- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The photographers and cameramen wandered aimlessly across the FedEx Field sideline Sunday afternoon, completely unaware of what they were interrupting. They walked away from the field, cutting straight through a green clearance past the end of the bench. Nick Sundberg stood and swiveled, waiting as they passed.

While Sunday’s game between the Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans was beginning, Sundberg was trying to work. The fifth-year Redskins long snapper can’t just jog onto the field and whip back a perfect snap. He needs to be in a rhythm. He needs to practice throughout the game, snapping and snapping and snapping so that when he snaps on the field, he’s not even thinking about it.

Sundberg counted all of them once, the practice snaps he takes during a game.

“It was like 480 or something like that,” he said. “So … it’s a lot.”

Thousands of fans left the stadium later Sunday afternoon with memories of Kai Forbath’s game-winning 22-yard field goal as time expired, the lasting image of the ball splitting the uprights and players spilling onto the field to celebrate. Few fans think twice about the snap that set it up.

Or the other 474 snaps Sundberg has made since joining the Redskins.

SEE ALSO: SNYDER: With Redskins’ quarterbacks, choose your own adventure

“You never hear anything about him because he just does his job,” punter Tress Way said. “Every single time.”

For Sundberg, it just comes with the territory. Being a long snapper in the NFL means putting in countless hours of individual practice that is sometimes overlooked even in your own locker room. It means taking hundreds of snaps every day, lifting weights four days a week and studying hours of film to diagnose field goal and punt block schemes. It means practicing to put the ball on the left hip of a left-footed punter every time, or figuring out the velocity and spin of an extra-point snap so it lands in the holder’s hands with the laces already facing out.

“Ninety-nine percent isn’t good enough,” Sundberg said. “I like that. I strive for perfection.”

‘I want to be the best in the world’

To the untrained eye, long snapping seems straightforward, like a snap from the center to the quarterback from a little bit farther away. In reality, it is a completely different trade, wrought with unique challenges and demands.

A center, for example, cannot do the splits. Sundberg — listed at 6 feet, 264 pounds — can. Flexibility is an important aspect of long snapping because the snapper must reach all the way through his legs to snap the ball. Size matters, too, as he must be large enough to anchor the middle of the protection but also nimble enough to race downfield and cover a punt.

“There are quite a few things that come into it that a lot of people don’t think about,” the 27-year-old said.

To prepare each week, Sundberg watches tape like any other player, spending hours in the film room alongside Redskins assistant special teams coach Bradford Banta, who spent the majority of his 11 years in the NFL as a long snapper. Sundberg needs to not only know how his upcoming opponent will try to block a punt or kick, but also the individual tendencies of players who will try to cross in front of him or pick him.

Beyond film, however, Sundberg’s preparation strays from the rest of the team. His practices are an exercise in simple repetition, snapping over and over and over again, often as many as 200 times per day.

“I can’t even guess offhand how many times he snaps over the course of the week,” Forbath said, “but it’s a lot.”

Sundberg often judges his snaps by split-seconds and inches. If a punt snap hits Way in the chest, for example, it’s too high. If it’s at his knees, it’s too low. If it’s on his right hip, it should be on his left hip.

On field goals and extra points, Sundberg’s snap should reach Way’s hands with the laces already pointing straight up. This saves the holder the split-second adjustment of spinning the ball around to put the laces out, which gives Forbath a split-second longer to see the ball upon his approach.

“He is definitely a perfectionist,” Way said. “It’s nice because my job depends on him. Whenever you have a perfectionist that you’re working with, you’re usually pretty comfortable because you know that guy’s going to work really hard.”

That’s why Redskins coaches mostly leave Sundberg alone at practice. Banta offers tips in the film room but leaves the actual snapping techniques to Sundberg.

“I want to be the best in the world. I don’t want to be the best on this team,” Sundberg said. “So no coach could be harder on me than I am on myself. And I think they realize that.”

