The BYU Punterhood

Just as Matt Payne’s foot was starting to get cold, his head coach’s voice distracted him, yelling at him to run out for kickoff. Payne, just a freshman, quickly ran onto the field but slipped a little. Questioning looks from his teammates were met with a puzzled referee holding the ball. They must have never seen a kicker kick without a shoe on. The confused referee asked him, “What are you doing Matt? You need to go put a shoe back on.”

The reason Payne was shoeless? He grew up watching his kicking hero, Lee Johnson, boot the ball shoeless when he played at BYU in the 1980s.

“So apparently,” Payne recalled, “it wasn’t kosher to kick barefoot.”

For former BYU punter/placekicker Matt Payne, he wanted what everyone wanted –  to be like the athletes on TV. He didn’t realize at the time that his first attempt at imitation would eventually create a connection with other former and current BYU kickers and punters.

“That’s the cool thing about the specialist,” former BYU punter Jonny Linehan on this unique connection to other punters, “It’s like a fraternity and a family in and of itself.”

This fraternity of BYU punters transcends the boundaries of accomplishments on the field, creating a tight-knit community bound by not only a love for the game but also being part of a position that is very niche in the sport.

Since the 1970s, BYU has established a tradition of being “Quarterback U,” with a litany of All-American gunslingers like Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco. Each was different in their own way, but they created a fraternity and they broke each other’s records and built on each other’s success. After Ty Detmer won the Heisman Trophy in 1990, he credited all the QBs that came before him for making it possible.

While the punter position is much different and much more obscure than the quarterback position, the Cougars have produced a variety of unique, prodigious punters who have made their mark on the football program. And they also share a unique bond. 

Let’s call it “The Punterhood.”

Johnson, a punter in the 80’s, could punt the ball 80 yards and did it all barefoot. He also has the record for the longest career in the NFL with 18 years of play.

From Lee, we get Payne, an athlete who not only punted but also kicked field goals. He has records for long-distance field goals and punts that still stand to this day. Oh, and he also has two of the biggest hits in BYU history.

After Matt came Jonny Linehan, a New Zealander set on playing rugby, but after winning a national championship for BYU decided to walk on as a DB before eventually switching to being a punter.

And finally, from Jonny, there is Ryan Rehkow, the traditional punter who has a cannon of a leg and is the most recent addition to the punterhood.

Each of these punters was not just specialists on the field; they were interconnected by destiny in ways that would weave a tale of camaraderie and unconventional bonds. None of these athletes grew up wanting to be a punter, because no one dreams to be a punter. But each of them had a unique way in which punting found them.

Here comes the Thunder… Foot

The saga begins with Johnson, also known as Thunder Foot. “Someone nicknamed me Thunder Foot,” recalled Johnson in an interview with BYU Radio. “I think it was after one of my big games, I hit a bomb or something against Baylor, an 80-yarder.” 

Johnson would earn that nickname for setting a BYU record for the longest in program history, a feat that stood until 2014. But growing up, there was a different sport that Lee preferred to use his big leg for.

“I loved playing soccer,” he said. “I started playing soccer as a kid and we played every single day, all day.”

It wasn’t until his parents decided it was time to move to The Woodlands, Texas, a city just north of Houston, that would hold the key to Lee’s future in playing sports.

“It’s amazing how my entire career started because of this awful move to The Woodlands, Texas, just north of Houston as a sophomore in high school.”

As Johnson continued through high school, he stuck with what he had always known, “I get there and I look for a soccer team to play for.” But in that search, he is challenged to not only look for a new team but also a new sport. “A buddy that I had met was a football player. This guy said, ‘Man, you got to come out and kick the ball’ because he had seen me kick around.”

“So I went out to practice one day. I go to midfield, the whole team is around me, the coaches and everything, and I kick a 60-yard field goal.”

That first little taste of football glory was all he needed. “I knew I had the strong leg, but I didn’t realize I could pop it at 60 yards through the uprights. So the next day I get talked into playing football.” From there, Johnson quit soccer to put all of his efforts into walking on to the BYU football team. He eventually walked on but his road to actually starting seemed like a long one at first. “I was one of 12 kickers that was on the roster at that time,“ he said.

