Behind Every Field Goal and Punt is Nick Sundberg, The Most Important Player You’ve Never Heard OfContact Ryan Gorcey at [email protected]
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
This season, the Cal football team has put boot to ball a total of 112 times—not including kickoffs. Over those 17 field goal attempts, 41 point-after attempts and 54 punts, only one of two names ever enters the scorebook: Jordan Kay or Andrew Larson, the Bears’ place kicker and punter, respectively.
Fans see the ball spiral out anonymously from the line into placeholder Bryan Van Meter’s waiting palms or into Larson’s chest.
A pair of hands or the quick flash of a hip thrust is pretty much all anyone sees of the man delivering those missiles to Cal kickers. It’s his job to be quiet, to go unnoticed, to be a ghost and to just do the job. Perfectly. Every time.
“Nine out of 10 isn’t good enough,” says Nick Sundberg, the Bears’ junior longsnapper, and the man tossing those pigskin darts.
This year, he has only made one bad snap—in freezing cold weather with rain coming down like hypodermic needles out of a shotgun. One, out of 112. That makes for a 99.1 percent success rate. And just about 99.1 percent of people watching Cal games would have no clue who Sundberg is.
“There’s just as much pressure as being a kicker,” says Sundberg. “It’s just that nobody knows my name.”
Longsnapping—until relatively recently—has been one of the least-noticed positions on the football field. When Sports Illustrated writer Peter King ranked the top 500 players in the NFL, he symbolically chose one man to represent the other 1,196 players that he did not rank—Denver Broncos’ longsnapper Mike Leach.
“It’s kind of cool that the position is getting recognized more and more now,” says Sundberg. “Especially when you look at college, there’s more and more guys every year getting full rides. Before I came out, I had heard coaches say ‘A scholarship for a longsnapper? You’ve got to be crazy.’”
An Arizona native, Sundberg was offered a walk-on spot at Arizona State, but would have had to wait two years before the Sun Devils’ snapper—one of Sundberg’s good friends—left. Arizona’s Mike Stoops was a bit more harsh. He said, to Sundberg’s face, that he was not good enough to play for the Wildcats. Now, Sundberg is widely considered the best longsnapper in the Pac-10 and one of the best in the country.
It’s taken a lot of time, though, for Sundberg to get to where he is now. Knowing that he was too small to play the line at the college level, Sundberg took up longsnapping in his junior year at North Canyon High. But it wasn’t until his senior year that a new longsnapping and offensive line coach—Ben Bernard—began to mold Sundberg into a real longsnapper.
“He basically told me that if I wanted to go on, I could, I just needed to take it more seriously and work with him, snap five days a week, 150 to 200 balls a day, all year long,” says Sundberg. “There was no such thing as a Spring Break to him.”
Because of the heat in the Arizona desert, Sundberg worked on his snapping in the school gym, sinking baskets on snaps from half-court. And that’s not Sundberg’s only party trick. To practice accuracy, he places 10 balls all along the 10-yard line at Memorial Stadium, and proceeds to snap them towards the center support of the goalposts. He nails every one. Sundberg can snap up to 40 yards, a talent he displays by snapping to receivers running routes and hitting them in stride. Turns out that you can’t exactly just roll out of bed in the morning and hit 99.1 percent.
“It’s not something you can do 15 minutes before practice everyday,” says Sundberg. “It’s something that takes a long time to get good at. A lot of times when I was in high school, all my buddies were all like, ‘C’mon Nick, let’s go do this or do that,’ and I said that I had to go work out. I had to snap. They were like, ‘Oh, you can miss a day.’ No, I can’t.”
Without a backup who can fire perfect snaps 99 percent of the time, Sundberg still can’t miss a day, no matter how much he gets banged up. Luckily, most of the time he has some pretty hefty bodyguards. The 6-foot-1, 248 pound Sundberg, with his legs splayed wide and head down, is flanked by 6-foot-7, 308-pound Mike Tepper and 6-foot-4, 302-pound Brian De La Puente.
“I’m kind of exposed when I got my head between my legs,” says Sundberg. “I got two huge guys next to me, and they do a great job of protecting me and making sure guys aren’t gunning for me.”
It’s no wonder Sundberg seems invisible. Big as he is compared to most normal human beings, he’s wedged between two mountains.
But neither of those two mountains could hit Larson and Van Meter every single time. It takes a ghost to do that. And he does. Every single time.
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