Ray Guy, the best athlete these eyes have ever witnessed, died Thursday morning in Hattiesburg following a long illness. He was 72.

Many times over the years, readers have asked: Who’s the best pure athlete you ever covered?

Ray Guy, I always answer. When it comes to all-around athleticism, Guy was the best. 

A punter, some will invariably ask with incredulous looks?

Rick Cleveland

Yes, Ray Guy was the greatest punter who ever lived and the standard by which all punters are forever judged. But Ray Guy was so much more than a punter. There was nothing with a ball — any ball — Guy could not do. I have so much to say about Ray Guy, the problem is this: Where to begin?

Let’s start with the first time I ever heard of him. This was 1969, and Hamp Cook was the offensive line coach at Southern Miss. He and Doug Barfield, who would later be the head coach at Auburn, had recruited Guy out of Thomson, Ga., near Augusta, steering him away from the likes of Bear Bryant at Alabama, Vince Dooley at Georgia and Major League Baseball. Guy was broad-shouldered, slender-hipped, long and limber. Yet he possessed the agility of a gymnast.

“You won’t believe this kid,” Hamp Cook told my father and me. “The stadiums aren’t big enough. He kicks the ball out of sight.”

The Southern Miss pitch to Guy was this: If you go to Alabama or Georgia, you’ll just be the kicking specialist. If you come here, you can do it all. And he did. P.W. Underwood, the head coach, took one look at Guy and then told his coaches, “The first one of you who tries to coach him about punting or kicking is fired.”

Ray Guy boomed his NFL punts for the Oakland Raiders.

You should know that besides being USM’s first consensus Division I All-American as a punter, Guy also shares the school’s pass interception record. He was the team’s emergency quarterback and could throw the ball 80 yards, seemingly with no great effort. Once, when USM was playing Memphis, a Tiger wide receiver ran a pass pattern over the middle. Guy lowered his shoulder and hit the poor fellow just as the ball arrived, breaking up the pass and knocking the receiver out cold. It took several seconds to revive the poor Memphis receiver and then a search ensued in the grass around him. They were looking for the guy’s teeth.

As a punter, he was other-worldly. In 1972, he launched a punt from seven yards deep in his own end zone at then-Hemingway Stadium. Incredibly, the ball sailed far over Ole Miss return man Bill Malouf’s head and eventually rolled into a chain-link fence beyond the opposite end zone. It was almost comical. Malouf took one look at the punt, turned and sped the other way. He couldn’t catch it. The ball traveled about 117 yards total. I also saw him kick a 61-yard field goal during a snowstorm at Utah State.

Guy controlled games with his kicking. In 1970, he kicked a 49-yard field goal just before halftime to give Southern Miss a 17-14 lead over No. 4 ranked Ole Miss in a game Southern would win 30-14. But his punting is what won the game. Said Archie Manning, “Every time we got the ball we were inside our own 10, looking at 90 or 95 yards of field. Ray killed us.”

Once, against Louisiana Tech, Guy punted from his own 40 out of bounds at the Tech 5. But Southern Miss was penalized and had to kick again from the 35. Guy punted again, this time through the end zone. But Southern was penalized again, so Guy punted from the 30. There was no penalty the third time. Guy kicked it out of bounds at the Tech 1.

Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders noticed. He made Guy the first kicker ever drafted in the first round. Davis and his coach, John Madden, believed Guy was the missing link to help the Raiders win the Super Bowl. With Guy, the Raiders won three. Once in the Pro Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome, Guy punted a ball into the gondola and video screen high above the field. My brother, Bobby, was on the field taking photos that night. “Ray told me he was gonna do it right before he did it,” Bobby said. “‘Watch this,’ he said. And then he launched it. That damned ball hit the screen on the way up.”

I could go on and on. Indeed, I will. Once, Guy was crossing the intramural fields at USM and ran into school’s intramural track and field meet. They were contesting the softball throw. “Am I eligible?” Guy asked. Yes, he was told. He threw the ball nearly 340 feet. It’s still the school record.

Guy took up ping pong while he was at USM and was the only guy who could beat the Chinese exchange students.

He was drafted as a pitcher three times by three different Major League Baseball teams. He routinely threw gems for Southern Miss. Ron Polk once told me Guy had the best slider he had ever seen in college baseball. His fastball velocity reached nearly triple digits. And he hit the longest home run I ever saw at the old USM baseball park – not only far over the left center field fence but all the way across West Fourth Street. The ball traveled at least 500 feet. That was back when they used wooden bats.

I played golf with Ray one of the first times he ever played. The first hole at the old B.O. Van Hook Golf Course was a 282-yard part 4. Guy, without hitting any practice shots, took out his 3-wood and hit a perfect draw, pretty as you please, onto the green.

The first hole at the Hattiesburg Country Club is a 375-yard, par-4, a dogleg to the left. Once, on a cold, wet day, I saw Guy launch a 3-wood over the towering pine trees that guard the left side of the fairway and onto the green. He made a 2.

Guy wasn’t one to brag about any of his athletic skills. He just went out and did it.

In high school, he was a quarterback and never lost a game his junior and senior seasons. He was also an all-state basketball player and the best baseball player in the state. The only negative about his baseball prowess was that he didn’t get to participate in track and field – except for one memorable meet his junior season when the state meet did not interfere with the baseball playoffs. Paul Leroy, his high school football coach, once told me the story.

“We had a great track team except for the field events, so we had Ray come out and try the discus,” Leroy said. “Well, he threw it further than anybody, so we took him to the meet and he won it.”

That’s not all. On the way to the track meet, they taught Guy the steps to the triple jump in the aisle of the bus. And you know what happened next. “He won the triple jump, too, the first time he ever tried it,” Leroy said.

“I’ll never coach another athlete like Ray Guy,” Leroy said. “Nobody will.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.