• Looking at football game upside down
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     | January 31,2013
     
    AP Photo

    San Francisco 49ers long snapper Brian Jennings, right, interviews former NFL football 49ers player Michael Shumann during media day for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

    NEW ORLEANS — They look at the world upside down between their legs.

    The only time they get noticed is when they mess up.

    Such is life for a long snapper.

    In Sunday’s Super Bowl, Brian Jennings of the San Francisco 49ers and Morgan Cox of the Baltimore Ravens will be snapping for punts, field goals and extra points.

    They have the same goal: Don’t do anything that draws a lick of attention.

    “That’s part of a long snapper’s personality,” Cox said. “We just want to stay in the background.”

    It may seem like a simple skill — hiking the ball between your legs — but it takes years of practice to be able to perform it with the consistency, accuracy and velocity required in the NFL.

    They know one slight miscue could cost the game.

    “You’ve got guys who’ve been out there banging their heads for 3½ hours,” Jennings said. “You don’t want to go out there and screw it up.”

    While snappers, like kickers and punters, are viewed as something of outcasts compared to the rest of the roster, there’s a growing appreciation for what they do. Camps have sprung up around the country dedicated solely to the art of hiking the ball — 7 or 8 yards to a holder for field goals and PATs, 14 or 15 yards to a punter.

    A player who has no chance of making it to the NFL based on arm strength or his 40 time can now carve out a niche on special teams.

    Don’t chuckle. Jennings has managed to stay in the league for 13 years — all with San Francisco — doing nothing but snapping the ball. Cox is finishing up his third year with the Ravens and he, too, hopes for a long career looking at the world from a different perspective.

    “I snap the ball accurately for a living,” the 36-year-old Jennings said. “I think that’s awesome.”

    If there’s a drawback, it’s catching grief from their teammates about the massive amounts of time they spend standing around on the sideline. But that’s all in good fun. Everyone knows the snapper has a vital role to play.

    “Whenever somebody puts his hand on the football, his job is very, very important,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. “One snap over the kicker’s head, one snap that’s wide right or a little low, can be the difference in a football game. People don’t really notice you unless you do something bad at that position.”

    Jennings was a tight end in college at Arizona State, but he got into snapping while recovering from an injury. Bored and just goofing around one day at practice, he hiked a few balls. Turns out, he had a knack for it, delivering the ball with surprising speed.

    “A couple of my teammates said, `Hey, you’re pretty good at that. Why don’t you do that?”’ he recalled. “So I started practicing snapping so I could help my team.”

    He did it so well that he was picked in the seventh round of the 2000 draft by the 49ers.

    He’s been in San Francisco ever since.

    For Cox, snapping began when he was a fifth-grader playing youth football.

    One day at practice, the coach asked if there were any volunteers for the thankless position. Cox raised his hand. His first attempt wasn’t so good but his dad, who happened to be watching, encouraged young Morgan to give it another try. His do-over was much better, and he had a new position on the team in addition to being the center.

    By high school, Cox realized that snapping might be his path to playing at a major college. He went to special teams camp organized by Tennessee, impressed the coaches with his skills and wound up being recruited by the Volunteers. But they weren’t about to give a scholarship to someone just for snapping, so he had to walk on. He was the No. 1 long snapper for three years, but didn’t receive a scholarship until his senior season.

    No hard feelings.

    It helped him get to the biggest game of his life.

    “I can’t say enough how blessed I feel to be here, to be somebody that gets to contribute to a potential Super Bowl win,” Cox said.

    His 49ers counterpart has already started giving back to the next generation of snappers with a program known as “Jennings 1-4-1,” which runs camps and develops training aids for kids who are trying to follow in his footsteps.

    The name is a play on the philosophy he urges every snapper to take — focus on the next one, nothing more.

    “Every rep, you’re trying to be one-for-one,” Jennings said. “I can do anything once. Now, I don’t know if I have 10,000 snaps left in my career, or 1,000 or 500 or 50. But I don’t know if I could do 100 in a row. That seems like a lot. That seems daunting. But the next one? I can nail the next one.”

    For Jennings, the most important part of snapping is the grip. He uses what he calls the “Nerf Turbo” — essentially, the same style he used to make one of those foam footballs do a spiral. It allows him to get impressive speed on his snaps, giving the punter or kicker an extra split-second to beat the rush.

    Cox doesn’t snap the ball nearly as hard as Jennings. The Ravens specialist focuses on consistency and accuracy, taking a meticulous approach to make sure he hikes the ball the same way every time.

    On field goals and extra points, he always puts his heels on the same part of the hash mark. Then, he attempts to rotate the ball the same number of times so the holder — punter Sam Koch — can place it down in one motion with the laces facing away.

    If Koch has to spin the ball before placing it on the turf, it can throw off the timing just a bit.

    As for those who don’t look at snappers as real players, consider this: In Cox rookie’s season, he tore up a knee but still finished the game, snapping the ball six more times in excruciating pain.

    “As funny as it sounds, that was a really great experience for me,” Cox said. “To come out of it having all the support from my teammates, to hear them say, `Wow, that was awesome what you did.”’

    Yep, these guys are real players.

    And real important, too.

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