Lee Johnson. Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo Copyright BYU Photo 2015 All Rights Reserved.

A change in environment was all that Johnson needed to help separate himself from the rest. “I didn’t realize, you know, I’m in Texas, I’m at sea level. And then you come up here to kick in the summertime in August, 105 degrees, and I’m just banging massive balls. So I come in and I quickly get to catch the eyes of the coaches.”

Johnson became a stalwart of the BYU special teams. He would be known for his powerful leg, pinpoint accuracy, and unique styling of kicking… barefoot. Even Johnson himself would call the shoeless approach odd.  “I was weirded out by it, but I was hitting bombs.” 

Johnson was a trendsetter in the art of punting. He could flip the field with a single kick, and his influence lingered over the hallowed grounds of LaVell Edwards Stadium long after his graduation. Johnson set the standard for excellence, becoming an NFL journeyman who punted for several teams over a remarkable 18-year professional career.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and another punting prodigy entered the stage. 

Bringing the Payne

Payne grew up seeking fame and glory by playing a different football position. “My biggest dream was probably to play quarterback at BYU,” he said. “I remember watching the game Saturday afternoons on KSL and just loved watching the quarterbacks.”

But due to a lack of people willing to play wide receiver for Payne, he had to adjust his training. 

“I didn’t have anybody that I would go out to at halftime and throw with, and so I’d kick a football.” By using only what was available in his backyard he had to get creative with his goalposts. “I would end up kicking between our apricot tree and our pear tree, and that would be my field goal.” Then he would use a different kicking technique to return the footballs. “Then on the way back, I’d punt it back to where my original spot was.”

Matt Payne. Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo Copyright BYU Photo 2015 All Rights Reserved.

Payne’s creativity honed in the skills necessary to eventually kick for the team he grew up watching. With a blend of power and finesse, Payne continued the tradition set by Johnson but added his own flair. Payne was not just a punter, but he also was in charge of kicking field goals and kick-offs. Teams feared him for his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory, but what they feared the most was something unique to Payne himself. It began on what was a normal Friday night football game vs Boise State and Payne’s performance was a big hit.

“It was a Friday night game. A lot of people in the country were watching,” he said. “And I had two of the biggest hits as a kicker.”

That’s right. Not only was Payne a prolific punter and kicker, but he also served as an additional tackler for special teams. In a position that normally never performs tackling unless necessary, Payne broke the mold. These multifaceted efforts showcased his versatility and etched his name in the annals of BYU football history. “I finished first team all-American as a punter, I have NCAA records as a place kicker, but most people remember me for my hitting.”

Football BYU at UNLV September 29, 2001won 35-31Photography by Mark A. Philbrick

These performances by Payne would not only increase his popularity among local fans, but his reputation was even growing on a global scale. 

“I knew about his kicks and his hits for sure,” Linehan said. “He’s on a different realm and his hits are glorious. They’re so fun to watch to this day.”

As fate would have it, the punterhood took an unexpected turn when Linehan arrived on the BYU scene. 

From Jonny Rugby to Jonny Football

Linehan’s journey was unlike any before him— a foreigner who came to BYU to play rugby with a different sports goal in mind. “Growing up in New Zealand, it’s rugby. I wanted to be a professional rugby player and play for the All Blacks.” But after making the last second game-winning kick to claim the rugby national championship, Linehan would have a natural crossing of paths with the football team. “We had the same strength and conditioning staff as the football team and we would lift almost around the same time as football would go out to practice.”

Due to some lack of depth at cornerback, the football coaches started looking at Linehan to fill in the depth chart. “I remember my first year Coach (Justin) McClure, who was the strength coach at the time, came in and was like, ‘Hey, we need some rugby guys to walk onto the team as a corner.’”

With a false sense of confidence, and “being the ignorant kiwi that I am,” Linehan walked on as a cornerback, a feat that didn’t last that long. “So I initially walked on as a corner, which was weird. I did that for two weeks. After two weeks, I remember being like, ‘This isn’t going to work out.’”

But as Linehan said himself, “A lot of my success is just like I was in the right place at the right time.” And Linehan was already in the right place and would soon be there at the right time. With having kicked his way to win a national championship in rugby, Linehan couldn’t help but try his hand at kicking footballs.

“Before practices, I’d go punt with the specialists so the coaches knew I could punt. So (special teams coach Kelly) Poppinga hit me up and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you walk on as a punter?’ And I said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ And ended up walking on and the rest is history. So initially was a DB. Glad I didn’t stick with that. Not athletic enough. Punting was a perfect fit.”

A former rugby player with an unorthodox punting style, he brought a touch of Kiwi flair to the Provo gridiron. Linehan’s ability to execute rugby-style kicks with precision and the occasional fake punt turned him into a fan favorite. 

The connection between these three punters extended beyond the football field. Johnson, the seasoned veteran, became a mentor to Payne during his time at BYU. Payne, in turn, embraced his role as an elder statesman when Linehan joined the squad. The trio formed an unlikely brotherhood, bonding over the shared experiences of punting for the same storied program.

Jonny Linehan. Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo Copyright BYU Photo 2015 All Rights Reserved.

The lineage of the punterhood would continue to unfold with the arrival of a new protagonist on the scene—Ryan Rehkow. Hailing from Spokane, Washington, Rehkow stepped onto the BYU campus with big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of the legendary trio, Johnson, Payne, and Linehan.

A Cannon of a Leg

Rehkow’s journey at BYU began very similarly to his predecessors. “Growing up my dad was a high school basketball coach, so basketball was huge in our family. So I obviously wanted to be an NBA player or something of the like and then played soccer as well. So guys like Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, I wanted to be a goal scorer like those guys.”

It wasn’t until a family member started to make the transition to punting that Rehkow looked into the position.

“My older brother Austin was on the soccer team,” he said. “The coaches needed a kicker and so they were like, ‘this kid’s got a big leg, why don’t we give him a chance?’ So that kind of got him introduced to it.”

Just like in any family, the younger brother wants to be like their older brother, except in the Rehkow family competition rules over admiration. “Being the younger brother, okay he can do it. I’m going to be better. I want to try and push him. So following the older brother’s footsteps and it kind of took off from that.”

21FTB vs Arizona State 2021 BYU Football BYU – 27 ASU – 17 September 18, 2021 Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU © BYU PHOTO 2021 All Rights Reserved

As a freshman, Rehkow displayed a rare combination of power and precision. His leg strength was evident, consistently launching booming punts that soared through the crisp Provo air.

For most fans, Rehkow didn’t come into being a household name until a cool fall night vs Arizona State in 2021. With BYU backed up on its own 17-yard line, it seemed like Arizona State might be set up with good field position following the punt. That is when Rehkow showed BYU fans the importance of the punter position. With a resounding boom from the kick, Rehkow’s punt sailed through the chilly night air and rolled into the opposing end zone for a new school-record 83-yard kick. “I feel like that’s one of the greatest compliments that you can have as a specialist because for the most part, you’re kind of just behind the scenes,” he said

That kick earned him the respect of teammates, coaches, and fans alike.

In the shadow of the legends who came before him, Rehkow embraced the challenge, drawing inspiration from the storied history of BYU punters. The mentorship legacy continued, with Payne, a respected figure in the Cougar football community, taking Rehkow under his wing. 

“I’ve gotten to know Matt a lot more this year and he did kicking and putting out a high level and just to get his insights of the game and hear from him has been really, really cool,” Rehkow said.

These punters have built a proud tradition spanning four decades, with each chapter seamlessly blending into the next, from Lee Johnson’s barefoot kicks; to Matt Payne’s unconventional tackles; to Jonny Linehan’s Kiwi flair; and Ryan Rehkow’s record-breaking punts. They formed a tightly wound thread that connects the past to the present of BYU football. The Punterhood’s journey epitomizes the essence of camaraderie, passion, and an unspoken commitment to a position often overlooked.

Maybe somewhere out there a young athlete will trot onto the field with one shoe on, one shoe off, inspired by the punters who came before and forge his path — one day etching his name among the next generation of BYU’s Punterhood. 

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