By Jeremy Brown (WKU Athletic Communications)
Guys who rock mullets are usually more of a weapon shredding guitars in a garage band than they are on a football field, but WKU’s special teams captain Hendrix Brakefield breaks the mold in more ways than one.
It’s not often that punters are labeled “weapons” for a football team. Weapons usually entail quarterbacks racking up yards in the air, running backs sprinting through gaps or wide receivers taking the tops off of defenses. But the Hilltoppers have in Brakefield what many teams throughout the country do not, a legitimate game-changer at the punter position.
The junior currently ranks third in the Sun Belt Conference in punting average at 41.3 yards per kick, but it isn’t the length of Brakefield’s kicks that make him such an asset. It’s his ability to suffocate opponents deep in their own territory.
“What he does consistently better than anyone in the country is pin the ball inside the five-yard line and change the field dramatically,” said WKU special teams coordinator Karl Maslowski. “You saw it against Middle Tennessee last year where he set Andrew Jackson up for a safety and you saw it against Arkansas State this year when two balls landed at the seven-yard line. Things like that go unnoticed. Things that actually go down as bad kicks because they are shorter are things that Hendrix does because he’s unselfish and doesn’t care about stats. He puts the ball where it needs to be when it needs to be there.”
What Maslowski praises his punter for doing better than anyone is something in Brakefield’s arsenal that he can’t really explain. He just does it.
“It’s funny because I honestly don’t think I’ve gotten any better at those close-in punts since I got here,” said Brakefield. “It’s just a little thing where I kick it and somehow it lands down there. We always joke that I have a little string I pull at the goal line.”
Whether it’s his imaginary string or great touch on his punts, I guess we’ll never know. One thing Maslowski does know, however, is that Brakefield has come a long way in a short period of time on the Hill. Maslowski recalls Brakefield’s 2010 freshman season when the raw youngster wore high top cleats and would boot 15-yard punts just as often as 40-yard punts.
“When he first got here he looked bad, no training at all,” said Maslowski. “He was just a scatter-brained kid walking around. When you asked him what happened on that punt he’d say ‘I don’t know.’ Whether it was good or bad, he didn’t know."
Brakefield admits that the only thing he remembers about his freshman season is that he doesn’t remember any of it. Not a single game or a single punt. So began the Hendrix Brakefield Development Project.
He began booting 100 or so punts per practice even though Maslowski says repetitions should be around the 50 mark. He started honing in on small details and through gaining experience both in games and even more so at practice, he became a high-level punter.
“He worked his butt off to get where he is and he’s become a guy who can really change the field real quick,” said Maslowski. "He’s consistent now. He’s hitting the ball with over four seconds of hang time and at least 40 yards every time.”
Brakefield acknowledges the amount of work it took to get the consistency you see on the field during games. He also notes that focusing on details and simply enjoying the game played a significant role in his development.
“Everything is a lot more fun for me now and I think that’s why I’ve improved,” said Brakefield. "I don’t want make it seem like it’s still not always pretty like my freshman year because I hit a 16-yarder against Arkansas State this season. It’s about inches. The most minor details are the difference between a 55-yard bomb and a 2-yarder out of bounds.”
When breaking down Brakefield’s game you notice the bombs and his ability to pin opponents deep, but if you’re even more observant you see the 80’s style mullet flowing out the back of his helmet. “Typical Brakefield” is the way coaches and teammates describe their punters hairstyle.
There’s no significance for the interesting hair-do, just some fun for the easy-going punter.
“No stories, I just figure once I get out of college and into the real world there won’t be any room for long hair,” said Brakefield. “It started out as a joke and a lot of people probably think it looks stupid, but I absolutely love it. I’ve never been one to care what people think about me but I think I’m bringing it back.”
That’s the kind of light-hearted demeanor Brakefield brings to the Hilltoppers.
“He’s goofy and awkward. He’s got that mullet and he throws the ball like a girl,” said Maslowski, jokingly. “He doesn’t take himself seriously but at the same time he’s a guy that’s really productive on the field. The guys look up to him. He can joke around with them even though a lot of times kickers are looked at as nerds of the group.”
“It’s a lot easier for me to come out here and be goofy because I’m not getting beat up every play,” said Brakefield. “I just come out here and kick a ball. It really is that simple, when it comes down to it I’m just kicking a ball.”
Brakefield sees it as just kicking a ball and having fun, but both coaches and teammates appreciate the dynamic he adds to the team. His production on the field and attitude off it has helped produce 12 wins in the Hilltoppers last 14 games.
“He’s always having a good time and it helps keeps spirits light. That’s been huge for us because guys used to be so tight before every game,” said Maslowski. “The first game we won last year was because we were loose and I think you can attribute it to guys like Hendrix goofing around and keeping things light-hearted.”
The mullet. Throwing the ball like a girl. The goofiness. The 50-yard bombs. The field-changing pins. That’s “Typical Brakefield.” And “Typical Brakefield” may be a punter, but he’s one of WKU’s three captains for a reason.
“He walks out there with a presence and all the players respect him as a football player because of it,” said Maslowski. “He’s not just a kicker or a punter in their eyes, he’s a leader that everyone respects.”