The Long Snapper
This book, The Long Snapper, first caught my attention placed in the new books shelf of the public library. The author, Jeffrey Marx, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and wrote The New York Times bestselling book: The Season of Life, also an inspirational story focusing on the experiences of a football player.
The Long Snapper tells the story of Brian Kinchen who, while in a classroom teaching bible to seventh-graders at Parkview Baptist Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana gets a call from a “an old friend from a previous existence.” At thirty-eight, he had been out of the NFL for three years, and faced with the dilemma of trying out for the position of long snapper (center who hikes the ball for the kicking squad) for the then dominant, and super bowl champions New England Patriots (2003/4 season). The team finds itself without a long snapper because of injuries with only two games left in the regular season.
While emotionally traumatic [lack of confidence, out of shape, away from family, school, etc.] Kinchen decides to take the challenge and finds himself on a plane to Boston with another player traveling for the same tryout. At the airport, the team bus picks them up, along with two other candidates, now four, on their way to tryout for the position. This situation leads to the most memorial adage from the book:
And off they went – four men sharing both a ride and a dream. The van had ample space for all. The dream had room for only one. (p. 29)
Like in life, the author gives many illustrations of just how brutal and unsympathetic a job in professional sports, practically the NFL, is. No mercy in this league, only performance expectations. Injury, dropped pass, bad call, botched carry, all could find an empty locker or office come Monday morning. In fact, the other three tryouts, found out they were not chosen during a meal with Kinchen when he was told of his selection. No individual meetings were described; why hang around, prolong the agony? This was also how the other three long snappers learned – by overhearing the conversation – that they were about to be sent home. (36)
Kinchen also had ties to Louisiana State University (LSU). Not only was he a football player for LSU during the mid 80’s, but his Dad had played there, a part of the 1958 national championship team. In addition to his teaching bible at the church school, he spent time with the LSU Tigers as a volunteer assistant. Gary Shelton of the St. Petersburg Times pointed out that he … might be only days away from claiming a spot in football record books : “If LSU rewards Kinchen with a ring, and if the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Kinchen could be the only player in history to win a college championship ring and a Super Bowl ring in less than a month.” (178)
The honor of being chosen to play for a team headed for the Super Bowl, did not come without great sweat and huge personal costs. In fact things got so bad emotionally, pressure so intense, and performance so poor (bad hikes) that Kinchen called his friend and vice president for personnel of the Patriots, Scott Pioli, four days before the big game and tried to quit.
After thirteen seasons of professional football, three seasons off, a couple of regular games, and two playoffs; Kinchen had the “yips” – an inexplicable loss of ability to do something that had always been so simple for him. (156) In this case, hitting the target (holder) when hiking the ball.
The “yips” did not go away, even with dedicated prayer and concentrated practice on the field and in his hotel room. Kinchen kept making bad hikes including a “low one” in a playoff game against Tennessee. After cutting his right index finger in the meal before the Super Bowl game he “bounced the snap more than a yard in front of the kicker,” made a “long snap” on an extra point, and on the seventh hike bounced the ball on the ground. After nine hikes … then it came … with nine seconds left, the score tied at 29, it was time for the wining field-goal.
Forty-eight days earlier, Brian had been minding his own business with a collection of seventh graders in the comfortable seclusion of a small classroom in Louisiana. The next day, after his tryout with the Patriots, he had stood in the team cafeteria at Gillette Stadium and told Bill Belichick: “… Whoever you choose will probably have the team’s entire season in his hands at some point.” Sure enough, that moment was about to come. (212)
… finally he thought he understood why he had gone through such a horrible couple of weeks leading up to that final snap. By being deprived of his usual confidence – “I was at the end of my rope.” Brian said – he was left in a position in which all he could do was rely on his faith. (233)
The keys for Brian now, Davis (teammate, Don) told him in that hotel room, would be the same as they always had been: faith and perseverance. (188)
Jeffrey Marx writes a good story in familiar territory, inspirational football players, and reaches into the spirit as well as the physical aspect of success. Marx’s excellent writing skill is demonstrated in how well he builds and prolongs the suspenseful moment and tension of the ball’s release for the wining field goal. The book is true to its cover promise: A Second Chance, A Super Bowl, A Lesson for Life.
Where are they now? – Brian Kinchen: In this follow up story of life after the Super Bowl victory, Mike Klingaman reports in The Baltimore Sun (October 12, 2007):
Last year, Kinchen worked college games for ESPN as a color commentator until his suspension for an on-air remark. Explaining that receivers make catches with their hands because they can “caress” the ball, he added, “That’s kind of gay, but hey … “
Kinchen called the incident “a signal that [broadcasting] was not something I should be doing on weekends while I’ve got four kids growing up. So I shut it all down to be a father.”
The Long Snapper
HarperOne [HarperCollins Publishers] NYC
2009 pp. 250