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Whitley: Keep your eyes on Kansas City Chiefs' rookie punter Tommy Townsend, a former Florida Gator

David Whitley
Gainesville Sun
Kansas City Chiefs rookie punter Tommy Townsend is representing the Florida Gators in Super Bowl 55.

Brady vs. Mahomes Day, also known as the Super Bowl, is finally upon us. Everybody's been discussing the quarterback showdown, but do you know which Super Bowl player has the highest passer rating?

It's not Tom Brady. It's not Patrick Mahomes.

It's former Florida punter Tommy Townsend.

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His rating is a sterling 118.8, more than 10 points higher than his teammate Mahomes. Townsend is 1-for-1 for 13 yards this season.

Sure, that's 4,727 yards fewer than Mahomes piled up. But did the reigning Super Bowl MVP set an unofficial record for hang time this year? Did he become part of a historic NFL brother act?

Then there's hair.

Mahomes' floppy Mohawk is all the rage, but Townsend's flowing locks answer the eternal question — What would it look like if Jesus were a punter?

To sum it up, Tommy Townsend is one of Super Bowl LV's more intriguing characters. It's too bad that's been lost on almost everybody outside the Orlando-Gainesville corridor. Part of the explanation is COVID-19.

Had this been a typical Super Bowl week, approximately 293,821 intrepid media members would have descended on Tampa and every player would have been available for interviews.

A few reporters would have eventually tired of writing about Brady's dog collection (he has four, though none are as loyal or playful as Rob Gronkowski). They would have wandered over to Townsend and uncovered the sleeper story of the week.

This hasn't been a typical Super Bowl. Kansas City didn't even arrive in Tampa until Friday. Players and coaches did Zoom interviews during the week, but the rookie punter was not on the list.

Then there's the inherent anonymity of Townsend's position. Half the NFL's punters are probably ex-mafia snitches who've been placed in the federal witness protection program.

It's a great place to get overlooked. Just quietly go about your business and nobody will notice you.

"They always preach, 'If they cut to a commercial you did your job,'" Johnny Townsend said.

That's Johnny, not Tommy. But he's imminently qualified to speak for his quarantined sibling.

After a record-setting career at Florida, Johnny was drafted by Oakland in the 2018 draft. He punted one season for the Raiders and has since bounced around the league.

The Ravens signed him just before the playoffs. Before that, he was on the Chiefs' practice squad.

That elevated the Townsends into NFL trivia lore. There have been a few brothers on the same team, but probably never two brothers playing the same position.

"It was an unreal situation," Johnny said.

It was sort of a role reversal. After playing his freshman year at Tennessee, Tommy transferred to Florida and sat out a transfer year watching his older brother punt.

The only reason he didn't sign with Florida originally was because Johnny had three years of eligibility remaining. Gator roots run deep in the Townsend family.

Parents Clay and Susan met while they were students in Gainesville. There's the requisite photo of Tommy, Johnny and older brother Clay Jr. posing with Tim Tebow at the 2008 Capital One Bowl.

"We bleed orange and blue," Clay Sr. said.

Too bad for Dan Mullen that Sue Townsend stopped having children after Tommy. The three brothers were Eagle Scouts, though Tommy was the most likely to get a merit badge in mischievousness.

Call him a free spirit. Call him rambunctious. Whatever the adjective, SEC officials called him for two personal fouls in a game against Missouri in 2018.

Townsend's attitude is far more Ray Lewis than Ray Guy.

"He's a position player stuck in a punter's body," Johnny said.

His athletic ability is one reason the Chiefs signed him as a free agent. Incumbent punter Dustin Colquitt had the job for 15 years. He was a KC icon, but Townsend was cheaper and bursting with potential.

He showed it in the fourth game, when he had two 65-yard punts against New England. He boomed one against the Raiders that stayed airborne 5.71 seconds. The NFL doesn't keep records on longest hang time, but punting geeks who track such things think that might have been the all-timer.

Townsend pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line 20 times and was AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in late December.

Not bad for a rookie free agent replacing a local legend. But Townsend's most memorable play came against the Jets when he faked a punt and zipped a 13-yard pass to wide receiver Byron Pringle for a first down.

"Did Mahomes just put on Townsend's jersey, because that thing was a rocket!" the Chiefs radio announcer bellowed.

It was Townsend's first complete pass since his freshman season at Orlando Boone High School. Could we see his second in the Super Bowl?

That's top-secret stuff. About the only inside scoop we got this week was the report that a barber tested positive for COVID-19 at the Chiefs facility.

There were 20 players waiting for a haircut at the time. It's safe to say Townsend wasn't one of them.

He decided to let his hair grow long in college and it's become a trademark.

"We've always been super clean-cut guys," Johnny said. "He just felt it would be something fun to do."

All of which should interest gamblers. About 25 million Americans are expected to bet $4.3 billion on the Super Bowl.

There are scores of prop bets, like what color the Gatorade will be and how long the national anthem will last. The odds of Townsend being named MVP are 500-1.

That'll never pay off, but Johnny Townsend is one of the few outside humans who's been able to talk to his brother this week.

"He's fired up," Johnny said.

So be prepared.

Tommy Townsend might not be named MVP, but it's a good bet this is one Super Bowl where the punter will not be overlooked.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com.

Whitley