The Lonely Existence of a Long Snapper
Long snapping is one of the most unassuming positions in football. Most of the time they are never noticed unless they make a mistake. Some of the NFL's biggest gaffes have come as a result of a low snap. And some of the NFL's greatest moments have come as a result of a good snap. It's a thankless position until someone messes up, which is why it is one of the loneliest positions in football. While the position's history is not one of great substance, it is a direct reflection of how far football has come.
The Fathers of the Position
When George Burman was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 15th round of the 1964 NFL Draft, he knew that he would have to try anything in order to hang on to that coveted roster spot. But there was something about his ability that caught the eye of the Bears' head scout, George Allen. He struggled on the offensive line while suffering through the icy chill of the Windy City. After two years, he was traded to the Rams, a team that was led by none other than George Allen.
Allen immediately had a heart-to-heart with the young, aspiring center and gave him his options. He could either continue to toil on the bench or he could be the team's designated long-snapper. This was a revolutionary idea at the time. Teams were still using centers as the athlete responsible for snapping the ball seven yards behind them to either the placeholder or the punter. It was almost unthinkable to have one person specifically on the roster for the sole purpose of long-snapping.
Seeing no other option, Burman accepted the challenge of becoming the game's first true long-snapper. He mastered the craft over the next four years, quietly working on his technique and improving every year. Still, long snappers are almost never noticed and he never gained the notoriety that players of all other positions tend to acquire.
By Super Bowl V, the Baltimore Colts were leaning heavily on a player that they had signed for this very moment. Tom Goode had been an effective offensive lineman in both the AFL and NFL for the past decade and was on his last leg as a player. Long snapping was his last effective skill as a player. Seeking an effective long snapper, the Colts signed Goode for the 1970 season hoping that he would give them a needed advantage in the closing seconds of a tight ball game.
In regards to the majesty that is Super Sunday, Super Bowl V was a bust as both the Colts and the Cowboys committed a slew of costly penalties and gut-wrenching turnovers. Near the end of the game, the Cowboys coughed up another interception and the Colts lined up for the game-winning field goal. Here he was, Tom Goode in the exact spot the Colts had signed him for so recently. At the signal, Goode zipped the ball to Earl Morrall who cooly placed the ball in front of rookie Jim O'Brian's foot which swung swiftly and accurately. And with that, the Colts were Super Bowl champions and Tom Goode called it a career.
While much of the public didn't know who Tom Goode was, George Burman did. He knew that even though Goode was a better player on the offensive line than he ever was, his specialty was truly as a long snapper. As he watched the ball sail through the uprights from the comfort of his home, Burman realized that there was a possibility that long snappers could be stars. He yearned for that opportunity, that one moment in the sun.
Two years later, as a member of the Washington Redskins, George Burman realized his dream. As he jogged onto the field, Howard Cosell proclaimed him the game's first true long snapper. Despite the eventual loss to the undefeated Dolphins, George Burman still found a measure of infamy.
On the other side of the field in Super Bowl VII stood Howard Kindig. As a backup defensive end for the undefeated Dolphins, he also handled the team's long snapping duties. Late in the game Miami was up 14-0 and lined up for a field goal with their hearts set on finishing the game 17-0 in a perfect 17-0 season. Things began to unravel at the snap as Howard Kindig's snap was low, giving Earl Morrall less time to set it up on the tee. By the time kicker Garo Yepremian reached the ball, he had no other choice but to awkwardly toss it down the field. But the ball was batted down and Garo again tried to throw, but the ball slipped out of his hands and the fumble was promptly returned by Washington to cut the lead in half.
Dubbed "Garo's Gaffe", the comedy of errors remains one of the greatest blunders in NFL history. And it all began with a bad snap. From that moment on, the only way that long snappers could gain fame was with a bad snap, not a good one. In many ways, long snappers were expected to be robots or video game characters. They were never expected to be great, just to do their job the same as usual. The expectations have never wavered.
However, a cottage industry began to grow. While it didn't happen overnight, shortly after George Burman's retirement in 1973 long snapping began to transition into a specialist's position. No longer would teams be looking for a center who could hike the ball to the punter. Soon, they would no longer be looking for a man with an offensive lineman's girth. the mold would change to a man of lean but sturdy build, possibly having served as a tight end, linebacker or defensive back in high school or college.
Still, the process was slow. Throughout the 1970's the NFL still saw the likes of star players such as Bobby Bell, Jim Otto, Todd Christensen and Wesley Walls among others handle long snapping duties. By 1983, the NFL was ready for the transition to be completed. That year, Trey Junkin was drafted in the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills. Initially eyeing him as a linebacker, Junkin was soon thrust into the spotlight as the team's long snapper.
By the middle of 1984. he was traded to the Redskins, beginning a long, windy journey through the NFL. After spending half a year in Washington, Trey Junkin continued to perfect his craft in Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland and Arizona. After he was cut by the Cowboys in Training Camp of 2002, Trey Junkin was all but retired. And then the Giants called. All year, New York had struggled with their long snapping and by the playoffs they lost their long snapper, Dan O'Leary, to injury. They needed a dependable long snapper and so they called the one man they knew was available and dependable, Trey Junkin.
In San Francisco for the Wild Card Round, the Giants built a commanding 38-14 by the middle of the third quarter. Seeing their season slipping away, the 49ers staged a furious comeback that rocked San Francisco like an earthquake of years past. Suddenly, the 49ers were ahead 39-38 and the Giants were lined up for a potential game-winning field goal.
Out of shape and just shy of his 42nd birthday, Trey Junkin bent over the ball and looked between his legs. At the signal, he zipped the ball just a tad too low. As it skidded across Candlestick Park's turf, holder Matt Allen made the split-second decision to loft the ball as far as he could, hoping that one of his Giants teammates would catch it in the end zone. His effort was fruitless as the referees failed to call a pass interference penalty on the 49ers while Allen's pass fell to the ground. And it all began with a bad snap.
As the ground shook with the joyous cries of San Franciscans, Trey Junkin could feel his career dying a quick, painful death. Inside the Giants' locker room after the game, Junkin's teammates were in a state of shock and anger. Despite his current shape and age, they expected him to do his job, nothing more. Anything less was considered blasphemous in the face of the sport. Trey Junkin left the game that he loved so much ashamed and embarrassed, forever knowing that he could never take away the sting his teammates felt that brisk January afternoon.
The following year, the New England Patriots signed Brian Kinchen to the squad entering the playoffs. They too had an urgent need for an experienced long snapper. Like Trey Junkin, he too had spent the regular season on his couch, hoping for one last chance at glory. Kinchen played well in the Patriots' first two playoff games and was thrilled to be going to the Super Bowl. He had dreamed of this opportunity all his life.
But on Super Bowl Sunday, on the eve of the biggest game of his life, Brian Kinchen cut his index finger to the bone. Embarrassed and in anguish, he told his coach Bill Belichick that he was quitting the game and that the Patriots should sign another long snapper to replace him on the roster. The legendary coach scoffed at the idea and told him to suck it up and do his job.
Just two days later, Brian Kinchen found himself hunched over the ball and staring at the holder. As Ken Walter caught the ball and Adam Vinatieri wound up his foot, the final seconds ticked down on Brian Kinchen's unassuming career. The snap was good, the placement was good, the kick was good and Brian Kinchen finished his career as a Super Bowl champion.