This football task is no snap Long snapper in NFL faces unique demands

September 16, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

On Sundays in the fall, Harper Le Bel would prefer to remain anonymous.

Those are the days when players like him appear in NFL games and go largely unnoticed -- on good days, that is. With one crucial mistake, Le Bel's life can change drastically. At the least, his jersey number turns into a bull's-eye, and he becomes the target of angry criticism from coaches, teammates and fans. He also could find himself out of a job.

Such is the tenuous life of a long snapper, one of the NFL's more unique fraternities.

"Anonymity is a good thing, without a doubt," Le Bel said. "Being a long snapper is a humbling experience. What a treasure. I'm one of 30 or so guys in the world who can say they're a long snapper in the NFL. But when you don't live up to that responsibility, it changes everything."

Le Bel, a backup tight end who is on the Ravens' roster solely due to his snapping ability, is fresh off a most humbling experience.

Remember his performance in the team's season-opening, 20-13 loss to Pittsburgh? On two of the Ravens' three missed field goals that day, Le Bel's snaps were errant. And those who watched the game will never forget his second-half snap to punter Kyle Richardson, a horribly short snap that bounced a yard in front of the punter, through his legs and ultimately gave the Steelers the ball at the Ravens' 5. Three plays later, Pittsburgh had a 10-point lead and control of the game.

"I cringed watching the [Pittsburgh] film, and it was tough [the next day] around here. Lots of stares," said Le Bel, who said that was the single worst day of his 10-year career.

"Usually, I can close my eyes and I pretty much know where the ball is going to be. When I'm really on, I can aim at something as small as a uniform label and get it there. That [Pittsburgh game] was one of those rare times when I asked myself, 'What is going on?' "

Here is what goes on in the world of the long snapper. You think it's easy bending upside down and firing a straight, tight spiral between your legs to a punter standing 15 yards away or a place-kicking holder kneeling 8 yards away? Try it sometime.

Try it with a 280-pound defender lined up over you, salivating over the prospect of a free shot at your head. Oh, and before that, don't forget to look over the defense and help to make the correct calls to set up your team's blocking scheme. Then, after you get off a good snap, get back in an upright position, block your man effectively and, on a punt, run down the field to cover the play.

"The worst is on field goals. You might have three 300-pound guys lined up over you," said Brian Kinchen, the Ravens' backup tight end who has spent most of his 11 NFL seasons as a long snapper. "If one of the guys next to you doesn't do his job, you take the brunt of the hit, and that can wear on you. You're thinking about it the next time you line up to snap.

"You're judged a lot like a kicker in that role. You don't get a lot of room for errors. It's not a fun job, but it's something that will keep you around."

Kinchen knows. As a 12th-round draft pick of Miami's in 1988, he survived for his first five seasons in the league because of the snapping skills he developed at LSU. He has caught a respectable 139 passes since 1993, but his value as a backup snapper to Le Bel makes him a special commodity.

Special teams coaches are always on the lookout for the next snapper who will give them fewer nightmares. Ravens coach Scott O'Brien remembers finding Randy Kirk in 1991, O'Brien's first year with the Cleveland Browns. Kirk, whose career had begun in 1987 in San Diego, had been out of the league for a year.

"He was working construction, and we needed a snapper," O'Brien recalled. "You try to identify them at the college level. They're hard to find. When you get one, you try to take care of him."

Kirk lasted for two games, after which he was replaced by Kinchen.

Besides players with multiple talents like Kinchen, there are specialists who make NFL rosters strictly because they can snap. Guys like Minnesota's Mike Morris, a 12-year veteran. Guys like Adam Lingner, who enjoyed a 13-year career, including four straight trips to the Super Bowl with Buffalo (1989-1992). Guys like Le Bel, who has caught one pass for 9 yards in his career, and is making the league minimum salary of $325,000 because he has been blessed with an unusual gift.

Kansas City drafted Le Bel in the 12th round of the 1985 draft. He spent the next four years doing short stints with the Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was released by the San Diego Chargers after the players strike ended in 1987.

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