Trey Junkin approaches the line of scrimmage nonchalantly, his
feet shuffling softly, his lips pursed in a mindless O.
Suddenly, however, he finds himself out of breath. "It takes
what, three seconds, to get to the ball from the sideline?" says
Junkin. "Somehow, on the first punt of the game, I always feel
like I'm jogging underwater. Those are the longest three seconds
of my life."
Junkin, the Arizona Cardinals' long-snapper, hunches over the
ball. He keys on the count and hikes a perfect spiral to the
Klong! Helmet meets helmet.
Klumph! Shoe meets pigskin.
"After that, I'm fine the rest of the game," says Junkin. "But
until that first ball is kicked, I literally don't inhale. That's
how I know I still love the sport."
By Junkin's estimation, klumph has followed klong nearly 1,500
times over 19 seasons. The hardy perennial of long snapping has
played in 270 NFL games, eighth on the alltime list. "Someday I
hope to be part of a trivia question," says Junkin, 40. "Somebody
will ask, 'What nonkicker played the most games in the NFL?' My
wife will be the only person able to answer correctly."
The NFL's most specialized specialist--he averages a total of
about six punt and field goal snaps a game--is a big (6'2" and 245
pounds), mild, equable guy whose conversations bounce around like
an onside kick. He's also something of a philosopher, expounding
endlessly on the Zen of Hiking. "I come to complete
zero-stillness, and body mechanics take over," he says. "The only
thing on my mind is snapping the ball."
The secret to Junkin's survival has been adaptability. Before
Arizona took him off waivers in 1996, four NFL teams had cut him.
"Believe me, snapping isn't what I set out to do," says Junkin,
who was drafted in 1983 as a linebacker out of Louisiana Tech,
where he also did long snapping, "but it's kept me around a long
He played some linebacker and on special teams with the Buffalo
Bills as a rookie, but in his second year he was released and
signed by the Washington Redskins. He was cut again the following
season and hooked on with the Los Angeles Raiders, switching to
tight end. Five years later he became a full-time long-snapper
with the Seattle Seahawks. "I've got a marketable talent for
snapping the football with the laces straight up," says Junkin.
"It's getting to be a lost art."
The career of this snapping artiste has been prolonged
considerably by a 1995 NCAA ruling that forbids contact with the
center on punts and field goals. The result, Junkin says, is that
college whippersnappers show up at pro training camps having
never been hit on special teams plays. "You judge them not on how
they do on the first snap," he says, "but how they do after
they've been stroked."
Stroking is all part of a day's work for Junkin. He flaunts the
scars from five knee, three elbow and two shoulder operations as
if they were epaulets. "My approach to pain is shoot it up, tape
it up, let's play," says Junkin. "I've awakened from concussions
on Monday and not remembered Sunday."
Junkin takes his work seriously. His daily training regimen of
hitting the heavy bag, leg presses, curls and medicine-ball
sit-ups (200 in 180 seconds) may be the toughest west of Parris
Island. "Trey thinks he's the most important player on the
field," says Cardinals backup quarterback Dave Brown. "If we all
took our jobs that seriously, we'd either be in an asylum or the
Hall of Fame."
Arizona coach Dave McGinnis recalls a minicamp in which Junkin
made two bad snaps. Two hours after practice McGinnis found
Junkin in the locker room, hiking balls into a garbage can.
"Close enough is not good enough for Trey," McGinnis says.
Junkin remembers every snap he has ever muffed in a game, which
is easy because he's muffed only one. Five years ago in a
swirling wind at Giants Stadium, Junkin put a ball at the feet of
punter Jeff Feagles, who nonetheless got off the kick. The snap
so upset Junkin that if he hadn't seen a replay that showed that
the wind had pushed the ball down, Junkin swears he would have
retired on the spot. "A ball snapped to the punter's right hip is
perfect," he says. "Anything below the knees or outside the body
drives me insane. That snap will haunt me until the day I die."
So far Junkin has preserved both his sanity and his anonymity.
"On TV, all anybody should ever see of me is my ass," he says.
"Ideally, my name should never come up. If it does, I've made a
up, let's play."