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Original Issue


They are anonymous except in times of disaster, for which they
are invariably blamed. They are paid to perform an act that
gives them an upside-down perspective on the world and leaves
them in an absurdly vulnerable position that cries out to
opponents: Clobber me! Is it any wonder that there is an
inordinately high incidence of strangeness among NFL long

Among their number we find a poet, a pilot, the owner of a
boutique cookie business, a singer in a group called Toe Jam and
a heavily tattooed heavy-metal junkie who has sported a Mohawk.
And you thought kickers were flakes.

Our question for Trey Junkin is this: Does long-snapping lead to
eccentricity, or are the eccentric drawn to long-snapping?
Junkin, a 14-year veteran who returned to the Oakland Raiders in
June after six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, believes it is
the latter. "Not every kid grows up and says, 'Mommy, I want to
put my head between my legs and let other guys beat on me while
I snap a football,'" he says.

When Junkin and Dave Binn of the San Diego Chargers got together
in a hotel coffee shop to swap anecdotes and insights about
long-snapping, it looked like a Hell's Angels' chapter meeting.
Binn, who is entering his third NFL season, showed up with
shoulder-length hair and a goatee; Junkin was sporting a goatee
and a black leather jacket with a Harley-Davidson pin. Security
eyed them nervously.

Tell us, guys. Has anyone tried to sabotage a long snap by
putting a foreign substance on the ball?

"My rookie year a guy threw dirt on the ball," says Binn. "That
wasn't too cool."

Junkin has a longer list: "I've had Stickum. I've had Vaseline,
which some defensive linemen put under their arms, so you can't
hold 'em. I've had packing grease on the ball. I've had guys
spit on the ball. One time a guy spit on my hands while I was
snapping the ball."

"How was the snap?" asks Binn.

"The snap was good," says Junkin, "but I got fined for punching
the guy."

These two occupy opposite ends of the long-snapping spectrum.
Binn was a walk-on at Cal who eventually received a scholarship
to do nothing but long snap; in 1994 the Chargers signed him as
a free agent solely to snap. Junkin didn't snap at all at
Louisiana Tech, where he was a linebacker with 4.3 speed in the
40. The Buffalo Bills took him in the fourth round of the '83
draft. "That was 13 years and six knee operations ago," says
Junkin, who doubles as a tight end. He took up long-snapping in
1990 to make himself more valuable. Smart move. For the last six
or seven years long-snapping has paid the mortgage.

Only a few long snappers double as regular players. They don't
need long-snapping. Those guys constitute a smug minority.
Probably a quarter of NFL teams split the long-snapping duties:
a deep snapper for punts and a short snapper for field goals and
extra points.

Which is tougher? Though shorter, the snap-for-placement is
often more pressure-packed, since points--and sometimes
victory--are at stake. This explains why, according to Adam
Schreiber, a 13-year vet who does both short- and deep-snapping
for the New York Giants, "you find a lot of spitting in field
goal situations."

The center on kick placements makes two adjustments: He has to
take something off the ball--"You're not trying to knock the
holder over," says Schreiber--and he has to "snap laces." That
means the snapper must deliver the ball so that when the holder
catches it his top hand is on the laces. "That way when he puts
it down, the laces are facing the goalpost," Schreiber adds.

The punt snap is "more of an aggressive snap, with speed," says
Schreiber. The ball must reach the punter in .8 of a second. How
fast is that? Faster than his wife, Dalene, thought. At a picnic
several summers ago, Adam felt "the itch to snap" and asked
Dalene if she would catch a few. "What do I do?" she asked. "You
say 'set,' and I snap the ball at my convenience," he replied.

"The first one was a nice, tight spiral," recalls Schreiber. "It
wasn't high, but then again she's only about five foot four."
The ball broke a couple of her fingernails.

Usually it is the snapper who absorbs the abuse. When Junkin
thought a Cleveland Browns player was diving at his knees two
years ago, he started brawling with him. Junkin was in turn set
upon by his own teammate, Kevin Mawae, who, as he tried to save
Junkin from being ejected, shouted, "I'm not snapping!" Mawae
was Seattle's backup snapper.

