Every season in the NFL, there’s a feel-good story about an unusual player who fulfills his dream of playing in the NFL. This season, that athlete is Corliss Waitman. He’s a punter, a position that doesn’t get much media attention. But that’s not necessarily the case with Waitman, whose background draws attention despite not yet making the Steelers’ roster. Here’s Waitman’s unusual story.
Corliss Waitman’s road to the NFL
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profiled Waitman, who was born in Belgium, raised in the Netherlands, and has a Surinamese heritage. He was a punter for the University of South Alabama from 2014-17, but then took a couple of years off from competitive football when he was ruled ineligible at Mississippi State last year.
The NCAA declined to give him a waiver for a sixth year of eligibility as a graduate transfer. That means it’s been nearly two years since he punted in a game that counts. But that didn’t stop the Steelers from giving him an opportunity when special teams coordinator Danny Smith signed him as an undrafted free agent.
Waitman is a unique NFL prospect
The Steelers brought Waitman to training camp and allowed him to compete for a spot on the roster. He is on Pittsburgh’s practice squad entering the season. But if he makes it onto the active roster he will be a unique player, given his background.
Waitman was just one of two Black specialists in an NFL camp this summer. The other, punter/kicker Kaare Vedvik, was fighting for a job with the Panthers after being cut by the Bills. Even throughout the span of NFL history, there haven’t been many players like Waitman.
If he plays in a regular-season game, Waitman will join a small group of Black punters to have played in the NFL. Not many Black players have spent time in the league as punters or kickers. Another oddity in Waitman’s game is that he kicks with his left foot, which few kickers do.
In fact, Waitman muses about “being a left-footed Black punter. I don’t know any.” Waitman also describes his journey to being signed by an NFL team. “So many hurdles I went through, so many different countries, different settings I’ve been in, and I end up being here. It hasn’t been an easy road, but it was for a reason. I’m here now, and it feels great.”
Waitman’s strengths and what the Steelers think
Waitman has a strong leg and did a good job at forcing fair catches while in college. He also has experience as a holder, which is something NFL teams look for in a punter so the player can perform double-duty. Waitman also has experience kicking field goals and performing kickoffs. That is always an advantage for a punter, because it gives the team a backup option if something happens to the kicker during a game.
Being a lefty kicker also gives Waitman an advantage because it is believed that it’s harder for the returner to catch a ball that’s spinning in an unfamiliar direction.
Even though Waitman hadn’t played college football since 2017, the Steelers’ coaching staff still though enough of his skills to bring him into camp and give him a chance to get on the roster, although Smith admitted it’d take “a lot” for a rookie to beat out the incumbent. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said “the holding element” is as important as the the punting part of the game when determining who to roster at the position.