Former Virginia long snapper Danny Aiken bides his time as NFL lockout drags on
By Rick Maese,
Roanoke — In the back yard, the two young men play catch every day. They’d already measured off 15 yards and dropped sticks to mark the appropriate spots. It’s a normal game of catch, except one of them, 22-year-old Danny Aiken, bends over and pokes his head between his legs. Near his stick, there are three worn-out spots in the tall grass, one for each of his feet and another in the middle where the football is placed.
While NFL rookies learned the rewards and risks of the NFL at a special symposium in Florida, Aiken was in his back yard. He whipped the ball between his legs and less than a second later, with a loud smack, it found its target, the stinging hands of his brother, 20-year-old Matt.
“It feels a lot harder than a normal pass,” said Matt, a sophomore wide receiver for the U.S. Naval Academy.
Danny Aiken finished school in May, having started four years as the long snapper for the University of Virginia. He was rated by many as the top long snapper in the nation, but because his position is highly specialized, he did not hear his name in the draft. He wasn’t surprised and knew that his likely entryway into the NFL was to sign a free agent contract with a team. While several teams had told him they’d be eager to scoop him up, the ongoing lockout prevents teams from even talking with Aiken.
Instead of being in the early phases of an NFL career, he’s essentially one of more than a million recent college graduates out of work. While some might be seeking office jobs or 9-to-5 employment, Aiken is among several hundred waiting on owners and players to strike a new labor agreement that would open doors for new hires.
Undrafted rookies in the NFL can be a forgotten group. They provide bodies for offseason workouts and training camps, each of them hoping for an outside chance at a team’s 53-man roster. Many will be cut, some will make the eight-man practice squad and a few will stick around and turn in solid pro careers. The rare ones — Tony Romo, Kurt Warner, James Harrison and Antonio Gates — go unnoticed on draft day but turn into Pro Bowlers.
Most teams sign 10 to 12 undrafted players each year to free agent contracts, which means more than 300 young athletes who would already have signed contracts by this time in previous years, can do little more than lift weights, play catch and wait. Some were especially eager to start their NFL careers and left school prior to their senior seasons. Of the 56 underclassmen in the draft in April, 14 never heard their names called.
In that sense, Aiken is fortunate. He received his degree in anthropology in May. As far as the NFL is concerned, he has a highly specialized skillset. Only 32 long snappers are employed each season, and there’s limited turnover from year to year. There will only be a few openings, and Aiken hopes that as soon as the lockout ends, he’ll have a chance to compete for one of them.
Life after college
Aiken has a youthful face, with soft blue eyes and for good reason, a look of uncertainty. When he finished school, he had to make a decision: hang around Charlottesville, where he would’ve needed a part-time job or return to his family in Roanoke. His mother, Vicki, has a landscaping business and has been slowed lately by hip problems. That made coming home easier.
Aiken’s belongings are stuffed into plastic trash bags and scattered about. He’s sharing the spare room with his brother. No sense getting too settled, Aiken figures, because as soon as the lockout ends, he hopes to hit the road.
He wakes up early each morning and is out the door by 6. He and his mother hit the homes of clients, watering plants and pulling weeds. In the afternoon, he heads to the back yard and snaps 30 to 60 footballs. He’ll do most from 15 yards, preparing for punts and a handful from seven to eight yards, mimicking field goal situations. Muscle memory, consistency and accuracy are key to the position. Vicki will watch from the back stoop some days. She’s still amazed at how quickly the ball zips through the air, more than 45 mph on a straight line from one son to the other.
“The long snapper, it’s a position where no one knows your name unless you screw up,” she said.
Snappers are graded, in part, by a stopwatch, as coaches want to know how long it takes for a ball to go from a snapper’s hands to the punter’s (for Aiken, that time is an impressive 0.67 seconds.) It’s a position in which a tenth of a second might separate an NFL snapper from an unemployed snapper, but coaches also watch for accuracy, consistency and a snapper’s ability to block and race downfield to help in coverage.
For the best, it’s a position that could offer a safe, stable career. Five long snappers earned more than $1 million last season. Even those on the opposite end of the salary scale enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. The NFL minimum salary ensured a long snapper at least $320,000 last season, and an undrafted free agent might pocket a signing bonus of $25,000.
Most long snappers begin their careers as free agents. Of the 32 long snappers who finished last season on an active roster, seven were drafted into the league but only three of those were picked specifically to snap. Even though every team dedicates a single roster spot to a long snapper — still a relatively new trend in the NFL — most snappers drift to the position from elsewhere. Aiken is no exception.
Discovering a talent
Aiken demonstrates his snapping, which is more violent and fast than one might realize. It’s not a simple quick flick of the wrist. Aiken throws the ball with a full swing of the arm — shoulder, elbow and wrist all working in conjunction with one another.