In addition to dabbling in motorcycles and martial arts, Junkin
writes poetry. The following minimalist, arbitrarily capitalized
lines are from "The Snap":

Get a Look
Defense, Ball, Punter
Feel movement
Hear the call
Adjust the Ball
everything comes to
you feel the Line
you to punter
15 yards
perfect snap
Some can; some can't.

Some can appreciate timeless verse, some can't. After zipping
through Junkin's poem, Binn merely says, "Cool."

To fill the uncomfortable silence, I compliment Junkin on his
economical style. Junkin mentions that he has also tried to
write haiku. "But that form, like Japanese society, is highly
restrictive," he says.

So the poet laureate of long snappers has no snapping-related
haiku for us. Emboldened by his example, I give it a whirl:

This jerk waits until
I'm helpless, then cleans my clock.
I hate the noseguard.

By the end of last season Junkin estimates that he had bent over
the ball 1,040 times in succession without making a bad punt
snap. When he reached the 1,000 mark last season, in a game
against the New York Jets, play was not stopped; Cal Ripken-like
festivities did not erupt. Junkin staged his own little
celebration. "I ran down and snatched the ball from the
official," he says. "The guy thought I'd lost my mind."

Ingratitude comes with the territory. As Brad Banta, who handles
long-snapping duties for the Indianapolis Colts, says, "The more
unnoticed you are, the better you must be doing."

Just because I'm anonymous at work doesn't mean I have to be
anonymous in life. This seems to be the philosophy of many of
today's deep snappers, none of whom enjoys a higher profile than
Minnesota Viking Mike Morris, who stands 6'7" when his Mohawk
has been teased to its full height. No long snapper has
cultivated his minor celebrity more assiduously or shrewdly than
Morris, who last season got several minutes of face time on Six
Days to Sunday, a TNT documentary about a week in the life of
two pro football teams. He co-hosts a sports talk radio show and
has his own fan club, which Morris fondly describes as "my
rednecks--a bunch of biker-slash-taxidermists in black T-shirts.
They love ball, and they've chosen me as their leader."

Morris acts as a kind of self-appointed shop steward of long
snappers. Don't use the expression "long-snapping chores" around
him. "Do you hear people calling them 'the quarterbacking
chores'?" he says. This reminds him of another slight: "They
ought to take a long snapper to the Pro Bowl. They bring a
return man, they even bring some goofball who blows up the wedge
on kickoffs. But they don't take a long snapper. That's a lot of
money out of someone's pocket."

Your pocket, Mike? "Hey, I'll take my name off the list," he
says. "That's how strongly I feel about this."

One man doesn't buy it. "If self-promotion was an art, he'd be
Michelangelo," Junkin says.

In issuing the following warning to his fellow snappers, the
martial artist echoes the wisdom of Master Po, the blind Shaolin
sage from the Kung Fu TV series. "You've got to be a little
strange--that's part of the job description," Junkin says. "But
you can't be weird when you're doing the job. If you miss a
block or roll one back there, you've hurt the team, and it's
time for you to leave."

It's also time to meet the press. Long snappers do not get
interviewed unless something has gone badly awry. The Atlanta
Falcons' Harper Le Bel recalls a game in which he triggered a
"jailbreak"--snapper-speak for the anarchy that ensues when the
ball sails over the punter's head. After the game reporters
crowded around his locker. Feigning compassion but looking for
blood, they asked, "What happened?"

"I wanted to say, 'What does it look like happened? I snapped it
over his head!'" says Le Bel. Instead he explained, as if to a
group of second-graders, "

Not all NFL snappers bend over and peer back at an upside-down
punter. Junkin is one of the few who snap "blind." Another is
Trevor Matich of the Washington Redskins. The advantage of this
technique is that it enables the center to pick up a rusher more
easily. As a result, says Redskins special teams coach Pete
Rodriguez, "a lot of teams don't even bother trying to pressure
us." The skill is even more impressive considering that Matich,
a licensed pilot, did not start snapping until 1990, his sixth
season in the league. It was easy to pick it up, he says,
"because I didn't have a paradigm to unlearn."

We'll take your word for that, Trevor.

When he was with the Arizona Cardinals, Rodriguez once coached
another blind snapper, a Hawaiian named Kani Kauahi. In 10 NFL
seasons Kauahi earned a reputation as one of the league's finest
snappers. Unfortunately he stuck around for an 11th.

