Journey from Norfolk to NFL took a lot of turns
Bill Lafleur is among just a few players who has played in NFL Europe, the Canadian Football League and of course, the NFL.
“It’s a bunch of guys who are working hard all the time to be as good as they possibly can be,” he said. “Everybody takes pride in their work.”
The Norfolk Catholic grade school principal, who played professionally as a punter, is living proof that at that level, punters are athletic.
For those not entirely convinced, consider the odds he overcame just to play in the NFL.
With the 53-man roster, teams are allowed to keep up to 10 players on a practice squad. Lafleur has been on both a regular roster and practice squad, playing four years.
“It’s small numbers. As a punter (on the practice squad), you jump in and play scout team and run receiver routes or the backside fly, or just do something to be of service. You’d cover kickoffs just to get someone out there who could run and fill a spot. It was fun in that way because you got to interact with different players. It was exciting, for sure.”
Like a lot of boys, Lafleur dreamed of playing in the NFL.
“Growing up, I liked sports. I played football, then I played basketball, then I played baseball and I played soccer or ran track. I did those things. I loved recess. I just loved playing games. It didn’t matter, as long as it involved running and jumping or throwing a ball or catching it.”
And like thousands of others Nebraska boys, he dressed up for Halloween like a Cornhusker football player. It was always a dream, but it wasn’t necessarily something he thought he could do, he said.
A lot of people want to play in the NFL. At one of the NFL training camps, Lafleur said he remembers a coach telling him that there were about 1,500 players, and there are 6 billion people on the planet.
The coach also reminded them that if someone is good enough to play, no matter where he lives, he will be found.
Lafleur’s athletic career almost ended before it began. Looking back, he said his high school career was a lot of “unrealized potential.”
He also isn’t one to mention his athletic ability or show it off. There are no helmets, NFL jerseys or memorabilia in his office. He is quick to say he was “lucky and persistent” when asked about it.
As a freshman at Norfolk Catholic in the early 1990s, he played some varsity football and basketball and qualified for the state track meet in the long jump and triple jump. As a freshman, he already was triple jumping 42 feet, 8 inches and long jumping over 21 feet.
But in his junior and senior years, he had ACL injuries. He tore his left ACL in football his junior year in the first game, missed most of the sports seasons, but did come back for the end of track.
Then his senior season, he tore his other ACL early in the basketball season. The years that should have been his most productive — junior and senior — he was injured.
While some people have quit pursuing athletics after two ACL tears in high school, Lafleur didn’t.
“Those were kind of tough times, but I was luck enough I got my senior year of football in — at least most of it. I played well enough at least that I got some opportunities from Coach Young and Nebraska. Once Nebraska called and let me know they would be interested, they’d like me to walk on and thought I could be a player at that level, that was an easy decision for me.”
As a senior, Lafleur played quarterback and punted.
Lafleur, who graduated high school in 1994, said his first year at Nebraska he was still recovering from the ACL tear in basketball. Lafleur redshirted that first year at Nebraska, which had Darin Erstad, the future MLB star, punting.
“He was a super guy. He was a great athlete, and a very nice guy.”
At Nebraska, he found out right away that Nebraska had a lot of good players. On the punting depth chart, he was behind Jesse Kosch for three years.
“By the time I was a sophomore, I felt I was maybe as a good, but he had already played. He was someone who was doing a fairly good job and we were only punting about 35 times a year, so it was kind of tough timing. We got along well. I played a little, but got to play more, especially in practice.”
Lafleur said in practice, coach Craig Bohl was asked to run some quarterback on the scout team. By about his second year, he started to feel like he might be able to contribute.
“I really like Coach Bohl. He was a big part of any success I had, not only at Nebraska but afterward too.”
At Nebraska, Lafleur also was an Academic All American while majoring in history. The honor is based on both performance and academics. Lafleur had a 3.6 grade point average and averaged better than 45 yards a punt, setting a record.
Lafleur lived with fullback Joel Makovicka, and he mentioned while out in San Diego during the bowl game that he might be able to play professionally.
“I didn’t really know,” he said. “Nobody had approached me. I didn’t know what it would take.”
Lafleur never got drafted and didn’t get invited to any camps. Then while working in Lincoln and still working out and punting, he got some tryouts and eventually was signed by New Orleans.
Then the following spring of 2000, he got invited and signed a contract. He was contacted by Al Everest, the Saints’ special teams coach.
“It was exciting,” Lafleur said. “I remember getting the call and I remember him saying, ‘Take your time and smell the popcorn. You’re in the NFL. I’m going to send you a contract.’ ”
“Once you’re at at the NFL camp, every practice is the most important thing. I don’t know how to explain it. Every practice when you touch the ball can be a make or break. They might have 100 guys, I don’t know how many guys they have, but they have a guy who is here today and he’s gone tomorrow. Or they might have another new guy here tomorrow.”
Lafleur said he always was serious and did what he was told, hustled and was on time.
“I never wanted to be seen as outside the norms to give anyone a reason that, ‘Hey, we don’t want this guy around,’ ” Lafleur said. “I just tried to do my job and be friendly and work hard.”
Lafleur said he learned at camps how many good players there are and that the differences between players isn’t much. Out of 15 new linemen, seven might be kept.
“Well the difference between number seven and eight isn’t much and even the difference between seven and 15 is hardly anything. It is such a fine line. It might be one step, one mistake or one mental play, just any of these little tiny things.”
Lafleur said the first camp was probably the most memorable because he felt a little like a fan and a little like an athlete.
“You might have a locker next to Ricky Williams or Joe Horn and Jeff Blake wants to warm up, so you go out and catch passes. There are all these guys you watch on TV, some are All Pro and now you are on the same field as them. You are peers, doing the same things. You are altogether.”
The Saints cut him but kept him at NFL Europe for Barcelona.
“That was a break because it was a great city. It was a good experience and allowed me to keep on playing.”
He later got called by the Montreal Alouettes of the CLF. The Aloutettes’ punter had broke his hand and Lafleur punted for a few games until it healed.
After that, he got assigned the following year to the training camp in Florida for NFL Europe. There were 12 punters at the camp trying to make it onto one of the six NFL Europe teams.
Lafleur again got assigned to Barcelona, but it was with a different group of players. After that season, he got invited to try out with San Diego.
“That was the best part of football for me that year in San Diego. I went through camp and played well. They kept me on the practice squad, and getting kept on the practice squad was kind of rare.”
The next two seasons, 2002 and 2003, he punted for the San Francisco 49ers. He ended his career back in San Diego in 2004, made it until just before the season was to begin, then got released.
“I was kind of injured. It was time to move on.”