Ponder's first pro touchdown comes on national television

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

As far as Willie Ponder is concerned, his first professional touchdown was a long time coming.

Ponder, Southeast Missouri State University's former All-American who is in his second season with the New York Giants, returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a score Saturday during a 33-30 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I've been close a few times, and I finally got a chance to go ahead and get it done. It was a long time waiting," said a laughing Ponder during a telephone conversation Sunday afternoon. "It was exciting, a wonderful feeling. I got good blocking up front, and I was able to get away from a few people."

Ponder, who received plenty of national exposure Saturday -- the game was televised across the country and ESPN's SportsCenter showed the play numerous times -- now has the Giants' first game-opening kickoff return for a touchdown in a regular-season home game in the club's 80-year history.

In addition, Ponder set a team single-game record for return yardage as he totaled 259 yards on eight returns.

"It's great to have that record, a blessing. And the game was exciting for me," Ponder said. "But I wish we could have got a win out of the whole deal. It would have made it a lot better."

Ponder, who made his mark at Southeast primarily as an explosive, record-setting wide receiver -- he caught 157 passes for 2,543 yards and scored 27 touchdowns in his two-year career -- is now mainly used by the Giants on returns.

A sixth-round draft pick in 2003, Ponder entered the weekend ranked fourth in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 26.3-yard average. Saturday's performance bumped his average up to 28.0, which is likely to lead the NFL when the official statistics are released later this week.

"Things are going pretty well and I just have to continue working, try to keep getting better at it," Ponder said.

The 6-foot, 205-pound Ponder has been used sparingly at receiver this year, catching one pass for three yards. He got more action at that position during his rookie season in 2003, catching seven passes for 35 yards despite playing in only four games due to injuries.

While Ponder is doing well in one area this season, he admits to being a bit frustrated about his lack of opportunity to catch the football.

"It's frustrating because I'm a competitor and I want to play, of course. But it'll come eventually," he said. "It's hard to make plays in this league. Hopefully I'll keep showing them I can make plays, and eventually I'll get a chance at receiver."

As for the ongoing controversy surrounding the Giants' quarterback situation -- prize rookie Eli Manning replaced Kurt Warner despite New York having a winning record at the time, and the Giants (5-9) have now lost seven straight games -- Ponder had a non-controversial take on the situation.

"It's the coach's decision and I can't say if it's the right move or not," he said. "Eli's going to be great, and Kurt is great. It's just a business decision they made, but I can't take anything from either of them."

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