Kauahi played one game in 1993, and Rodriguez remembers it well.
Kauahi's first snap in the opener, in Philadelphia, was a peach.
"But Kani blocked the wrong way," says Rodriguez, "and the kick
was almost blocked." His next snap was somewhere over the
rainbow. The play resulted in a safety. Kauahi bounced the next
snap to punter Rich Camarillo, who kicked the ball sideways.
"Kani almost put another one over Rich's head," says Rodriguez.
"All of a sudden Kani couldn't snap, and he knew it. That was
his last game in the NFL."

We feel a haiku coming on:

The punter should not
need an eight-foot stepladder.
Good luck on waivers.

How does a deep snapper go off the deep end? When does a long
snapper ... snap? "You get the mental spins," says Adam Lingner,
a 13-year long-snapping veteran who retired from the Bills last
spring. "You're thinking, Should I snap it now? Yes--no! Don't!
I'm not ready. Once you start thinking over the ball, you're
doomed. That's why I used to crack jokes at the line of
scrimmage. To keep myself from thinking."

A bad back, rather than the mental spins, forced the retirement
of Lingner, who attributes the first poor snap of his career--it
came in 1989, during his seventh NFL season--to his inability to
come up with a timely put-down. "We were playing the Jets, and
[New York's] Troy Benson looks across at John Davis, our tackle,
and says, 'Hey, John, nice gut.'

"I was trying to think of a snappy retort when John Kidd, who is
holding for the extra point, gives me the signal to snap. I
wasn't ready, and I put it over his head."

So why volunteer for such unappreciated duty? Because it is the
best way for a mediocre athlete to sneak into the NFL. Do great
athletes gravitate to long-snapping? Dale Hellestrae of the
Dallas Cowboys thinks not. Hellestrae, who owns and operates a
Cookie Bouquet in Phoenix, has survived for 12 years in the
league primarily as a long snapper and special-teamer. "If
you're a pretty good athlete in ninth, 10th, 11th grade, you're
thinking, Why would I ever want to do that?" he says.

As a 10-year-old, Greg Truitt came to that realization too late.
One day at a practice for a traveling all-star team in Sarasota,
Fla., the coach was auditioning long snappers. The word had
spread among the boys: If you don't want to do it, just hike the
ball over the punter's head.

"But I'd already gone," says Truitt, "so I got the job." His
skill eventually earned him a scholarship to Penn State, and he
handled the deep-snapping during the Nittany Lions' 14-10 Fiesta
Bowl upset of Miami at the end of the 1986 season. That was his
junior year. Truitt took the next season off. "I was
disillusioned with the reality of life," he says. Spoken like a
true long snapper.

After working two years as a restaurant manager Truitt grew
disillusioned with the reality of the job. So he made a crude
long-snapping video and sent it to a few NFL teams. To eat, he
drove a limo, waited tables, mowed lawns.

He tried out with the Redskins and the Miami Dolphins. Zilch.
His agent, Brett Senior, suggested Truitt head to State College,
Pa., during the week that the scouts would be on the Penn State
campus. "I went to a corner of the field house and started
long-snapping," he says. He caught the eye of a Cincinnati
Bengals scout; the team offered him a tryout and, soon
thereafter, a contract.

While negotiating the two-year deal, Senior had the temerity to
ask about a signing bonus. As Truitt recalls, "They said, 'The
guy's been out of football for six years!'"

Thus in 1994 did Truitt become, at 28, the oldest rookie to play
in the NFL in 48 years. Last season he made $150,000. He has
teamed up with the Bengals' kicking specialists to form an a
cappella group called Toe Jam. Truitt says that he feels
blessed, but not lucky. "Everyone has the same opportunity," he
says. "It's just a matter of who wants to take it."

As a poet of our acquaintance once wrote: Some can, some can't.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Thinking about the snap was the last thing on Lingner's mind when he assumed his stance. [Adam Lingner preparing to snap football in game]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Among the greatest fears of snappers like Oakland's Dan Turk is triggering a "jailbreak." [Dan Turk snapping football]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Junkin (83) is a tight end by day but since 1990 has moonlighted as a long snapper. [Trey Junkin blocking Washington Redskins players]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Tom McHale fell hard against the Patriots and was later dumped by the Dolphins. [Tom McHale inn game]