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SPARE A thought, as you read this poolside, perhaps, or in air-conditioned comfort, for the gladiators now toiling in all 32 NFL training camps, where the fields are hot but the business, as usual, is cold.
Teams invite up to 90 players to camp. On the day of final cuts, Aug. 31, that number must be whittled to 53. The grim truth for the guys on the bubble—late-round picks, undrafted free agents, Tim Tebow—is that coaches already have a fairly clear idea of who's going to make the club. Of those 53 spots, only a dozen or so are genuinely up for grabs. How to stand out, how to beat those odds, when veterans and early-round draft picks are bogarting the practice reps?
"Special teams can get you there," Danny McCray was saying as he walked off the Cowboys' practice field on July 23 in Oxnard, Calif. It got him there. An undrafted free agent out of LSU three years ago, McCray made the club for his prowess on "teams," then led Dallas with 28 special teams tackles as a rookie. Since then he's carved out an identity as a special teams specialist—a gunner, as the position is frequently called. Or, in less precise terms, a player whose plight it is to be folded, spindled and misunderstood. "Some people think all you have to do is run down the field and maybe get the tackle, or maybe not. But there's skill involved and technique and courage," McCray says.
What does a gunner do? Only the game's most thankless job. Boys fantasize about scoring touchdowns and making game-saving tackles. They do not think, When I grow up, I want to release from the line of scrimmage on punts, then get clubbed and grabbed by ill-tempered defensive backs who have a green light to mug me, then race into space to try to hit a return man whose primary job is to make the first tackler miss, then pursue him upfield through a thicket of flying and sometimes tremendously large blockers who'd like nothing more than to level me from the blindside.
But childhood daydreams must give way to adult realities—such was the message drilled into C.J. Spillman from the moment he arrived at Chargers training camp in 2009. Says the former Marshall safety, "They told me the only way I was gonna make the team was if I made an impact on special teams."
So he became a gunner. One team and three seasons later, in the second quarter of last January's NFC divisional round, Spillman took the field for the 49ers after their drive stalled just short of the 50. Spillman engaged Packers cornerback Casey Hayward in a footrace down the right side of the field. Tomahawking Hayward's hands off his body while cutting hard to the inside, he shed Hayward just as returner Jeremy Ross muffed the punt. Three plays after Spillman gobbled up that fumble, Colin Kaepernick tied the game at 14 with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree. The Niners were on their way to a 45--31 rout. Rather than bask in his timely takeaway, Spillman's thoughts ran toward the more mundane: They probably won't cut me this week.
THE DIRTIEST job in football is also one of its least secure, least compensated and least celebrated. (You most likely remember the name of the 49ers' returnman who fumbled twice in the NFC title game two years ago, costing San Francisco the win: Kyle Williams. But can you name the Giants' backup receiver who recovered both spills? That'd be Devin Thomas, whom New York let go after its Super Bowl XLVI victory.)
Gunners tend to be late-round picks—if they were picked at all. They are reserve defensive backs and wideouts, for the most part, although creative coaches have been known to supersize the position. Imagine the dismay of the cornerbacks lining up across from the Secretary of Defense himself, 6'3", 260-pound end Dexter Manley, who was a gunner for the Redskins in the early 1980s.
The job is as important as it is unglamorous. "Our Number 1 goal every week," says Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien, "is to put [opponents] on a long field." While our eyes may glaze over as earnest men hold forth on the importance of field position, there's nothing dull about the play that most often determines that field position. Not if you're the gunner, who has to motor 50-odd yards downfield while two of the better athletes in the stadium contest every inch of that ground with him. "They can grab you, hold you, maul you—and referees will tell you they're not going to call a penalty," says New England gunner Matt Slater. "It's like the Wild West."
"Unless you're literally getting beat up," agrees Spillman, "they're not going to throw a flag."