In praise of American sports’ most obscure position: the long snapper

<span>Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images</span>

Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

What do a mutual funds salesman, a high school football backup tight end, and a walk-on college football defensive end have in common?

They all play arguably the most obscure position in American professional sports at the highest level.

These three men – Zach Triner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Liam McCullough of the Atlanta Falcons, and Mitchell Fraboni of the Denver Broncos – are long snappers for NFL teams.

Long snappers rarely see the field, snapping the football to the punter on punts and the holder on field goals and extra points. Sadly for the men playing the position, they generally only receive attention when they screw up. Most fans may not realize that long snappers are often overlooked, even by those within the sport. But that prevailing cultural apathy, and lack of competition for roster sports, also creates an opportunity for players who otherwise would not have had the chance to have a career in the NFL.

Related: The NFL’s perfect player: how LP Ladouceur has made $10m from long snapping

None of the aforementioned long snappers had the necessary skills to play an offensive or defensive position in the NFL.

Triner was a defensive end for Assumption College in NCAA’s Division II, the second tier of US college sports whose athletes hardly ever make it to the NFL, even good ones. After going undrafted out of college in 2015, Triner sold mutual funds for Fidelity Investments by day and practiced long snapping in the morning and evenings, and attended several NFL tryouts, according to the Marshfield Mariner. His persistence finally paid off when he made the Buccaneers roster in 2019 and he contributed to their 31-9 Super Bowl LV victory over the Kansas City Chiefs one season later.

Conversely, McCullough was a high school football star – although not in the traditional sense. A backup tight end and wide receiver at Ohio’s Worthing Kilbourne High School, the long snapper caught the attention of nearby Ohio State and received a full scholarship to long snap for one of the most prestigious college football programs in America, as the Columbus Dispatch reported in 2014.

And while Fraboni was a talented defensive end in high school, recording 10 sacks his senior year, he didn’t initially earn a scholarship to Arizona State University. Instead, he walked on at the Division I school, where he was a long snapper and defensive end, though he never played much defense in college.

Long snappers rarely see the field, snapping the football to the punter on punts and the holder on field goals and extra points.

Long snappers rarely see the field, snapping the football to the punter on punts and the holder on field goals and extra points. Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

It is not just the NFL where long snapping creates playing opportunities, either. Players can earn playing time at the high school and collegiate levels by exhibiting competency at throwing a football between their legs quickly and accurately.

I know this first hand. Like Triner, I long snapped at Marshfield High School in Massachusetts. Unlike Triner, I sucked at football.

Yet, by long snapping, I contributed to my team’s 2014 Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship season.

I started practicing long snapping immediately after the 2013 season ended because I had tried nearly every other position in four years of playing football and sucked at each of them. I was so bad at football that in the final two junior varsity games of my junior season, I never managed to see the field. The previous season, my JV team accidentally played a freshman team and I failed to stop what appeared to be a middle-school running back from scoring the go-ahead touchdown late in a game.

While I generally spent an hour per day from December 2013 to August 2014 practicing long snapping after learning how to do it by watching YouTube videos, I avoided telling my teammates what I was doing out of fear that a better athlete would copy me and take the position. Our other two long snappers were a tight and a center who were both Division I football prospects. I thought if either took the position seriously, they would be far better at it than me. Thankfully, neither cared much. Even when it looked like I would overtake them, they let me take most of the punt and field goal unit snaps in practice instead of using the time to improve their inconsistent field goal snaps.

Although I enjoyed long snapping because I loved football and it was an opportunity to contribute to a strong high school football program, doing so earned little respect.

It turns out that playing football isn’t that cool when you have to explain to kids in school what the position you play does when they ask, and they still have no idea what you are talking about after giving them a thorough explanation.

Additionally, opposing players on the defensive line lobbed insults and laughed at me. Maybe this was because they saw a 5ft 9in, 175lb easy target and a stark contrast from the nearly 300lb center who bulldozed them one play earlier. It never bothered me since we were always winning.

At practice, I had to make time to practice long snapping since just 10 minutes of our two-and-a-half-hour practices were dedicated to special teams, including kickoffs and returns. That meant I had to grab the fifth-string quarterback to catch snaps for me while the starting offense ran plays against a scout defense. The team also lacked a long-snapping coach, so if I had questions about the technicalities of my position, I generally had to find that information out myself. It’s understandable. The team included four future Division I football players, so a third-string guard throwing the ball to the holder or punters in generally lopsided games was not its chief concern.

Even so, teams need long snappers. While long snappers are typically the lowest-paid players in the NFL, averaging just over $1m per year, teams struggle without them.

Whether it was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison sailing a snap through the end zone for a safety in 2008, Oakland Raiders linebacker Travis Goethel botching three consecutive snaps in a game in 2012, or Cincinnati Bengals tight end Mitchell Cox’s long snapping struggles resulting in a blocked game-winning extra point and a missed field goal in overtime last season in a game his team lost, injuries to long snappers have proven disastrous for NFL teams.

While still undervalued, long snappers have drawn greater appreciation from NFL teams in recent years. Since 2008, several NFL teams have drafted players who solely long snap and play no other positions, including the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots (twice), Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, and several others.

All of that is to say that elite football players typically are not prioritizing long snapping in the way they may attempt to become a quarterback, linebacker or running back. There is far less demand, even among those passionate about the game, to become long snappers. If high school backups can make it to the NFL long snapping and bad junior varsity players can snap for powerhouse high school football teams over Division I players, perhaps this is a position more kids should pursue.

Every team needs one long snapper, if not more. Some high schools and colleges have different long snappers for punts and field goals. Yet, few kids want to make their top priority a position that sometimes plays fewer than five times per game and receives little recognition. If they did, they may have an easier time earning playing time for their respective teams. And if they’re competent at it in high school, it could afford them a chance to play at an even higher level.

Good long snappers might not see their name in newspapers much, but they provide something of value to their respective teams, even if few take notice.

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