Socci’s View: For ex-history teacher, instructing a rare football art is a snap
Socci’s View: For ex-history teacher, instructing a rare football art is a snap
The word count reached 1,515. Elapsed time, from “It’s…” to “…normal,” eclipsed nine minutes by nine seconds. All in a single answer last September to a question about long snappers.
That Bill Belichick would talk…and talk…and talk so long, saying so much about the most specialized — perhaps to you, most peculiar — skill in team sports wasn’t so surprising to those of us who’ve waded into past press conferences, heard him asked about a quirky nuance of special teams and been transported to a Football 301 lecture hall.
But to much of the outside world inside the NFL, familiar mostly with the “We’re on to Cincinnati…” Belichick, such verbosity over the act of bending over, tilting the field upside down and two-handing a spiral to the waiting palm of a teammate seemed to turn them on their heads.
The full text of Belichick’s remarks (you can find it here), like the lengthy video of his reply to Boston Globe reporter Ben Volin’s inquiry about using a roster spot solely for a long snapper (see above), shot through cyberspace. All the way to northern Idaho.
That’s where the words from Belichick’s lips went straight through the ears to the heart of a one-time junior-high history teacher. While Belichick, head coach and curator of football history, is one of the foremost authorities on the evolution of long snapping, Chris Rubio is one of the most important figures in the development — and therefore future — of long snappers.
For nearly two decades, Rubio, once dubbed “Guru of the Long Snap” in a New York Times headline, has been a traveling clinician, personal instructor and scholarship matchmaker. As hundreds of kids have attended his remote camps, sought his one-on-one tutelage and counted on him to connect them to college coaches, Rubio has become an “adventurous social media” maven; podcasting, blogging, producing videos, posting ratings and reviews. All on that same, singular subject.
And you thought Belichick had a lot to say about long snapping.
Joe Cardona begins his eighth season as the Patriots’ long snapper. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Growing up a big, burly kid in Southern California, thought unfit for quarterback and uninterested in being constantly yelled at as an offensive lineman, Rubio stopped playing organized football after his freshman year in high school. But a backyard epiphany — seeing a buddy long snap, trying it himself and immediately getting the hang of it — convinced him to resume as, in his words, “an upside down quarterback throwing the wrong way.”
Rubio was on the right track.
Self-taught, he left Charter Oak High for UCLA, walked onto Terry Donahue’s Bruins, eventually earned a scholarship and long snapped for future All-America kicker, Chris Sailer. Several years later, Sailer launched a kicking school. In need of help conducting a camp, he called his college pal, Rubio.
Teaching sixth-graders at the time, Rubio joined Sailer for a weekend in Las Vegas. Afterwards, Sailer suggested he start teaching wannabe long snappers.
“I told myself, ‘Who the hell is going to pay for this?’” Rubio recently joked over the phone. “‘There’s no way.’”
Nonetheless, he gave it a shot, moonlighting at first. About four years later, Rubio Long Snapping became his full-time, all-consuming focus. Today, business is good, very good in fact.
Chris Rubio made UCLA as a walk-on before earning a scholarship as the Bruins’ long snapper. (Photo by Brian Bahr /Allsport)
Rubio says he’s worked with more than 1,000 long snappers who’ve gone on to play college football, including a dozen currently in the NFL. The AFC East alone features former Rubio campers Reid Ferguson in Buffalo, his brother Blake in Miami and Joe Cardona here in New England.
Cardona’s love of long snapping flourished after he set eyes as a seventh-grader on a Seahawks-Chargers preseason game in his native San Diego.
“All I did was watch the long snappers,” he recounted after an early-August practice, adding something his father Patrick stressed. “My dad told me that I’d always have a spot on the field if I could do it.”
Patrick was talking about high school. Joe was thinking of a higher level, college at least. Inspired, he poured himself into the rare skill, seizing on his surroundings in a place populated by pro and college specialists.
“I went all over (San Diego) County to get work in,” he said. “My thing was if I could find people who wanted to catch snaps and they needed snaps as kickers and punters, I would be there to give them work and get as good as I could.
“I was snapping to college punters and even some NFL punters. I was in high school. I had to fit in. I didn’t have an option. So that was my big development.”
