It’s a mid-afternoon special teams practice at Redskin Park. Ethan Albright is in his element. This is his forte, an hourlong celebration of kicking and punting and - oh yes, long snapping.
This is what has earned the 6-foot-5, 257-pound “athlete” a 13-year NFL career and the chance to play for coaching legends like Don Shula and Joe Gibbs. Sessions such as these devoted to the addendum of the pigskin playbook have earned this father of four a trip to the Pro Bowl and iconic status on the sidelines at FedEx Field. This is the NFL’s second-longest tenured long snapper’s time to shine.
Albright is shining all right, but not because he leads the pack or barks orders like Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage. No, it’s the glare off his shock of red hair, shimmering in the summer rays, that catches the eye.
He’s down on one knee, chatting with punter Derrick Frost, his partner in fourth-down crime. By the look on their faces, the conversation has nothing to do with the kickoff drill the head hunters are performing in front of them nor the “skill” position players’ punt-coverage exercise nearby.
“OK, good job. Take a break,” special teams coach Danny Smith hollers, sending the special teamers scattering off in search of water.
Albright stands up awkwardly, readjusts himself and continues talking to Frost. Ten minutes pass. The long snapper tosses the ball to his punter. Practice ends. Albright, one of three returning Redskins players who last season earned a Pro Bowl selection, has hardly moved an inch.
“We have 43 days before the Giants game,” he says. “We still have a long haul, and it’s a long season.”
Albright doesn’t despise the drudgery of practice. It’s just after spending so much time with his head hunched between his legs, he has gained a certain perspective. He has been around since the pre-special teams practice days, before long snapper morphed into a position all its own.
“You know Ethan’s been doing this a long time,” Smith says. “Ethan is a quality person that takes his trade very seriously, he works extremely hard at it and is excellent at doing it. I would say he is the best snapper in the National Football League.”
No Redskins player can remember the last time a punter had to chase an errant snap or a holder had to dig a ball out of the turf for a field goal. Albright has remained consistent through the years.
Asked to name his favorite Ethan Albright story, center Casey Rabach declines.
“We would be out here for hours,” Rabach says. “I can’t tell you anything that wouldn’t embarrass him too bad.”
With Albright there is always a story. Like the one about how he got his nickname, the “Red Snapper …”
“Got that my rookie year,” Albright says. “I was with the Dolphins. In camp, veterans get bored. [Former Miami defensive end] Trace Armstrong was one of the veterans, and he started giving rookies nicknames. I came in, a red-headed guy in Miami, sunburned like crazy, and I was doing the long snapping. [One night at dinner] they are bringing all this seafood out, and he was right behind me, ‘You’re the Red Snapper.’ It just stuck. Ever since then.”
Perhaps it’s because they’re noticed only when they falter, but snappers tend to gravitate toward the eccentric.
Philadelphia Eagles snapper Mike Gammon was a prodigious juggler, Jon Dorenbos performed as a magician in Las Vegas before joining the Buffalo Bills in 2003 and San Diego’s David Binn was once romantically linked to Pamela Anderson.
While Albright is relatively free of off-field quirks - “I juggle my four kids’ schedules,” he says - he has become a cult hero thanks to his low level of eumelanin, an ultra-sensitivity to ultraviolent light, and one number: 53.
That was Albright’s player value rating in Madden 2007, the lowest for any player in the game. Albright, who is “not a big Madden video game guy,” couldn’t have cared less. But then some wise guys in the blogosphere went and penned a mock letter from Albright to John Madden - “You lose it more and more each year, old man” - and set it loose in cyberspace.
“I agreed with every word they had to say,” Albright says sarcastically. “I thought it was funny.”
Now there is a 4-minute, 22-second Albright tribute - an eight-photo montage of Albright set to DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over” - on YouTube.com, and he hears the pleas of autograph hounds each day when he lumbers to the locker room after practice.
Over the years, Albright - who learned the art of snapping from his older brother in the backyard of their Greensboro, N.C., home - has developed a holistic approach to his trade.
He nourishes his 37-year-old body by visiting a chiropractor, lounging on “those little foam rollers” in the Redskins’ weight room and having his kids walk on his back. He slathers himself with sun block - “SPF 85, Neutrogena’s got the best stuff,” he says - before every practice and, like an Eastern red bat roosting in a cave, hangs upside-down from an inversion board in his bedroom. While capsized, Albright takes a long look back at all the long looks back between his legs, and ruminates on those still to come.
“My job is just as mental as it is physical,” he says. “If I go out there thinking, ‘Oh God, I am going to screw this up, I hope it’s good,’ That’s a disaster waiting to happen. I have trained myself like ‘Hey, snap this one just like all the other ones and you will do fine. You’ve done the work, you’ve done the preparation, just stick to the routine and it will go right where it’s supposed to.’”
Each gameday begins with the same breakfast - a few eggs, some biscuits and a little fruit - and he sticks to the same sideline routine for every Redskins’ offensive series. In the belief that it’s bad luck to start thinking about punting too early, he watches the game on first down, then takes two practice snaps on second down and another on third down. This helps Albright keep his mind clear for the next test.
“I try to stay even-keeled,” Albright says. “I don’t want to get all jacked up. God, I’ll snap it 100 yards.”
“Once in a blue moon” Albright says, an opponent tries to rattle him. Like the time when he played for the Bills and …
“We had a game against Minnesota when [Vikings defensive tackle John Randle] was just, ‘All right, all right. I know what you did. I’m coming. I’m coming.’” Albright recalls. “I mean sometimes guys will talk and try and distract you, and I can just block that out. But my left guard was Ruben Brown, and he had been in the Pro Bowl like six years. He started laughing - this is in the middle of the game - he says, ‘Ethan, I think you are going down this time.’ That caught me off-guard, because [Randle] had my guard talking to me all of a sudden.”
Albright prefers to help block after he snaps the ball. Other than his brief snapping duties, he never touches the ball. Except for when …
“There was a year in Buffalo where I almost scored a touchdown,” Albright recalls. “The punt returner fumbled it, and it bounced right up to me. I got it down to the 2-yard line.”
After a few more fables, it is easy to see why Rabach, Smith and the Redskins’ fans can’t get enough of Albright. Or how spending four hours beside Albright, listening to tales and inhaling SPF fumes as Frost does each day, could be entertaining. Only one question remains: How long will Albright continue to put the “red” in Redskins?
“I am determined to go as long as the team lets me go,” Albright says. “They will make the decision that they are done with me before I am done with them. I am living the dream job, man.”