Called On in a Snap
Monday, August 29, 2005
The late-afternoon sun hangs low over Redskins Park, mocking those weighed down by pads as they collide with blocking sleds, tackling dummies and each other. The 89 players participating in the Washington Redskins' training camp on a suffocating August afternoon are all engaged in some sort of physical confrontation, with five glaring exceptions.
Four place kickers and punters -- the NFL's protected species of Lilliputians -- gather leisurely on an adjacent field, accompanied by a 6-foot-5, red-headed goliath in full uniform and a baseball cap -- an offensive lineman, perhaps? -- leaning against an upright, catching a sliver of shade from the goalpost. The duration of his workday will be spent watching 11-on-11 drills, chatting with teammates and occasionally shagging loose balls; as others head to meeting rooms for lengthy post-practice tutorials with coaches, he is usually heading home.
This mysterious figure is Ethan Albright, professional long snapper. A hired spectator to the organized violence around him, he is one of the 32 best in the world at what he does. It's an existence spent in blissful anonymity, but should Albright, 34, ever slip up on a Sunday afternoon, his name will never be forgotten. Most days, he earns his paycheck ($765,000 a season with no agent snagging a 3 percent cut) merely by completing snaps, and his ability to do so accurately while under immense pressure is what makes him so prized.
"It's like he's invisible around here," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux. "You never see him, never see him, but, gosh, what a comfort it is for us coaches to know we've got somebody like that here. What a security blanket he is. We ought to make all of our grandsons learn to do what he does. Long snapping -- that's not a bad way to go."
Albright's days of cracking helmets are long over -- his hands are much too valuable to risk to injury in practice -- and any illusions about what it might be like to take a snap as a tackle or guard long ago faded. He no longer feels guilty about the relative ease of his daily workload, and, after a youth spent resenting his craft and the verbal abuse that comes with being a long snapper, Albright has come to accept that this is his calling.
"I always, always hated it," Albright said, "but I was always the only kid on the team who could do it. So my coaches always told me, 'Well, if you can snap, go over to the side and practice a little bit,' and literally I was always the only guy who could do it. So I did it in pee wee, midget, junior high school, high school, college. My goal when I came in the league was to play one 'Monday Night Football' game. Now, I've played 10 seasons, and I've got four kids at home and I can hardly stay awake to watch a 'Monday Night Football' game."
A Back-and-Forth Start
Albright, who signed with Washington in 2001, was bullied into this sporting subculture. One of four boys, all of whom earned Division I athletic scholarships, he found football was a constant. Every day was a competition, and when one brother became a long snapper in high school, others were recruited. Albright was 8 when he first was dragged to the backyard to catch while others snapped.
"My brother wouldn't let me just throw it back to him," said Albright, a three-sport athlete in high school in Greensboro, N.C. "He taught me how to long snap, and he told me I had to snap the ball back to him every time."
Albright developed a style and became comfortable snapping for punts and field goals with the game on the line. As he advanced in youth football, his coaches quickly discovered that ability. He played four years as an offensive lineman and long snapper at North Carolina -- starting in his final two seasons -- and in April 1994 set out to make the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
Although the Miami Dolphins signed Albright on April 28, Don Shula, the winningest coach in league history, did not believe in dedicating a roster spot to a long snapper (Albright estimates about half of the league operated that way at the time; most teams have a full-time snapper now). First, a player had to make Shula's team as a lineman or whatever else, then a long snapper would be found from that group.
Albright was cut for the first time a few weeks into 1994 training camp, then re-signed and placed on the practice squad a week later. He was waived Sept. 14 and re-signed to the practice squad two weeks later. On Nov. 2, the Dolphins released him again, and he was signed to Green Bay's practice squad in December, then was let go after the season, never appearing in a regular season game.
"I was the running joke in Miami, they were cutting me and recalling me so many times," Albright said. "I had six or seven termination letters, and there were guys who felt so bad for me they were picking my luggage up for me and putting it in my locker each time. I'm a rookie and there's [Hall of Famer] Don Shula and [Hall of Famer] Mean Joe Greene is the defensive line coach and [Hall of Famer] Dan Marino is the quarterback, and I can't stick around longer than two weeks."