actually waived after the Week 13 victory over Indianapolis, then re-signed 10 days later) left frustrated fans lying in wait, waiting to pounce on the next unsatisfactory performance.

"Some of the things that were said before I was released . . . it got to the point where I'd look at the schedule and say, `Good, we're away,' " Walter said. "I'm not a negative person by nature. I'm very passionate about my job, and I take a lot of pride in it.

"I've been around a long time, and I've seen a lot of things. To have this kind of roller coaster season, it affects you. If you have an ounce of competitive blood in you, it's going to affect you."

Walter said he has resisted responding to the barbs that have been levied at him in Gillette Stadium.

"You do that, and you're playing into their hands," he said. "You just wonder if they stop and think, `Is this really a home-field advantage when we're trying to take our own guy out?' Do they want me to do bad? You want to think, `Can I get a little support here?' "

He knows it doesn't work that way around here. When Antoine Walker missed 3-pointers and did the wiggle, he was booed. When Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long, he was banished. New England's fans are learned, passionate, and very often unforgiving.

"Of course you think of that," Walter said. "You think of Bill Buckner, and all that other stuff. I don't think it's fair, how he was treated.

"I remember thinking after [holding on the winning field goal] at the Super Bowl, `What if the ball went through my hands?' It went through my mind briefly. I remember thinking, `Oh, that would be awful. There would be a new curse, and my name would be associated with it.'

"But if you get caught up in all that, you clutter your mind with unwanted things."

Walter knew he was a weekly topic at coach Bill Belichick's press conferences. His coach resolutely stood by him for much of the year, and some speculated it was because Walter served as a ballboy for Belichick with the Browns in Cleveland.

"Really," chuckled Walter. "I barely talked to Bill. I learned pretty quickly to stay out of his way. If he called me to do something, I did it. It was almost like military training. You learned to keep your mouth shut, and don't complain.

"The funny thing is, when the Patriots signed me as a free agent, Bill said, `You and I have been through a lot together.' I was surprised at that."

Belichick stuck by Walter until Nov. 30, a horrendous day in Indianapolis when Walter averaged 27.3 yards on three punts and put the team's chances of winning in jeopardy. New England pulled out the victory, but Walter was waived two days later.

"They told me, `You never know. We can have you back next week,' " Walter said. "I didn't say much. You have to be professional. Hey, I wish that punt in Indy didn't bounce 17 yards backwards either."

He tuned into the Patriots game the next weekend. They were playing Miami and had a new punter, Brooks Barnard. Walter tried to sit on the couch. He ended up on the coffee table.

"I got up frequently," he said. "It was hard. When I first got released, I said, `I'm just going to retire.' I had a lot of self-doubt. But then I got upset, and that put more gas in the tank.' "

Belichick summoned Walter back for the Dec. 14 game against Jacksonville. Walter placed nine of his final 13 punts of the season inside the 20. He nailed a 46-yarder against Buffalo that left the Bills at their 2. He felt his confidence returning. In a win at New York Dec. 20, he put five of his six punts inside the Jets' 20. But because his average that day was 31.6 yards, the catcalls continued. The lingering negativity, he said, comes with the territory.

Last Saturday night against Tennessee, the crosswinds and bitter cold temperatures sucked the life out of the football.

"It was brutal out there," Walter said. "In the old stadium, you knew the wind would be in your face one half, and behind you the second half. In this stadium, it swirls all around. I still don't have a feel for the place.

"I was going into the wind the whole time. Then, when I finally had the wind at my back, we had the ball at the [Tennessee] 39-yard line. So now it becomes, `Don't kick it into the end zone. Try to pin it down there, but don't get too cute.' "

Walter lofted it high and short to the 7-yard line, making the most critical punt of the day his best one.

"Punting is such a skill position," Walter explained. "You can almost compare it to being a hitter in baseball. Why doesn't Manny Ramirez hit a home run every time he comes to bat? If you watch a guy punt six times, he's not going to punt all six perfectly.

"It's just a position that is not very glorified. The only time you get noticed is when it doesn't go the right way."

Walter pities Colts punter Hunter Smith, whose home games are played inside the cozy confines of a dome. Four days from now, Smith will be trying to perform at Gillette Stadium.

"You don't know how many punters come up to me after a game and say, `You can have this place,' " Walter said.

Thank you, he will. Despite the swirling winds, the fickle fans, and the frigid football, the Patriots are about to host the Indianapolis Colts to decide who gets a trip to the Super Bowl. There's no place Ken Walter would rather be.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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