It was a play most Steelers fans would rather forget. Late in the fourth quarter Oct. 6 against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the Steelers were trying to hold on to a 14-12 lead.
Instead, emergency snapper James Harrison, who was filling in because Greg Warren had a knee injury earlier in the game, snapped the ball over the head of punter Mitch Berger. Berger, too, was brought in to replace a starter with a knee injury -- Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of last season.
"I would like to think I would have had a shot at catching that one, but we will never know," Sepulveda said with a laugh of the play he witnessed from the sideline. "It made me cringe a little bit."
All's well that ends well, though, and the midseason 21-14 loss to the Giants proved to be a small bump in the road to the Super Bowl. Sepulveda, however, is still waiting for his personal happy ending.
Sepulveda, who kicks with his left foot, has yet to resume punting after having surgery last year to reconstruct his right knee after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, but he is the prime candidate for this season since Berger, an unrestricted free agent, did not receive a contract offer.
After being drafted in the fourth round in 2007 -- almost unheard of for a punter -- Sepulveda delivered a promising rookie campaign. The 41.2 percent of his punts that landed inside the 20 yard line ranked fourth in the league.
The only two-time winner of the Ray Guy award as the nation's best collegiate punter won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, which is given every year to the Steelers' top rookie. The team had plenty of reasons to assume that they were set at the position for years to come.
Then training camp delivered another bump in the road. Sepulveda tore his ACL July 29, 2008, the second day of camp.
"That was obviously a pretty rough experience," he said. "Being so close to the season, putting the team in a bind like that is never fun."
The injury is linked to his college days at Baylor. On Easter weekend in 2006, before his senior season, Sepulveda tore that ACL for the first time in a pickup basketball game. Instead of rehabbing for 12 months -- the usual amount of time it takes to come back from ACL reconstruction surgery -- Sepulveda was back on the field four months later for the start of his senior year. If he was hurting, it was not noticeable. He won his second Ray Guy award after the season and impressed the Steelers' brass enough to trade a sixth-round pick to move up and select him with the 112th pick overall.
Sepulveda agreed that his most recent tear was connected to his first one, but not his lightening-quick recovery.
"The nature of an ACL reconstruction, it is the weakest six weeks after you get it repaired," Sepulveda said. "I happened to be fishing on a boat just sitting down, not doing anything crazy, just relaxing on a fishing boat about six weeks outside of surgery. It kind of shook on me a little bit and compromised the integrity of the graft. So from that point on, it was compromised. It was just a matter of time.
"It wasn't my coming back early to play at Baylor; it was more that incident about six weeks post-op."
Sepulveda has no regrets about how he handled his first surgery and would do the same again.
"That was the right call, mainly because I am fairly confident I would not be here if I would not have done that," he said. "To be drafted in the fourth round, you can't sit out. Punters hardly get drafted as it is, so you can't sit out your senior season and get drafted. I knew that."
When Sepulveda's borrowed time expired in July, he did not hold out any hope to recover in time to punt in the season opener Sept. 7. This time around, he and special teams coach Bob Ligashesky decided to take a more conservative approach. Sepulveda he does not plan to kick during this current round of team activities that end June 11. He said he could have started booting balls two weeks ago if the season started today. Right now, he, Warren and place-kicker Jeff Reed are sticking to running sprints.
"We are working on it slowly but surely," Ligashesky said of Sepulveda's comeback. "We are going to take our time and make sure he is ready to go in the fall."
Laura Keeley can be reached at email@example.com .