So why volunteer for such unappreciated duty? Because it is the best way for a mediocre athlete to sneak into the NFL. Do great athletes gravitate to long-snapping? Dale Hellestrae of the Dallas Cowboys thinks not. Hellestrae, who owns and operates a Cookie Bouquet in Phoenix, has survived for 12 years in the league primarily as a long snapper and special-teamer. "If you're a pretty good athlete in ninth, 10th, 11th grade, you're thinking, Why would I ever want to do that?" he says.
As a 10-year-old, Greg Truitt came to that realization too late. One day at a practice for a traveling all-star team in Sarasota, Fla., the coach was auditioning long snappers. The word had spread among the boys: If you don't want to do it, just hike the ball over the punter's head.
"But I'd already gone," says Truitt, "so I got the job." His skill eventually earned him a scholarship to Penn State, and he handled the deep-snapping during the Nittany Lions' 14-10 Fiesta Bowl upset of Miami at the end of the 1986 season. That was his junior year. Truitt took the next season off. "I was disillusioned with the reality of life," he says. Spoken like a true long snapper.
After working two years as a restaurant manager Truitt grew disillusioned with the reality of the job. So he made a crude long-snapping video and sent it to a few NFL teams. To eat, he drove a limo, waited tables, mowed lawns.
He tried out with the Redskins and the Miami Dolphins. Zilch. His agent, Brett Senior, suggested Truitt head to State College, Pa., during the week that the scouts would be on the Penn State campus. "I went to a corner of the field house and started long-snapping," he says. He caught the eye of a Cincinnati Bengals scout; the team offered him a tryout and, soon thereafter, a contract.
While negotiating the two-year deal, Senior had the temerity to ask about a signing bonus. As Truitt recalls, "They said, 'The guy's been out of football for six years!' "
Thus in 1994 did Truitt become, at 28, the oldest rookie to play in the NFL in 48 years. Last season he made $150,000. He has teamed up with the Bengals' kicking specialists to form an a cappella group called Toe Jam. Truitt says that he feels blessed, but not lucky. "Everyone has the same opportunity," he says. "It's just a matter of who wants to take it."
As a poet of our acquaintance once wrote: Some can, some can't.