Long snapper is one of the most unique positions in the NFL. With only 32 starting spots available and no real need for teams to keep backups barring a unique circumstance, making it to the NFL is one thing, but sustaining a career is something else entirely.
Due to the nature of the role, it’s rare to see snappers drafted into the NFL. Maybe one or two every year get invited to the NFL combine, and around the same number will be selected by teams in the bottom rounds of the Draft. Minnesota took a flyer on Austin Cutting out of Air Force in the seventh round this year and while his NFL journey took a different route, a very different path opened up for every other snapper in his class. A route that involves no light, no direction, no certainty, no guidance. Just hope and hard work.
Among them is Georgia Tech’s Zach Roberts, who knew going into the Draft process that the chances of being selected were low. Now an intern for a contracting company as an assistant superintendent, Roberts has the battle of balancing a 40-hour work week and keeping the dream alive.
A day in the life of Roberts is a rigorous one. He wakes up at around 5AM and goes to work from 7AM-3.30PM, unless he’s asked to stay longer. From there, it’s back home to eat with his fiancé and two-year-old daughter, before heading to the Gym for a workout and to practice some snapping. A Father, a husband to be, working a 40-hour work week before going back to finish his final semester at Georgia Tech, who is also trying with every ounce of energy he has, to break into the NFL. His employers, many of whom used to play college football, are supportive of his drive and ambition, knowing fully-well that his life could be flipped upside down in a heartbeat.
Days passed after the seventh round came to a close, and Roberts had heard nothing. The doubts started to creep in and the bigger picture started to become a reality until his phone rang during a workout that following Friday. It was the Washington Redskins inviting him to their rookie minicamp. The Lamar transfer packed his bags and set off to work out for a team that already had two snappers on the roster.
Roberts wasn’t the only specialist working out, however. Among those trying to make a positive impression, was Drew Ferris. A man who graduated out of Florida back in 2013 and struggled to find a permanent home in the NFL and who shared a room with Roberts throughout this crucial weekend.
Ferris waited 10 months after the NFL Draft for his first opportunity, a minicamp with the New York Jets. he then spent the 2016 offseason and preseason with the Seattle Seahawks, but was out of the league in 2017 before another window presented itself. This time, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It gave me an opportunity to compare my snapping to a guy who’s had multiple shots at the league.” Roberts told me on a phone call one evening. I think I fared well next to him and he was like “Dude, I don’t have any animosity to any other long snappers, it’s a fair shot for all of us. Keep trying.”
Ferris has been in this game since 2013. He’s lived through the uncertainty, experienced the highs of signing with a team and the lows of being pushed back to square one in the blink of an eye. It’s all about waiting and staying ready. That’s all you can do if you want to make it in this league.
You’d assume that with the pool being so thin, opportunities so scarce and competition so high, that there would naturally be a lot of hesitation when it comes to networking. Not wanting to stifle the growth of another so to speak, but looking after number one would be understandable. Instead, they’re supportive of one another.
All in the same position, it’s made clear that it’s down to the coaches discretion. Everyone is fighting over the same piece of cake, but scrapping amongst themselves won’t give them any kind of superior advantage. Everyone’s starving. Some have waited years for this moment, it’s about respect and helping those around you.
Humility is a common trait among snappers. Just take Eagles long snapper Rick Lovato, who earned a new one-year contract this offseason. Now a Super Bowl champion, Lovato was an undrafted free agent who worked behind the counter at ‘Joyce’s Subs & Pizza’, the family business, before a call from Green Bay changed everything. Fast forward to 2019, and Lovato has helped kicker Jake Elliott break several franchise records.
UDFA Chris Wilkerson is another example. He worked out for the Titans in May along with the Niners, but was sent home empty-handed after both. Roberts had worked out with Wilkerson at the Texans’ local pro day earlier in the year, building a strong rapport, but with the two living so far away, it’s a struggle to get together.
The other trouble is, of course, finding someone to catch your snaps. Otherwise, it involves a lot of running back and forth to retrieve balls you’ve tossed 20 yards down a field. This itself can be difficult, with friends, former teammates, and others in the same boat all having commitments as well.
‘One of the guys I worked out with in Washington is from Houston, the Punter. We’re gonna try to get together at some point, but having to drive an hour to meet someone, then drive back again, on top of working 40 hours. It’s hard. We want to get some work in.
Roberts is set to go back to school on the 15th of August to finish his final semester, but it will also put him in the best position possible to make the most of any lifelines that are thrown his way. Geoffery Collins, Georgia Tech’s new Head Coach, sat down with Roberts and told him that he can still use the field, weight room, and athletic training facilities. But going one further, the 6’1, 231 lbs, snapper has already built a rapport with the man set to finish what he started at Tech last year. The two work out together and help each other out.
That’s just who Roberts is. Selfless, calm, and very self-aware. As someone who has been through a similar situation before, he understands what’s at stake, and why he can’t allow himself to give up, or put too much emotion into every bump in the road.
“It’s a similar process to when I was transferring. I went through my last semester at Lamar and I told them I was going to transfer.” Roberts explained. “I didn’t hear anything for six months until May, when Georgia Tech told me they want me to go and long snap for them. I’m used to being in the dark and not knowing where my next step is.”
“Keeping an even keel is everything. You can’t get too high or too low because you can’t maintain it. Just put in your hours every day and if somethings gonna happen, its gonna happen.”
Roberts has come a long way since winning the starting long snapper role at Lamar in 2016. A player who has all the requisite traits to succeed at the next level, and a grounded personality that invites conversation. Roberts has always been a leader and is the type of guy who lets his work do the talking, leading by example. But how can you show that to an NFL team? How can you grab their attention without looking as though you’re drowning in an Ocean, desperate for help with arms swinging in the air?
By remaining humble, hungry, and ready.
“Now that I’ve been through that process and talked to guys who have gone through it, it makes it easier to stay even and just go with the flow.”
From August to December, the NFL is in full swing. Injuries occur, players are cut, mistakes happen, and roster spots open. It’s important that Roberts is in the best shape of his life, waiting for the right moment.
But that’s the life of a long snapper. Every ring of the phone will send your heart racing. You’re stumbling in the Dark, not knowing what lies around the corner. Many are husbands, fathers, managers, businessmen. All of whom know that at any given moment, they have to pack their bags and get on a flight to try and keep the dream alive.
So, you want to be a long snapper? Put in the work, don’t get too high or too low, find a strong support system from those around you, and never give up.
Photo Credit: Georgia Tech