Punter Dave Zastudil launches a kick Thursday night against the Rams.
Dave Zastudil's right knee was finally feeling better during the summer of 2011.
It had been 21 months since he last punted in an NFL game, a 49-yarder against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 1, 2009 that Devin Hester returned for 69 yards. Zastudil spent those months recovering from a knee surgery that shut him down midway through the 2009 season through the balance of 2010.
Years of planting his right leg before kicks had caused tendonitis, which resulted in dead tendons. They wouldn't rebuild or regenerate on their own and by the bye week in 2009, with eight games left in the season, Zastudil couldn't bear the pain anymore and opted for surgery. Doctors had to rupture his patella tendon during surgery in order to reattach it.
"The only thing that made it OK was that I knew I couldn't play. Physically I couldn't do it," said Zastudil, who faced a long recovery period. "It was hard. You miss the locker room, you miss the guys, you miss the lights, the atmosphere and the game. I missed that.
"But I knew that if I got healthy and I worked I could come back and be effective for a team again."
The Houston Texans wanted to try out Zastudil, and flew him to Texas last summer. The workout was going well, Zastudil said, until he tweaked his oblique muscle. Zastudil left Texas and headed home to Ohio without a job.
For the first time in his career, he thought he may never play football again.
"I thought maybe that was it," Zastudil said. "I felt maybe I just wait until someone gets hurt and get a tryout or something. That was probably the lowest part of my career."
Then the Cardinals called.
As the special teams coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kevin Spencer watched AFC North rival Baltimore draft the punter out of Ohio University in the fourth round in 2002. But Spencer wasn't a Zastudil fan just because he was among the top five punters in college or because he was an All-American.
What stood out most to Spencer was that Zastudil was one of Ohio's captains.
"I mean how many times is your punter the captain?" said Spencer, now the Cardinals' special teams coach. "That speaks volumes about who Dave Zastudil is."
Zastudil had punted again Spencer-coached teams 49 times since 2002, averaging 40.8 yards per punt.
"I was always impressed with Dave," Spencer said. "I was impressed with him when he was at Baltimore, I was impressed him obviously when he was at Cleveland, and you think sometimes you might be able to find a nugget."
Zastudil is in his 11th year in the NFL and he's seen enough that not much excites him anymore. But when Spencer called him during training camp in 2011, Zastudil said it surprised him "a little bit."
He dropped everything and jumped at Spencer's offer to join the Cardinals late in training camp. Life was breathing back into his then-33-year-old legs but he came with questions. The job wasn't handed to Zastudil. He had to earn it. His first opponent was the Cardinals' incumbent punter, Ben Graham.
"I knew I couldn't blow this shot because of my past injuries," Zastudil said. "And teams eventually don't like to take chances on guys who've had a past. I knew deep down if I got healthy I could be effective for a team."
Zastudil won the starting job and punted a career-high 87 times last season, averaging 45.2 yards. His 3,929 yards were also a career high by almost 300. His season average and season long of 66 yards were both the second best of his career.
Zastudil answered his questions but he still wasn't where he wanted to be.
With a full offseason ahead of him, Zastudil dedicated himself to training his body and his mind. Listening to former Mike Tyson trainer Teddy Atlas, Zastudil heard something that stuck with him.
"He says, 'When you get to a point in your career, you're either surviving or you're winning,'" Zastudil said. "And I think for a little bit of time, maybe I was surviving. I was surviving with the injuries, just trying to get back. This offseason, I made a goal to myself that I needed to start winning again."
He let go of any doubts that filled his head, whether about his health or ability. He stopped paying attention to numbers and stats, except for one: field position. And he made a few tweaks to his technique with the help of former NFL punter Chris Gardocki, who spent time at training camp in Flagstaff and still advises Zastudil.
Zastudil ranks seventh in the NFL in net punting average at 42.4 yards per punt and is first in total punts (33), total yards (1,556) and punts downed inside the 20 (12).
"He might be our most valuable player right now," Spencer said. "And that's with the likes of Patrick Peterson on your team."
Zastudil doesn't throw the ball or catch it. He doesn't cover receivers or rush the quarterback. He doesn't score.
But Zastudil may be the most important player on the Cardinals' roster. He punted seven times Thursday night against the St. Louis Rams, and all but one pinned the Rams on their side of the field. The one that didn't was returned to the 50. Of those six, three punts forced the Rams to start from their own 8, 4 and 11-yard-line, respectively.
"It helps a lot as a defense," safety Rashad Johnson said. "You put the guys on a long field, backed up, it's an opportunity. He changes the whole field position for our team when he gets it inside the 10-yard-line."
Zastudil saw what life after football could've been like. He felt the emptiness of not driving to the stadium on Sundays. He felt the adrenaline tug at him. He tasted the football afterlife and didn't like it.
"I think it makes you appreciate the game more," he said. "Being out for a year, year and a half, you realize what you've missed.
"Everybody's going to eventually have to walk away from the game. I wasn't ready. I was ready to come back and still play. Fortunately, Arizona gave me the opportunity."
Zastudil has always been preparing for life after football. In 2006 and 2007, Zastudil took classes at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern, respectively, through NFL programs. He interned in a fixed income department while playing in Cleveland. He's seen teammates lose money on bad investments and he wants to be prepared. Zastudil majored in finance at Ohio and is leaning toward a career in it after he retires.
"I'm going to play until they kick me out or my body doesn't let me," he said. "I love the game. I love what I do. I wouldn't change it for the world. Someday you got to know it's going to end. For me hopefully it's not anytime soon."