By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
The following year, Albright returned for more, and actually played 10 games as a long snapper for Miami before suffering a season-ending knee injury in November. Jimmy Johnson took over as coach in 1996, Albright's tenure with the Dolphins ended and he wondered if his NFL career was doomed as well. Things only got worse, when, two weeks after heading to training camp with Buffalo, Albright hurt his shoulder.
As Hall of Fame Coach Marv Levy approached him during stretching shortly thereafter, Albright feared the worst. Instead, the coach, who had taken the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, informed Albright that he had no chance of being one of the eight best offensive linemen in camp, and the team could no longer risk exposing him to injury. He had made the roster with weeks to spare, but a part of his life was over.
"They pulled me out of line drills at that point," Albright said. "I still did some scout-team work, and I guess if everybody else was dead they would have put me in a game [as a lineman] or something, but that was the end.
"I went back to finish stretching and I didn't know whether to be happy or sad, because my goal was always to be a lineman -- that's what my ultimate goal was -- and I never quite got there. But that's the year that I pretty much started appreciating long snapping."
That also was the start of Albright's streak of 144 straight regular season games -- nine full seasons -- that stretches to this day.'It's a Specific Skill'
It is no coincidence that Albright has lasted this long. There is a unique dexterity involved in being a long snapper. It may look silly, standing bent at the waist, leaning forward, head between the ankles and eyes focused 10 yards back, but championships have been won and lost by long snappers, and a good one is a salve for overstressed coaches.
Joe Gibbs came to this revelation long before he won thee Super Bowls coaching the Redskins. Gibbs was an assistant at Arkansas more than 30 years ago and no one on the roster could long snap, so they offered a full scholarship to a local high school product, "a little red-headed kid, only about 185 pounds," who had a knack for it. By the third game of the season, against Texas, opponents found a hitch in his delivery, and when a huge nose guard reached to swat the ball away before the release, humiliation ensued.
"We were down on their 40," Gibbs said. "I mean, we were pooch punting and this thing goes 60 yards all the way to the end zone when they finally rounded that thing up back there. So I learned a lot of lessons on deep snapping, and I prefer to have Ethan there so at least we know we're going to get that thing back there to the guy."
Albright is reluctant to recall his last bad snap -- "The damn jinx of all jinxes," he said -- and while admitting he has not always been perfect, he says he has never blown a snap completely in the NFL. His location has waned on occasion, but the punter or holder has always been able to get at least two hands on the ball.
There is no secret to doing it well, and Albright has found that most of his NFL long snappers were similarly coerced into the task at an early age. "You kind of have to develop it yourself," Albright said, "like shooting a free throw or swinging a golf club. There's probably a thousand different ways to do it, but you have to have done it enough to know which way works for you."
"It's a specific skill, and only certain people are gifted enough to do it," special teams coach Danny Smith said. "When it's Monday night and the game is on the line, I don't know anybody who would want to be in his shoes when you need that kick or punt to win the game. He works very hard at it."
Generally, a snapper needs excellent balance, and a large enough frame to impede the onrushing lineman to some degree. The laces of the ball are down, the punter's shoes should be visible and the ball should caress the top blades of grass and reach its destination in a tight spiral. Perhaps of greatest importance is the ability to pull all of this off under extreme pressure, with gargantuan teammates -- who have withstood significantly more punishment and personal risk in any given game -- ready to pounce should you err.
"Ethan is awesome," said Redskins punter Tom Tupa, entering his 18th season. "The guy is just automatic. He gives you all the confidence in the world to just know the ball is coming where it needs to be, and you can just get into the flow of the kick. You see what happens to some teams when mishaps occur, and, knock on wood, we don't have them around here."