North Canyon beginnings

Few players set out to be a long snapper. And Sundberg wasn’t one of them.

Before his junior season at North Canyon High School in Phoenix, Sundberg was switched from left tackle to center at the request of the incoming coaching staff. And if he was going to play center, the coaches figured, he might as well be the team’s long snapper, too. So when Sundberg met the new offensive and defensive line coach, Ben Bernard, that summer, he introduced himself as the team’s long snapper.

“No you’re not,” Bernard replied. “Not yet.”

Bernard, a long-snapping guru, helped Sundberg bulk up in the weight room and develop his technique. He practiced with Bernard five or six days a week, growing from what he described as “terrible” to one of the best snappers in the region. The University of California took notice and offered him a full-ride scholarship, which was rare for the position at the time.

Still, the prospect of making a living as a long snapper was far from certain. Sundberg signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2009 but was waived that August. He also spent a couple of weeks on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad late that season before signing with the Redskins as a free agent in January 2010.

Bernard said he was fortunate to train someone like Sundberg who “outworks everybody” and made his job easy. But Sundberg feels equally fortunate to meet Bernard, who has now helped more than 50 of his pupils earn full-ride scholarships. Three, including Sundberg and former Redskins long snapper Kyle Nelson, are currently in the NFL.

“He’s the reason why I am where I am today,” Sundberg said.

That’s one of the reasons why Sundberg, like so many of Bernard’s products, returns to Phoenix every offseason to train. Each summer, Bernard’s gym becomes a long-snapping mecca. Sundberg, Nelson and the other professional snappers are working to keep their jobs. The college snappers are working to take them. And the high school and middle school snappers are learning from both to one day follow their path.

“You’re that little seventh or eighth grade kid coming in wanting to snap, and you’ve got Nick Sundberg over there holding for you and giving you instruction and helping you and making you feel good about what you’re doing,” Bernard said. “It’s huge. It really is. And for Nick, that comes easy for him.”

‘Turn your brain off’

Sundberg has taken 61 snaps this season. None of them have missed their mark, but none of them have been perfect, either.

There are no statistics available to measure a perfect snap, so Sundberg measures his individual success by the success of those around him. If Forbath is making kicks, Sundberg is doing his job. If Way is punting well — he leads the NFL with an average punt of 50.3 yards and is tied for first in the NFC with a net average of 41.9 yards — then Sundberg is snapping well.

The reality of life as a long snapper is that you’re only noticed when you make a mistake. The only statistic that matters is the number of snaps that sail over a punter’s head.

“You look at quarterbacks and one incompletion, it’s really no big deal for a quarterback,” Bernard said. “Let’s be honest: If Nick made 60 percent of his snaps, he’d be out of a job. And that would not take a full season. If he did 60 percent of his snaps in one game, he’d be out of a job.”

It’s a lofty standard, even by specialist standards. A handful of wayward punts are forgiven, and the best kickers in NFL history have only made around 86 percent of their field goal attempts. But one or two high snaps for a long snapper, and he’s likely off the team.

Succeeding in such a role takes equal parts confidence and forgetfulness.

“If you were a young long snapper and I was trying to give you advice, it’d be turn your brain off,” Sundberg said. “I don’t think there’s any less pressure or any more pressure than other positions. The way I look at it is if you’ve done your work in the offseason, you’ve done your work in OTAs and training camp, and you trust your body and your muscle memory to do your job, there shouldn’t be any pressure.”

Last week, Sundberg pulled a green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt over his head, covering the colorful tattoo of a Greek mythology scene that occupies his entire back.

When he left Redskins Park, he returned to anonymity. Casual football fans don’t know his name, and even some diehard Redskins supporters probably wouldn’t recognize him if he were standing a few feet away.

It’s quite a job, demanding perfection without offering the slightest chance of recognition.

“The whole nobody knowing my name thing? I’m fine with that,” Sundberg said with a shrug. “As long as I still got a locker, that’s all I care about.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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