The Ravens' Matt Katula prepares to snap to holder Sam… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
When I introduce myself to Matt Katula and shake his hand inside the Ravens' locker room, he seems surprised that someone wants to talk to him. No one ever interviews the long snapper - and that's what Katula does for the Ravens.
On some level, this is understandable. Katula, who towers over me at 6 feet 6, performs the biggest niche job in sports. He launches a ball between his legs, toward the kicker, on field goals and punts. That's it. There is really no equivalent of the long snapper in any other sport. It would be like an NBA team having someone on its bench whose only job were inbounding the ball. And depending on how you look at it, it's either the best job in football or the worst.
No one wants to talk to the long snapper as long as he does his job correctly. No one even thinks about him, for the most part. The only time you'll hear the announcers say his name is if he fails on a grand stage.
Katula, however, has not failed. But this only intensifies the Catch-22 that is his existence. The better he is at his job, the easier it looks. I want to experience what it's like to be Matt Katula. I want him to teach me the ancient art of long-snapping.
When I pitch the story to Katula roughly on these terms, he rolls his eyes and laughs.
"Can you throw a football overhand?' he asks.
"For the most part," I answer.
"Then you can learn how to long snap," Katula says. "It's pretty easy."
To an extent, he's right. Snapping can be easy enough to learn. Growing up in Waukesha, Wis., Katula learned the "art of snapping" - again, insert eye roll here - in his backyard as an eighth-grader, under the watchful eye of his father, a former punter. He just didn't see a future in it. By the time he got to high school, he was 6-6, and had a 34-inch vertical leap. He was, basically, everything I am not: athletic, tall, relatively fast and strong enough as a high school defensive end to earn a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.
"I snapped for one year in high school, my junior year," Katula said. "I didn't do it my senior year because I didn't like it. My mom wanted to put it on my highlight film, but I didn't really see the value in it."
The Wisconsin Badgers' coaching staff did see the value in it, though. He played defensive end and snapped for two years, but when he broke his arm and had to miss time, two punts were blocked in his absence. The day Katula was healthy, his college coaches forced him to choose between playing defense and snapping. He chose snapping. By the time he graduated, he was considered the best long snapper in college football. The Ravens were impressed enough that they decided to keep him instead of veteran Joe Maese in 2005. The team signed him to a five-year contract extension last year.
I want Katula to know I'm taking this seriously when I arrive for our session at the Ravens indoor practice facility. I wanted him to know I was a professional, that I was going to treat his job and his profession with a modicum of respect. And I wanted to look the part. So moments before leaving my house, I grabbed a pair of football cleats from my basement and tucked them under my arm.
"So you busted out the cleats, huh?" Katula said, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "All right then."
The first thing you should know about Katula is that he's universally regarded as one of the nicest guys in the Ravens' locker room. He was patient and funny and helpful, even when I was foolishly inept. He taught me how to grip the football and how to block out the idea of getting punched in the back of the head the minute I let it fly.
So what makes Katula better than, say, a goofball like me?
"Consistency," says Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg. "As we all know, it's a lot like what they say about umpires: The good ones you never notice in baseball, because the game just flows. And that's the way it is with long snappers. You really don't notice them unless something goes wrong. And the key for Matt is he throws a real good ball, and he's consistent."
I am not consistent. After Katula shows me the proper way to grip the ball and reminds me to take a wide stance, I fire a few snaps at Ravens punter Sam Koch, who is down on his knee simulating a field goal. And for the most part, I don't embarrass myself. The best tip Katula gives me is, "Don't try to spin the ball." The spin is natural the way it comes out of the snapper's hand.
A few of my snaps actually get a nod of approval from Koch.
"I think it's all in the teaching," Katula says.
It should be pointed out that I have a considerable advantage. At no point is someone going to "accidentally" punch me in the face seconds after I send a wobbling ball back toward Koch. Although it's technically against the rules to hit the center, you're more likely to get flagged for making eyes at Tom Brady's wife than you are for hitting the long snapper.