“Just like a quarterback,” he said, “except I’m upside down and throwing between my legs.”
In fact, Aiken can snap a ball more than 40 yards down a football field.
At Cave Spring High, he was the team’s snapper but that felt like a side duty. He also played tight end and defensive end. He got some sniffs from colleges, but after moving to quarterback his senior year, the recruiters disappeared. After graduation, he enrolled in Fork Union Military Academy for a post-grad year, hoping to move back to tight end, add some weight to his 6-foot-5 frame and earn his way onto a college team.
Mike London, then an assistant coach for Virginia, visited the school and watched Aiken do some drills and snap a few footballs.
“It was so quick,” Aiken said. “In, like, one minute, it was clear that this was my future if I wanted to play football.”
He accepted a scholarship to Virginia, where London would soon become head coach and Aiken would carve out an impressive four-year career, taking the field approximately 10 times each game.
Virginia’s special teams coach was also the team’s secondary coach. There was no specialist to teach him the finer points of his craft, and Aiken is almost entirely self-taught, which is increasingly rare for young, skilled snappers.
The position has evolved perhaps more than any other on the football roster in the past quarter-century. In the days of Johnny Unitas and Vince Lombardi, the special teams units were makeshift groups thrown on the field with little rhyme or reason. It wasn’t until George Allen hired Dick Vermeil in 1969 that any team employed a special teams coordinator. Allen is also believed to have been the first to devote a roster spot to someone whose primary job was to snap the football. When Allen arrived in Washington in 1971, he traded away two draft picks to make George Burman the long snapper for his celebrated “Over the Hill Gang.”
Burman was talked out of retirement because Allen had a desperate need for a long snapper.
“Had I just been a utility lineman, I don’t suspect I would’ve played as long as I did,” said Burman, who went on to become a professor and then dean of the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse. “But my ability to long snap, that was absolutely the reason he called me. It was the only reason, in fact.”
Burman finally retired from football after the Redskins’ 1972 Super Bowl appearance, but by then, Allen had already signaled a change in the way special teams and specialists would be viewed in the NFL.
“His philosophy was, ‘If a guy can do something better than anybody else, then that guy should be on your team,’ ” said Gary Zauner, an Allen disciple who coached special teams in colleges and pros for more than 30 years.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that most teams relented and dedicated a spot for a player who’d solely snap for punts and field goals. As coaches at all levels have recognized the importance of the position — points and field position can hinge on a snapper’s arm — more and more have focused on the highly-specialized spot.
Zauner is one of several who runs camps offering instruction to snappers. Annual academies help high school snappers earn college scholarships and Zauner helps college snappers improve and embark on pro careers.
“Even though every team has a snapper, they still face the same question,” said Zauner, who’s served as special teams coordinator for three NFL teams and as kicking consultant for eight others. “We only got seven picks, do we want to spend one on a long snapper or just get one in free agency?”
Getting the call
Aiken wasn’t sure if he’d played his last football game. Virginia’s season ended in November, and it wasn’t until a month later — on the same day, in fact — that Aiken was invited to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
“That’s when it was like, wow, maybe this is something I could really do for a living,” Aiken said.
Of the 330 players at the combine, Aiken was the only long snapper invited. He chatted with coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl, the combine and at Virginia’s pro day. He had serious discussions with 17 of them. Still, he knew that only a handful of snappers had ever been drafted and none before the fifth round. No snappers had been selected the previous two seasons.
Family and close friends still came up to Charlottesville, and they had a cookout for the draft’s third day. Just two specialists — a pair of place kickers — were selected, and no snappers.
“I understood the reality, but at the same time, it’s always disappointing when you want something to happen and it doesn’t,” he said. “But it wasn’t the end of the world.”
Still, before the draft wrapped up, he heard from a couple of teams that indicated Aiken would be snapped up quickly once the lockout ended. His position might actually bode well for his immediate future compared with others. Undrafted rookies who play elsewhere — receivers and linebackers, for example — didn’t have the benefit of minicamps and offseason workouts to learn NFL systems. If the lockout ends and teams stage abbreviated training camps, coaches might be more apt to lean on veterans familiar with their systems than undrafted rookies who’ve spent months lifting weights and waiting by the phone.
For Aiken, it doesn’t matter which team he goes to. His job is the same, and he’s able to practice it seven days a week in his backyard. He might be an NFL player in the coming weeks, but for now, he’s just another college graduate waiting for a job to open up.
“If it drags out longer, I’ll probably have to find a real job somewhere and figure a way to make everything work — helping my mom, snapping and everything else,” Aiken said. “But I’ll take that step when it comes. As of right now, all I can do is try to be prepared for the day the lockout does finally end.”