By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The talk was supposed to be about Nick O’Toole’s punting, which was far too big a part of West Virginia’s season last year, considering that the offense just didn’t live up to advertisements, but it soon changed.
Standing there on the field in Charleston last Saturday, following the final open practice before today’s 1 p.m. Gold and Blue Spring Game at Milan Puskar Stadium, you couldn’t help but notice a pair of scars under his closely cropped hair that went from ear to ear and forehead to the back of his head.
While certainly it would be interesting to learn about how he went through his first season of big-time punting following junior college and how he might even find a way to improve upon a 44.3-yard average, it seemed there had to be a story to be told that was beyond the sidelines.
The scars, it turns out, are almost as old as O’Toole himself and are something he has come to live with, even enjoy.
“Chicks dig scars,” he says.
Yes, he’s an engaging young man, too, who is fun to spend time with.
So what happened?
“My soft spot closed at 2 months as an infant,” he said.
This is called craniosynostosis in the medical profession, which is described as “a condition where one or more of the sutures in a child’s skull fuses or closes too early.”
Sutures are said to be the fibrous joints located between the bones in a baby’s skull. Open sutures allow the skull to grow at the same rate as the brain. In the first few years of life, this growth is very rapid.
When a suture closes too early, the skull cannot grow normally. This can cause pressure on the growing brain. As the brain continues to grow, it pushes against or expands the areas of the skull that are not fused. This leads to a change in the shape of the head.
Had O’Toole not had the surgery?
“I would have had a really narrow face,” he says, laughing at the thought.
It might have also ended his football career. They don’t make helmets shaped to fit the head he might have had.
The problem was probably inherited.
“My dad had the same thing, just not as severe as I did,” he explained.
And the problem was discovered early so it could be attended to immediately.
“My mom is a neonatal nurse. She works with babies all the time and my dad is in law enforcement, so they both knew what was going on,” he said.
Today, of course, except for a permanent part in his hair, he is living as normal a life as you can live when you are a punter at a major university.
This is not really as easy as it seems ... just standing around waiting for the team to call on you to kick the ball. You might play one play, four plays or, if things aren’t going well, six or seven times.
And your job is an important one in controlling field position, which dictates strategy throughout a football game.
“It was a whole new experience, coming from a high school, then going to JUCO and then coming here. The whole atmosphere on the football field, off the football field, it was a total change,” he said.
O’Toole showed himself to be talented right from the start of his West Virginia career.
He debuted by averaging 50 yards on five punts in his first game then followed that up with a 45.3-yard average against Oklahoma with two punts more than 50 yards and three of them inside the 20.
Against Maryland, while everyone else on the team was staggering around not knowing what they were doing in a 37-0 beating, O’Toole saw it wasn’t worse by averaging 46.1 yards on eight punts.
But there were some tough games, too.
“There’s ups and downs in everybody’s season,” he said. “I feel I really came back. I had my best game in the last game, so I think I progressed throughout the year getting more focused and perfecting my craft.”
The problem is that during a year you get into some bad habits and a college football team doesn’t really have a punting specialist to coach you, so you are pretty much on your own.
“You have to know yourself, especially at this level,” O’Toole said. “You have to know what is a good kick, how’d that feel? And you have to know what is a bad kick and how did that feel? You have to be able to see and tell when you get in a bad habit. Watching film during the week helps enormously. You see what you’re doing wrong and try to work through it.
“Coming into Big 12 football, it was a lot of wide eyes. I didn’t know what to expect. I just went out and did my best,” he said.
“This year I can relax more and focus on my craft and try to be perfect at it.”
Chicks dig all-Big 12 punters, too.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.