July 27, 2018 at 8:00 AM
MIDLOTHIAN, Tex. —At 6:45 a.m., well before the sun began to bake the field, Chris Rubio drove a rental minivan into a high school parking lot. He had flown around the country the past two weeks, from Chicago to South Carolina to California, teaching teenagers how to snap a football perfectly between their legs. This camp 25 miles southwest of Dallas served as the last stop on Rubio’s summer tour.
By the time Rubio arrived wearing a yellow shirt brighter than the goal posts, a few of his instructors had congregated in the parking lot. One played for the Seattle Seahawks in 2016, and a couple of others snap for college programs. Another is a college offensive lineman who no longer snaps. But Rubio likes his personality, and that counts for a lot.
“My guys are always here early,” Rubio said, noting the arrival of the first instructor for a simultaneous but separate kicking-and-punting camp run by his close friend and former UCLA teammate Chris Sailer. “The kickers are always late. Sailer hates it. Long snappers are usually bigger people, and they know in football, if you’re late, you have to run.”
Rubio, a 43-year-old who lives in Lewiston, Idaho, has taken this highly specialized position, in which a player’s sole job is to snap the ball back to a punter or holder, and made it his profession. Through force of personality and tireless self-promotion, he has capitalized on the allure of athletic scholarships and the growing demand for specialized instruction.
In 2003, the first year Rubio directed such a camp, five graduating long snappers who worked with him went on to play in college. Now his website lists more than 100 from the class of 2018 who are committed to playing in college, which brings his total to more than 1,000. He said 10 to 20 each year receive a full scholarship out of high school. He refers to his business, Rubio Long Snapping, as “The Factory.”
High school players flock to these camps that cost about $350, frequently multiple times a year. Rubio held nine camps this summer, and he has sessions in the fall and spring.
The athletes come to help their chances of playing college football. But they also come for the experience — the quick-witted jokes, the competition and the community. Ultimately, they come for Rubio.
“When I was in high school, it was kind of a free-for-all,” said Carson Tinker, one of Rubio’s early students who played at Alabama and now snaps for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Now everybody’s story is pretty similar. They all went through Rubio.”
'Godfather of long snapping'
For coaches, the value of a player skilled in the often overlooked art of long snapping lies in the consequences of a bad snap. A mistake not only ruins a potential scoring play or a chance at advantageous field position but gives the opponent a prime opportunity for points. Coaches are always searching for an edge, and a skilled long snapper can provide that.
Rubio, who had never tried long snapping before high school in Covina, Calif., walked on and eventually earned a scholarship at UCLA. He has since become a one-man feeder system. He ranks every snapper who comes through his camp, and since college coaches usually don’t know much about the position, they lean on his assessments.
“He is like the godfather of long snapping because everybody understands that if Rubio says it, then it’s pretty much a done deal,” said Chad Little, whose son, Drew, started working with Rubio when he was 9 and accepted a full scholarship to North Carolina this year.
Alabama has established a pipeline of three consecutive long snappers trained by Rubio: Tinker (2009-12), Cole Mazza (2013-16) and now Thomas Fletcher. The last two were the first long snappers to be offered full scholarships out of high school by Coach Nick Saban.
Rubio tirelessly advocates for this position — and for his business — by emphasizing how a ball doesn’t magically appear in front of a kicker. Late in the morning at the Texas camp, Rubio’s and Sailer’s groups came together for live punt snaps. Rhythmic booms filled the stadium as balls rocketed off punters’ feet. Rubio gave his snappers encouragement with quirky phrases such as, “Snap it hard, daddy!” and “That was just sexy.” But after one impressive punt, Rubio directed a comment toward the punter.
“It started with the snap,” Rubio said. “Don’t forget that.”
He refers to increasing appreciation for long snappers as a cause, one he’s passionate about leading. There are no national awards given to long snappers, so Rubio organized a selection committee to give one to the top high schooler each year. The award bears his name.
Rubio can’t name who won last season’s Heisman Trophy, and he doesn’t care. He records football games and fast forwards to long snaps, wishing there was an NFL RedZone-style package that showed only fourth downs. Rubio capitalizes “Long Snapper” as if it’s a proper noun.
“No one else was sticking up for them,” Rubio said, “so I’m going to take the torch and go.”
Bathroom humor and bonding
Rubio began the one-day camp in suburban Dallas by leading a group of 16 newcomers, out of a total of about 45, through drills. He wanted to emphasize the need for the snappers’ hands to extend all the way through their legs as they sling the ball backward. But it’s not memorable to say, “Make sure you follow through.” Rubio, who taught sixth-grade history before he made the full-time switch to football instruction, knows his audience of teenage boys better than that. So he will give the parents in attendance a quick disclaimer: “This is disgusting, but just go with it.”
Then he will address his charges with bathroom analogies. One example: “I need you to reach so far through that if you had to take a dump, you would dump on your wrists.”
The players laugh, but they will remember.
Rubio knows how to engage with the snappers. It’s a balance he walks at every camp. He teaches the art of long snapping, but the kids and the parents need to be entertained through the process.
“The fact he was a teacher, the fact he was a football player himself, he’s funny as hell and he’s a father — the combination of those things make him really phenomenal at what he does,” said Quentin Skinner, whose son has been to more than 30 Rubio camps. Quentin Skinner Jr. is the top-ranked snapper in Rubio’s class of 2019 and has a full ride to LSU.
There are some football camps where parents might sit on bleachers or leave to go to a coffee shop. But Rubio wants parents to learn with their kids so they can remember his feedback, too. Frequently, he asks the parents to gather around, and they’re on the field through most of the day.
“I’m really, really, really involved with the parents because I need them to understand,” Rubio said. “Most coaches would hate that. I love it.”
During a film session before lunch, Rubio cycled through video from earlier in the day. He directed the athletes and parents toward drills that would help solve issues. Rubio spotted details as small as an index finger slightly lifting off the ball before the snap. Players and parents stayed attentive and laughed through Rubio’s comments.
On a solid snap: “That’s just all kinds of great. You need a tan, though.”
And when someone didn’t look through his legs quickly enough: “It’s like buying your girlfriend a Valentine’s gift on February 15. Doesn’t count, man.”
At the end of a sweltering day, Rubio brought the snappers and parents together one final time around 4 p.m. He acknowledged the contest winners and told parents he would take a few days to decompress before updating rankings. Then his fall camps would begin in October.
The snappers took photos with their friends and instructors. A line formed near Rubio as he posed with kids one-by-one. He told one lanky long snapper he doesn’t want to be able to feel his ribs, and he said to another that his hair looked good that day. Parents expressed their appreciation. One of the last kids in line told Rubio he received his first college offer.
Long snapping can be a “lonely position,” Skinner’s dad said. Not many people, including other football players and coaches, truly understand the craft. Some outsiders just think the center snaps the ball on punts and field goals. Rubio created a culture around long snapping, Tinker said. And he has made long snappers feel valued.
“We feel like we’re all in the same boat together,” Skinner’s dad said. “Rubio’s kind of the center of the universe. He connects us all.”
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