Spotlight Finds Man in the Middle

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

MIAMI, Jan. 30 -- On Tuesday morning, Chicago Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly stepped into a cramped locker room beneath Dolphin Stadium and changed into his uniform, then headed out to the field for Super Bowl media day. He did not expect to attract much attention among the usual gaggle of third-rate celebrities, talk-show hosts and hangers-on.

As a long snapper, he is accustomed to anonymity. When he tells people what he does for a living, they stare at him quizzically, tilting their heads and then asking, "What exactly is that?"

"You know the kicker and the holder? I'm the one who gets it to them," he says he always replies.

This usually draws a vague nod and a quick change of subject. There is no glory in bending over 10 times a game and flicking a ball between your legs for a punt or field goal, then jogging off the field to wait for the chance to do it all over again.

Mannelly has played nine seasons in the NFL, all with the Bears. His ability to hike a ball accurately for as many as 10 yards now earns him a good living at just more than $700,000 per year. His attention to detail and repetition has made him one of the best long snappers in the league, and yet until this week he has never had a full story written about him in the newspaper. Nor has he been more than a brief mention on a televised sports report. He is invisible.

Still, nobody remains undiscovered at the Super Bowl. And as Mannelly stood on the field in his pads and No. 65 jersey, with a pair of Ray-Bans pulled onto his face, any hopes of disappearing into the crowd were quickly forgotten.

Up bounced a woman from CNN, wobbling across the cinders of the Dolphin Stadium warning track on a pair of impossibly high heels.

"I've got massive heels, how tall are you?" she asked, gazing up at the 6-foot-5 Mannelly.

Over came a reporter from National Public Radio, wondering how long Mannelly had been a long snapper.

Turns out 18 years -- ever since he discovered as a 13-year-old in high school that colleges and eventually the pros always have a place for players who have the ability to snap the ball perfectly between their legs.

Sidling up to his side came a camera crew from the BBC, wondering if Mannelly liked talking to reporters.

"We have a lot of footballers who are not accommodating to the press," the BBC man said.

Mannelly replied that he is always accessible to reporters.

Not that many ever come find him.

Which is too bad because as far as snappers go, Mannelly is the closest thing to automatic as there is in the NFL. He has only botched one snap in his career. It came last year against San Francisco, with a gale-force wind howling and the ball flying all over the place. His snap was so bad that holder Brad Maynard, who also is the team's punter, could barely get his hand on the ball, chasing it down in a calamity of bodies that Mannelly seems almost anguished to recall.

Maynard said the wind was impossible that day, that no one could guess where the ball would wind up and insists that the bad snap should not count against Mannelly.

"He's too hard on himself," Maynard said.

But Mannelly is a perfectionist. Once it became clear to him that there could be a future in long snapping, he was determined to be one of the best, practicing almost every day on the front lawn of the family house near Atlanta. When he went to Duke, where he became a starting offensive lineman, he made sure coaches knew he wanted to be a snapper, too.

"Long snapping was the ticket," he said.

While at Duke he perfected the true art of snapping, which is to understand the number of spins it takes to make the ball land in the holder's hand with the laces up. This allows the holder to easily place the ball in front of him, with the laces facing away from the kicker, improving the kicker's chance of hitting the ball cleanly.

Mannelly does not know the exact number of rotations, but he has done such a good job of developing the feel that he can get the ball into Maynard's hands with the laces up almost 80 percent of the time.

He explains the technique for all of this on his Web site, which welcomes visitors with the cheerful salutation "Hello, long snappers and Bear fans!" He said he made the site because he wanted young long snappers to have a support system, someone who could show them the finer points of snapping the way he wished someone could have when he was in high school.

Apparently there are plenty of Patrick Mannellys out there because he said he gets two to three e-mails a week from aspiring snappers looking for more guidance or perhaps a few encouraging words.

He likes to give them. Someday, he thinks, he wants to be a coach. Before, he always figured he would be working as an investment banker. He did some internships on Wall Street after graduation and before his marriage to Tamara John, the daughter of the former baseball pitcher Tommy John. He liked the work but is not sure that would be what he wants do to when football is over. Investment bankers work too many long hours, he said.

So on Sunday, in the biggest game of his life, he will do what he has done for countless Sundays the past eight years: lean down and flick a ball between his legs, subconsciously counting the number of spins to make it land perfectly in Maynard's hands. He will not think about anything else. And most of all he hopes no one will even know he is there.

Because an invisible long snapper is a good long snapper.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company