TEMPE, Ariz. — Ask Josh Hubner for an opinion and he’ll give you three.
He doesn’t like people who chew with their mouths open or couples who make out in public. He views tattoos as avant-garde art, he’s certain heaven and hell exist and he values hang time much more than distance.
“Most often, I’m considered the black sheep of my family because I’m the only one with tattoos and the only one who’s athletic,” Arizona State’s senior punter said. “I have a whole different group of interests than everybody else, and I know some people think I’m goofy because of them.”
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Don’t let those quirks fool you. Behind that offbeat, ink-covered exterior is a deep-thinking, highly spiritual person who grapples daily with life’s biggest questions.
Hubner didn’t intend it this way. By his own admission, he was headed down a different path — it was either fate or a random twist of the universe that redirected him here.
When Hubner was 13, his best friend and constant childhood companion, Chase Dancer, died suddenly in his sleep of a heart condition that still isn’t fully understood.
“I was coming home from a doubleheader baseball game when his mom called me and asked if I was OK,” he said.
Hubner hadn’t yet heard the news. His dad, Tony, broke it to him when he arrived home.
“He was pretty angry about the whole thing,” Tony Hubner said. “He had to do a lot of thought and introspection, and I think it helped him turn a corner.”
By his own admission, Hubner was “a punk” in his early teens.
“I was mister long hair, ride my BMX bike around, yell at kids and be a big bully,” Josh said. “When Chase died, it was like time stopped. It encouraged me to re-evaluate my position on where I wanted to go.”
But the shift was gradual and filled with rough patches.
“It definitely needed some sanding to get where it needed to be,” he said.
Hubner had dropped out of sports before Dancer’s death, but he decided to give football another go at Scottsdale Desert Mountain High School.
“He didn’t play a whole lot as a sophomore because he never took anything real serious,” Desert Mountain coach Tony Tabor said. “He’d miss practice a little bit and he was always kind of a screwball, so I gave him an ultimatum.
“I asked him, ‘Are you going to do this or not? Because if not, we don’t need you around here.’
“I never wanted him to leave, but I wanted him to make a commitment.”
Hubner eventually did, but it wasn’t on offense or defense where he displayed the most ability. Instead, Tabor said Hubner got the “punting bug, and once he figured it out he could be really good at something, he poured his heart and soul into it.”
Hubner earned all-Arizona honors his senior season but, partially due to a foot injury, didn’t attract any attention from Division I schools, so he decided to join the Army.
“I was going the Pat Tillman route,” he said. “I definitely looked up to that guy. I wanted to be a Ranger because Pat Tillman was a Ranger.”
At the last minute, his dad and cousin persuaded him otherwise. The argument was simple: “The military will always be there if you want to join,” Tony Hubner said. “College football won’t be.”
After two standout seasons at Scottsdale Community College, Hubner snubbed Arizona to attend Arizona State. At 6-foot-4, 237 pounds, he made a big impression on teammates such as safety and special-teams gunner Alden Darby.
“He stood up in our first meeting and said, ‘I’m Josh Hubner, the punter,'” Darby said. “I was like, ‘Punter or middle linebacker? Dude, you’re huge.'”
Darby and Hubner became fast friends because they are birds of a feather. When he’s on the field, Darby talks incessantly and dances to music in his head. When he’s preparing for the long snap, Hubner might be pondering anything from a juicy cheeseburger to a day spent with his dog.
“It’s not that I’m not focused,” Hubner said. “That’s just my way of preparing.”
Hubner has certainly cultivated his oddball reputation. He likes to dance in front of teammates when “some stupid rap song comes on.” He convinced two gullible ASU reporters that the Sun Devils would wear all-gold uniforms for the USC game last season and market it as “The Gold Rush.” One problem: ASU didn’t have gold jerseys.
Sometimes — not all the time — he’ll take the field before games, lie down on the 5-yard line and stare at it while visualizing pinning opponents deep. No one has verified this, but Hubner insists he doesn’t speak to that chalk stripe.
“That would be over the top,” he said with mock indignation. “That’s when you’d need a straight jacket and little, clear cups of medication for me.”
Hubner’s 2011 punting average of 41.3 yards doesn’t wow — it was only good for 10th in the Pac-12 last season. But it’s important to remember that 24 of his 62 punts were downed inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Former coach Dennis Erickson called on that skill often and so will new coach Todd Graham.
Make no mistake: Hubner has a big leg, something Graham noted over and over in spring ball. It’s just not that sexy in Hubner’s mind.
“Zero return yards. That’s the goal,” Hubner said. “I’m very observant, so I know what it takes to get to the next level, and numbers aren’t everything.
“I’ll take hang time and fair catches over distance and the possibility of a return any day, and I guarantee if you if you talk to any person affiliated with the NFL, they want the same.”
On the advice of Graham, Hubner transitioned from a three-step punter to a two-step punter to improve his NFL stock. He never thought about the NFL before this season, but now the idea consumes him.
“I can’t imagine not punting,” he said.
But it’s not easy maintaining inspiration as a punter.
“You can’t kick too much in practice or your leg gets sore, so you do a little bit for the coaches, then you’re out of sight, out of mind,” Hubner said.
So Hubner turns to alternate forms of expression — like the tattoos that cover his right arm and nearly cover his left.
On his right shoulder are his dad’s initials and birth date. On his right forearm are Chase Dancer’s initials. On his right bicep, in Japanese, is the phrase “new beginning” with a sun rising and a waterfall.
On his left biceps is an image of Christ arm wrestling the Devil to denote the daily struggle between good and evil. There’s also a pitchfork and a punter kicking a football. On that same arm is the verse Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Hubner admits that he’s not active in a church, but his mother and two of his brothers are both involved in ministry of some form, so the influence is inescapable.
“I think there’s a big difference between religion and faith,” he said. “I’m definitely a man of faith.”
Despite his penchant for ribbing teammates and perfect strangers alike, that faith includes faith in his fellow man. Covering Hubner’s left forearm is a sinewy-looking tattoo he says represents muscle, but it speaks for more much more.
“I’m exposing myself by telling a story on my arm — opening myself up to the world,” he said. “All my tattoos are confidence boosters. They help me remember where I’ve been and where I want to go.”
Even if he’s in no hurry to leave the present.
“I’m very content with where I am as a player, a son, a brother, a best friend and however else I define myself,” he said. “Some people may take me the wrong way, and that’s too bad, but there’s nothing I can really do about that, so there’s no point in worrying about it.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter