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 punter.
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 while."
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 Sea-hawks. "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."