Punter Peter Mortell in familiar underdog role

Scott Venci
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The television cameras and reporters surrounded Peter Mortell on Friday after the first day of the Green Bay Packers’ rookie minicamp.

All that attention for an undrafted punter?

Of course, Mortell is no ordinary one. He’s the local kid, the former Green Bay Notre Dame star taking the first steps toward what he hopes will be a career with the same team he grew up watching.

While Mortell appreciated the warm welcome, he would have preferred his first weekend as a Packer to be a tad more low-key.

“Yeah, to be honest with you, maybe a little bit,” Mortell said. “I want to be treated just like any other player. I want to come in here and kind of just focus on football stuff. I understand the story of me being the local kid and the angle there, but I’m coming here to just be the best football player I can be.

“I want to come in just with a good attitude and really have that focus be on punting the football.”

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A lot of Packers fans know Mortell’s story by now: He lived a few miles away from Lambeau Field growing up and his grandfather was the team’s game clock operator for more than three decades before his father took over in 2000.

Mortell has been attending games since he was in middle school — he also worked as a game-day assistant in the press box while in high school — and lists Antonio Freeman’s miraculous overtime touchdown catch against the Minnesota Vikings in 2000 as one of his favorite moments.

Perhaps that’s why Mortell isn’t nervous about his surroundings. He already has seen nearly every part of Lambeau. Now he’s just hoping for a better view.

Mortell will be in a battle with veteran Tim Masthay as he attempts to make the roster. It should help that his biggest strength is in his directional punting, which is something the Packers stressed last season. That was evident by Masthay’s career-high 14 punts out of bounds.

Mortell thinks highly of Masthay, calling him a “heck of a punter and a great guy.” He said the two talked before practice Friday, with Mortell telling Masthay that he was looking forward to learning from him.

Masthay beat out Cody Mandell early in last year’s training camp, although he was inconsistent in 2015. He broke the team record with a 40.2 net average, but had a career-low 3:1 ratio with 18 downed punts inside the 20 to go with six touchbacks. He also struggled in the Packers’ playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

The opportunity could be there for Mortell, who already has proven he can thrive in an underdog role. He was a walk-on at the University of Minnesota but finished with a decorated career after averaging a school-record 44 yards per punt during the past three seasons as the team’s primary punter.

“I have had to work for everything that came to me on the football field,” Mortell said. “So I don’t think it’s any different now. I don’t think I’d rather have it any other way. It taught me that I have got to work hard and work hard when no one is looking.

“That work ethic developed at Notre Dame and it’s still with me now.”

Mortell earned third-team all-Big Ten honors as a senior, averaging 43.3 yards per punt despite having arthroscopic surgery on his left non-kicking knee during the season. It included 20 punts that traveled 50-plus yards. He also had 26 punts downed inside an opponent’s 20-yard line and forced 16 fair catches.

He finished his career with 57 punts that traveled more than 50 yards and six that went at least 60, including a career-high 66 this past season against Nebraska that was tied for the sixth-longest in program history.

As a junior he was named the Big Ten punter of the year and was first-team all-conference, becoming the first Minnesota punter to be recognized and the first specialist since former standout kicker Chip Lohmiller in 1986. Lohmiller spent nine seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with Washington.

“Second one after meeting the kid, you could tell that he was going to be successful really in anything that he did,” said former University of St. Thomas linebacker Cavan Metzler, who shares an apartment with Mortell in Minnesota and was a teammate with him at Notre Dame. “He just has that kind of personality. You can kind of tell that by just having a conversation with him.

“I remember some of my friends telling me at St. Thomas after meeting him that he knows what he’s doing and he’s going to be successful.”

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Still, Metzler didn’t give much thought to Mortell being an NFL player early in high school. Certainly not as a wide receiver or defensive back, which are the two other positions he played. Metzler would have even told people they were crazy for thinking he’d make it as a punter.

But he saw Mortell develop a vision for what he wanted to accomplish. As an upperclassman, he was sending out tapes and hearing back from colleges. The future started to look bright.

“At that point, I was like, ‘Yeah, he is going to do this well,’” Metzler said. “That is kind of how he is. If he gets an opportunity to do something, he does it 100 percent.”

As Mortell started to perform well on the field for the Gophers, his profile off it got bigger, too.

It includes his rather entertaining Twitter account, which he used to award himself the “Holder of the Year” in December thanks to his work as the placeholder for Minnesota kicker Ryan Santoso. It even got him a shout out on “SportsCenter.”

But Mortell also was serious at times. As a junior, he received a $452 Best Buy gift card for playing in the Citrus Bowl and used it to buy items for underprivileged children in Minneapolis. This past year he started a fundraising effort to raise $10,000 for teenage patients at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. He ended up raising more than two times that amount.

“That was really important to me,” Mortell said. “The community in Minnesota welcomed me, you know, an outspoken Packer fan. They did so much for me that I thought it was important to give back in any way I could.

“No different here. I would love to have the chance to volunteer and give back whenever I can. This city made me who I am. I’m happy to be back.”

Well, almost back.

“He’s still responsible for the rent,” Metzler said. “You think I’d let him get away with that?"

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