That wasn't the case in January 2000, when the Redskins lost an opportunity to attempt a potential game-winning kick in an NFC second-round playoff game against Tampa Bay when Dan Turk flubbed his snap. Albright's Bills had just been eliminated from the playoffs by Tennessee in the "Music City Miracle" the previous week, and he watched Turk's blunder from home. "The 'Music City Miracle' was my lowest moment in sports, then I watch the Redskins line up for a field goal and they couldn't execute the kick," Albright said. "I got selfish all of a sudden, thinking, 'Well, we could have lost a playoff game like that.' "
Turk was promptly cut by Washington, and his brother, Matt, a premier punter, was dealt for a seventh-round pick. Dan Turk learned he had cancer three months after his last NFL snap went awry in that 14-13 defeat, and he died in December 2000.
More recently, a botched release by Trey Junkin -- the very face of long snapping over 20 NFL seasons -- deprived the New York Giants of a potential game-winning, 41-yard field goal in 2003. Albright, who has not had the chance to speak to Junkin since the incident, was watching at home.
"Oh, man, every hair on the back of my neck stood up," Albright said. "I felt so bad for him. That's my living nightmare, to let my team down. They count on me to do the job, and it's not like there are eight guys in camp having long snapper tryouts. It's, 'Ethan, do your job,' and I kind of like having that spot on the team and I don't ever want to let anybody down, because I know how hard everybody else is working. I'm working hard doing things, too, but it's not like banging your head every play like those guys are."
Out of Junkin's misery came a new respect for long snappers. In recent years the elite have been able to pull in $300,000 signing bonuses, and there is no longer a stigma for someone who only snaps. The salary cap era -- which began when Albright entered the league -- has brought parity, with little separating most teams in the standings and games routinely coming down to three points or less.
"Sometimes you say, 'Well, you know, what are these guys worth?' Breaux said. " 'How much should they be paid?' But I guarantee you every coach in his career has been burned by one in the past, and they all want a good one now."Abuse Is Part of the Job
For all of their gains, the willingness to be the butt of jokes remains a necessary element of a long snapper's job. Albright has heard 'em all, and the intensity of the ribbing is the worst this time of year, amid the two-a-day sessions when the disparity between what is being demanded of the snapper and the rest of the team is most apparent.
"Do they ever get abuse," said Ray Brown, a failed long snapper entering his 20th season as an offensive lineman. "Especially if you're a big guy. It's a highly skilled position, but long snapper? He's a good guy, but he meets with the kickers and punters, man. Come on. They're valuable guys, but come on."
Albright, whose nickname "Red Snapper" was a natural given his hair color and profession, basks in the barbs. Without them, the job would not be as fun, and he would not feel as much a part of the team: "If I didn't hear that stuff, I would feel pretty isolated," he said. And in the end, the snapper usually gets the last laugh: In a league that chews up bodies, Albright is in his prime despite his age.
"I'll tell you what, he'll probably play until he's 50 years old," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense.
With four children age 6 and younger, including a newborn, Albright would settle for another 10 years. He participates fully in the Redskins' offseason workout program -- flying from his home in Greensboro to Dulles every Monday morning and returning Thursday night -- and hits the weights during the season. But he is now a modest 265 pounds, after bulking up when he still dreamed of being an offensive lineman in his younger days. Albright grasps his place in the game, and relishes it. He put in years battling at the line of scrimmage, through high school, college, several NFL training camps and yearns for it no more.
"I'm kind of past that now," Albright said. "I see the kids coming out of college, and they're huge. I peaked at around 310, and I was giving it my best shot, but I was never going to be able to compete with these kind of guys. I did my time. For nine years or so, I did all reps with the linemen, and in training camp I know how hard those guys work. Sometimes I find myself looking over my shoulder thinking, 'I'm supposed to be over there doing that, too.' But now I'm doing what I'm asked to do, and we're doing our drill work [with the punters and kickers], and I'm focused only on long snapping now."
All things considered, life is very, very good. And on certain days in August, while the sun bakes the helmets of LaVar Arrington and Clinton Portis, the big fellow in the baseball cap might be the luckiest of them all.