Long snappers start with short straw

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Live From Tampa

January 25, 2001|By DAN RODRICKS

TAMPA, Fla. - Call me weird, but I've always been curious about the long snapper. That's not a turtle, it's a title. The long snapper is the unheralded, woefully underappreciated fellow who spreads his legs at the line of scrimmage, tucks his head down - way down and upside down - and hikes the football 15 yards for punts (7 yards for field goals and extra points) just a split-second before some 300-pound defensive tackle comes crushing down on his neck in an attempt to block said punt, field goal or extra point.

It's an important job - and that's an understatement for the underwhelming Ravens offense, which counted heavily on punts and field goals to carry the team to Super Bowl XXXV. The only time anyone seems to talk about the long snapper is when he messes up, when his 15-yard spiral doesn't spiral, or when it goes sailing over the head of the punter, or dribbling pathetically back to the guy who holds the ball for field goals. It's a thankless job, but someone has to do it, and the fellow who will do it for the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV is John Hudson, No. 66.

He doesn't, at first encounter, strike you as the happiest guy in the world. But the poker face goes with Hudson's flat Tennessee drawl, the kind you associate with good-ol'-boy airline pilots - at ease, confident and just doin' his job, ain't no big thing. Hudson attends the daily media circuses here and no one bothers him. So he strolls along, disposable camera in hand, snapping photographs of his far more celebrated teammates.

"Not much to tell," Hudson said when I confessed long curiosity about the long snapper. How's it he became one? "I'm the one who could do it," he said. "Whoever can do it, gets stuck doing it." He makes it sound like cleaning fish. But this is no easy trick. The long snapper is upside down, looking at the punter 15 yards away, and he must fire the football off the ground in a neat, precise spiral. Same with field goals and extra points, just 10 yards shorter.

"My father showed me how to do it," Hudson said.

My father showed me how to bait a hook, how to change the oil in my '68 Ford Galaxy, and he showed me how to make some awful splits in 10-pin bowling. But he never showed me how to be a long snapper. But Hudson's father was a professional football player. Richard S. "Bill" Hudson played offensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills and the San Diego Chargers in the old American Football League.

Later, he coached the game, and he showed his son a lot of things, including the long snap. One of those come-in-handy things. Like the Heimlich maneuver. At Henry County High School in Paris, Tenn., John Hudson was a two-way tackle on the football team. And when the coach went looking for a long snapper, Hudson got the assignment. Hey, someone had to do it.

He was a long snapper in college at Auburn, too. He went into the National Football League in 1990, played for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets, hoping to be a starting offensive lineman. It was during his stint with the Jets that coach Bill Parcells made a career decision for him. "He took me out of the offensive-line drills," Hudson said.

That meant he had to work his specialty to stay in pro football. So he's a long snapper. The Ravens picked him up in October to replace their injured long snapper, the affable Frank Wainright.

"Has been perfect on snaps for punts, field goals and [extra points]," say the Ravens' press notes on Hudson. "Launched deep snaps perfectly on 10 Kyle Richardson punts on a windy day [27 mph gusts] in the Ravens' 21-3 [playoff] win vs. Denver."

Wainright, who's here with the team but will not suit up for the game, came into long snapping differently. He was a tight end. And when his college team needed a long snapper in a pinch and the coach auditioned the available talent, Wainright discovered he could do it. "That's it. I was the one who could do it," he says. "I snap the ball just like I throw the ball." But you're upside down, and the guys across from you could break your neck.

"I know," he says. "It's not something I wanted to do, but it has kept me in the game. ... And, when I snap, those big guards on either side of me watch out for me."

"They're great, they're seasoned veterans," says grateful place-kicker Matt Stover of both Wainright and Hudson. "You can count on these guys. You can count on the ball being there - for place-kicking it; three seconds, snap, place and kick - and, hey, I'm glad you're writing about those guys."

Someone had to do it.

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