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Originally published August 24, 2013 at 8:14 PM | Page modified August 26, 2013 at 5:32 PM

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Hands of the Hawks: a look at Seahawks players’ battle-worn paws

Several Seahawks players show off and discuss perhaps the most important part of their bodies on the football field.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Max Unger keeps his right hand at his side. He’s hesitant to shake with it.

“My hands are all sweaty,” he says.

That’s OK, Max. We want your hands in their natural state: mauled, cut, nicked, bruised, busted and, yes, sweaty. That’s what this is about. We want to showcase some of the hands that will define the Seahawks’ season, from punter Jon Ryan (whose hands are more important than you think) to receiver Sidney Rice (who still carries scars from Brett Favre).

Those are Unger’s big paws in the photo. No hands touch the ball during a game as much as his.

Notice his right hand, the one that snaps the ball 60-some times a game — no glove. He wore one in college but ditched it in the pros. He wanted to really feel the ball in his bare hand. Now he just wraps white tape around each finger.

“It’s just a little something there,” he says, “so if you blow a finger out or something it will stop it a little.”

No big deal. They’re just hands.

Jon Ryan gets right to the point.

“The biggest thing the average fan might not realize,” he says, “is that punting is 80 percent in your hands.”

Wait, what?

“The biggest, most important part of punting is your drop,” he explains. “Without a good drop, you’re giving yourself no shot to hit a good ball.”

Ryan, Seattle’s veteran punter, is also Seattle’s holder for field goals and extra points. He was once selected as an alternate to the Pro Bowl and signed a six-year contract in 2010. The guy has been punting since he was 7 years old; he knows a thing or two about kicking a ball.

“You see so many young guys with these great big legs that can swing hard,” he says, “but if they don’t have good hands, they’re just not going to be a good punter.”

Here’s the sequence: Catch the ball 14½ yards deep, point the ball slightly nose-down or flat and spin it in your hands so it drops laces-up. Put your elbow against your hip, and there’s the line on which Ryan is trying to drop the ball. And if it’s a really windy day, “you’re going to drop the ball lower with the nose more down to drive the ball,” he says.

From the instant the ball touches his fingertips to when it hits his foot, he has 1.3 seconds.

Sidney Rice smiles and holds his left hand flat. He straightens out his tentacle-like fingers, except one.

His pinkie.

“It won’t straighten out,” he says.

Sure enough, his little pinkie remains curled like a banana. That would be the result of a game in college, when Rice didn’t follow one of the tenets of receiving: see the front of the ball, catch the back.

“I saw the tip,” he says, “but I didn’t catch the back.”

Instead, the ball smashed into the tip of his pinkie and broke the finger at the joint. There’s also the time he broke a bone in his right hand while dunking a basketball. He holds out both hands and looks down at the swollen knuckles on his middle fingers.

“And then a little Brett Favre action,” he says. “Jammed these up right here.”

Rice, Seattle’s leading receiver last year, played in Minnesota for two years with the bullet-throwing Favre. Favre throws so hard, Rice says, “The ball catches you, you don’t catch it.” One time, Favre threw a pass too high for the 6-foot-4 Rice. When Rice turned around in Minnesota’s indoor facility, the ball had gone through the insulation in the wall.

The problem with hands? Hardly anyone sees them on the field anymore. Receivers wear gloves. So do defensive backs and offensive lineman. Even Seahawks coach Pete Carroll wears them at practice.

Not tight end Sean McGrath, one of the few beacons of bare. Quarterback Russell Wilson calls him “old school.” Kippy Brown, Seattle’s receivers coach, often yells, “Get a pair of gloves!”

McGrath tried them. They just didn’t feel right, so he relies on his thick, leathery hands — “Iguana skin,” he says — to do the job.

McGrath wears a wristband on each arm to reduce the sweat dripping down his arms. He wants his hands a little sweaty but not sopping.

“You know how quarterbacks are always licking their fingers and stuff?” he says. “I’m not doing that, but I’m sweating enough for the same thing. My homeostasis is on point.”

McGrath, like Unger, tapes his fingers but just for looks.

“Cosmetics,” he explains.

He looks down at his hands shortly after ripping off his tape. “My sweet tan lines, as you can see,” he says. “Very chameleonish.”

The only downside to going gloveless comes when McGrath needs to block. Gloves make it easier to grab on to a little jersey, but Carroll has still praised McGrath’s blocking.

“It really forces you to work on your technique,” McGrath says.

But the upside comes during rainy games, when a number of guys opt to drop the gloves and go barehanded.

“In the rain,” he says, “I think I’ve got the edge.”

Richard Sherman doesn’t do anything too complicated with his hands.

“Just put them on, create contact,” he says. “Disrupt in any way you can. That’s the majority of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to stop them if we can.”

Part of what makes him so effective is his ability to jam receivers at the line, and his hands act as roadblocks. Watch the way he throws them on a receiver’s body, veering him off course and messing with the timing of the play. He’s even referred to what he does at the line as “bullying.”

Sherman’s hands have hauled in 12 interceptions the past two years, the most of any player in the NFL during that span. He has also twirled his hands in circles around his ears during games, letting opposing players and coaches know they’re loco for throwing his way.

See, hands can be practical and playful. That’s part of their beauty, no matter how scraped and twisted they may be.

Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or jjenks@seattletimes.com

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