It takes a special kind of person to embrace the role of an NFL punt returner. Not only does that player have to catch a ball torpedoing straight down from more than 50 feet in the air, he has to do it with opposing players sprinting at full speed to slam him.
That’s something Vikings receiver Dede Westbrook has become comfortable with during his time in the NFL. He specializes in that role and takes pride in the fact that the Vikings trust him to be the starting punt returner in Sunday’s season opener against the Bengals in Cincinnati.
“Just being back deep, I’m like the quarterback at that time,” Westbrook said. “All eyes on you when the ball is in your hand, and it’s up to you what you’re going to do with it.”
Asked where his fearlessness comes from in that role, Westbrook paused for a second before unleashing a money quote.
“Just being a bad kid,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the only way I could look at it. Just being a bad kid.”
Asked for clarification, Westbrook said some of the things he used to do for fun as a youth forced him to become fearless. He noted how he used to have “rock wars” as an 8-year-old growing up in the small down of Cameron, Texas.
“Just throwing rocks at each other,” Westbrook said. “That helped me a lot.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You know those little chinaberry trees? You throw (the chinaberries) at each other. All of that. I’m from the country. I’m from a (town) of 5,000 people, so we’ve got to make our own fun, you know what I mean?”
As hilarious as it sounds in present day, it seems to have worked as Westbrook in unafraid to stand in as the punt returner. That skill is a big reason the Vikings signed him before this season as coach Mike Zimmer has placed an increased emphasis on special teams.
In addition to his role as the punt returner, Westbrook likely will work his way into the rotation at the No. 3 receiver. He currently is behind K.J. Osborn and Ihmir Smith-Marsette on the depth chart after not playing a snap in the preseason.
Not that he’s too concerned about his place on the team right now.
“Just excited to be out there and play ball again,” Westbrook said. “I’m running full speed now.”
It’s been a slow build for Westbrook after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Though he never had a doubt that he would be ready for Week 1 of this season, Westbrook admitted that doubt started to creep in last season.
That’s a big reason he was so excited to return to the practice field last month.
“My first day of practice, I caught a pass and literally went crazy on the sideline, just from catching a pass,” Westbrook said. “And (Justin Jefferson) was like, ‘What the hell? What are you going crazy for?’ I’m like, ‘I ain’t caught a pass in over a year! This is surreal!’ ”
Even more surreal will be being back on the field for good for Sunday’s opener. There likely will be pregame jitters, and Westbrook knows that.
“I feel good,” he said. “It’s football at the end of the day, you know what I’m saying? You go out there, see the ball and catch the ball.”