- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MOBILE, Ala. — When Joe Cardona returned from a field trip to the nation’s capital in eighth grade, he brought home two T-shirts he purchased during a visit to the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Cardona’s father, Pat, entered the Navy out of high school, and Cardona always felt a pull toward military service. Those emotions were only fortified during his trip, with Cardona telling his parents soon after returning home to suburban San Diego that he had hoped to enroll there after college.

“I said, ‘OK, an eighth-grader. We have time. We’ll try to figure something out,’” Pat Cardona said. “Then right at the start of his senior year, Navy came calling, so I guess, the circumstances just started falling into place for him.”

An adept long snapper in high school, Cardona parlayed his talent into opportunities with several prestigious special teams camps, which in turn put him on the radar of several college programs. Navy soon came calling, and the decision was a no-brainer, with Cardona able to achieve his goal by attending the academy.

Four years later, Cardona’s dreams are disparate, yet intertwined. As one of the best long snappers in the country, he was invited to participate in the Senior Bowl last Saturday, giving him the opportunity to pursue a career in the NFL. To do so, however, he’ll have to receive special clearance to forgo his military commitment — something that Cardona considers a possibility, however remote.

“I’ll graduate as a Marine in May,” Cardona said. “Obviously, first step is Quantico for the basic school. From there, hopefully I get the assignment I want, but ultimately, I’d love the opportunity to continue playing football some way or another. Right now, obviously, I’m focused on graduating and being the best officer I can be and being the best Marine I could be.”

Cardona played all four seasons at Navy, snapping on punts as a freshman before taking over placekicking responsibilities as well the following season. Special teams coach Steve Johns said that Cardona and punter Pablo Beltran “really had no major mishaps that were their fault the whole time,” praising the pair’s consistency and reliability.

“He’s just kind of done his stuff and quietly, behind the scenes, become the best at his position in the whole country,” said Johns, who recruited Cardona to the academy out of high school. “He probably didn’t have the leadership role that he should have had on the team had he been a linebacker or something, but he was just committed to his craft and just was constantly working to get better.”

Navy’s season ended Dec. 23 in the Poinsettia Bowl, when the Midshipmen defeated San Diego State, 17-16, on the heels of a late 24-yard field goal by Austin Grebe. Cardona considered it the perfect finish to his college career: A game near home with at least 60 people he knew in the stands ending with a successful special teams play.

He received special dispensation to participate in the Senior Bowl, where he snapped for the North Team in its 34-13 victory over the South Team, and has been given clearance to accept an invitation to perform in the NFL combine late next month in Indianapolis.

Whereas other college players have the ability to withdraw from classes during the spring semester to focus on preparing for workouts, Cardona can’t make such a decision. He must continue to attend classes, and he had a significant amount of schoolwork to complete during the week of Senior Bowl practices.

Cardona is not likely to know which path will be available to him for some time. He’ll have to file a petition to delay his active service — which, Johns said, is a process that “hasn’t seemed to be completely consistent” over the years.

And, because most long snappers aren’t drafted, he’ll have to sign with a team as a free agent when the three-day event ends May 2. Even then, Cardona would likely miss a large portion of offseason workouts; the NFL prohibits players who are still enrolled in classes from joining their new team’s spring camps until after graduation, which, for Cardona, would be in late May, nearly a month after the rest of the rookies.

Pat Cardona believes his son will have to do two years of active service before he’s allowed to join the reserves and help the military in a promotional role. If that’s the case, Joe Cardona is hoping to be assigned a logistics unit, where he thinks he can put his economics degree to use.

“Ultimately, my goal is to succeed in whatever I’m doing,” Cardona said. “If it’s being a Marine officer, I’m fully ready to accept my responsibilities, and if it’s getting the opportunity to play football next year — or any year down the road — I’m putting my best foot forward for that team and really continuing to represent the Navy and Marine Corps in that way.”

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