Cardona studied and emulated the game’s best long snappers. Already experienced around workout partners like NFL kickers Billy Cundiff, John Carney and Nick Novak, he needed exposure to college recruiters.
So early in 2009, while at Granite Hills High School, Cardona attended one of Rubio’s camps for the first time. His lively fastball made an impression. “Joe is someone that I had no(t) seen before that really blew me away,” Rubio wrote in his on-line player review.
Six months later, he got another up-close look at Cardona. Rubio noted “tremendous speed on the ball and learns VERY quickly,” praised Cardona as “a terrific listener” and “(l)oved his improvement and desire to be the best.”
Cardona continued to rise in Rubio’s ratings after one more camp. “Terrific improvement…really has worked on his balance along with his blocking…snaps a college ball already,” Rubio’s scouting report summarized.
Rubio’s on-line scouting report on Cardona as a high school long snapper.
As it turned out, Cardona was recruited to the Naval Academy independently of Rubio’s camps. One of his coaches at Granite Hills recommended him to an assistant in Annapolis. Still, Joe appreciates Rubio’s role in the college placement of others.
“You have to go and get your name in front of these (college coaches) and hopefully get recognized,” Cardona says. “He’s really good at making college snappers.”
The Bills’ Reid Ferguson, like his brother, Blake of the Dolphins, is one of the many NFL long snappers to attend Chris Rubio’s camps. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
That process starts with one’s physical makeup. Which, to Rubio, begins from the bottom up.
“If I was going to choose a long snapper,” he says, “I would line the whole team up and look to see who’s got the biggest butt. Whoever has the biggest butt, I’d pull them up. Then I’d say who’s got the biggest physical head, like literally their head size is big. Then I would look at who has the longest arms.”
Then Rubio would explore what’s inside upstairs. Ideally, long snappers of his choosing would be “smart enough to where they can understand concepts but they’re dumb enough to where they’re not overthinking. Because (if) you get a long snapper that starts to (over) think, that’s the worst.”
Once Rubio identifies his big-butted, large-headed, long-armed, relatively unreflective prototype, he addresses technique.
“You always want balance, extension and follow through,” he says. “Those are the things that I always talk about.”
And efficiency. From a snapper’s first movement to the instant his ball hits a punter’s hands, no more than .75 seconds should pass. There’s no time — none, at all — for wasted motion.
“You’re snapping a dead animal really fast,” Rubio quips. “Let’s not make it overly difficult.
“We don’t need a wind up. We just need you to go back.”
Naturally, no long snapper perfectly fits Rubio’s perfect profile. So, no two are taught exactly alike. Maybe one has a big butt, but short legs with a long torso. Perhaps another with a huge head has tiny hands. Then there’s the snapper built to spec, though prone to overthought.
“Probably 70 percent of my job is getting kids to relax,” Rubio says, putting the hat of a psychologist atop his bald head. “It’s one of those weird positions where there’s no one fighting you on it. Take a wide receiver, they’re going against a defensive back, a running back’s going against a defensive line. A long snapper, they’re going against Mother Nature. I mean, literally, they’re just snapping the ball. No one’s going to block your shot, so to speak.”
Rubio is a technician, amateur psychologist and, lastly, a broker.
He ranks his long snappers based on performance, considers their personalities and, when coaches call, pairs them with what he believes to be the appropriate college programs.
“Every coach wants a great long snapper. But every coach wants a different type of long snapper,” Rubio says. “Some want long and lean. Some want more athletic. Some want more of a personality. I just have to find out what they want.”
What they need, regardless of body types, is someone to consistently throws strikes on punts, field goals and extra points. Just one wild pitch could cost a game, a championship, a job.
No one knows this better than the coach who seems to know all on the subject of long snapping.
Belichick’s Patriots have won two Super Bowls with Cardona, the button-down Navy lieutenant. They’ve also won two relying on a much heavier snapper with a much louder personality.
Who can forget tatted-up Lonie Paxton making snow angels in old Foxboro Stadium and amid fallen confetti in the Superdome after Adam Vinatieri stunned Raiders and Rams alike in the winter of 2001-02?
But lest we forget, Rubio offers a reminder of Paxton’s most important role in Vinatieri’s postseason heroics.
“You’ll never have a game-winning kick,” he says, “without a game-winning snap.”
Lonie Paxton celebrates after Super Bowl XXXVI. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.