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Long snapper's creed: Start perfect, get better

Posted Jul 11, 2009

Jansen

Long snapper J.J. Jansen. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


CHARLOTTE -- J.J. Jansen grew up playing baseball, where one needs to succeed only 30 to 40 percent of the time to be considered a success with the bat.

But the sport of his professional life -- and the specific craft he practices -- requires a far higher standard of success. For the long snapper, the task is simple, yet daunting: perfection, which is impossible to achieve, even if it may seem that way from afar.

"If you ask all the guys around the league -- even guys that don't have major mistakes -- I don't think anyone would consider themselves 100 percent," explains Jansen. "Guys like Jason Baker make us look good by handling the snaps that aren't quite on (the mark).

"But certainly it's a unique pressure; it's one I thrive on and really enjoy."

Long snapping sent Jansen to Notre Dame, paid for the final two years of his college education, when the Fighting Irish put him on scholarship after two seasons as a walk-on, and opened an unexpected door to the NFL last year when the Green Bay Packers signed him.

Not bad for someone who first took up football as a 200-pound center on his high-school team.

"I was probably the lightest guy on the offensive line," Jansen recalled. "But at the time, I was focused on baseball. So it never really evolved until I got to college, and from there it became, in a sense, a profession."

But actually earning a sustainable living in that profession takes skill, practice and luck. The specialized nature of snapping means that those who succeed can forge careers that endure for a dozen years or more; when there is turnover at one of the 32 snapping positions around the NFL, the job often goes to a veteran who practiced the trade with another team.

In a manner of speaking, Jansen is an example of such a veteran, even though he has yet to play in the regular season. He signed with the Green Bay Packers out of Notre Dame last year and was set to claim a roster spot before he went onto the field for the final long snap of the Pack's preseason.

"I tore my LCL (lateral collateral ligament) in my left knee," he said.

"There were four minutes left in the game and it ended up being the last punt in the game. That was frustrating, to be so close, but it's given me a lot of drive to come back and do it again."

But not in Green Bay, as the Panthers traded for him in April, giving him another chance to claim one of those 32 coveted positions. The Panthers' open slot represents a plum for for Jansen and rookie Nick Sundberg, who was signed in the days after the draft after serving as California's long snapper the last four years. To win the job and succeed at it could mean steady, lucrative employment for years to come.

"Every opportunity you have to treat as your last," Jansen said.

But one can't go through the practices consumed by the pressure that goes along with such an urgent situation.

"I don't know that it's so much of a competition between us as it is a competition with ourselves, and we want to put our best foot forward," Jansen said. "It's a little different being a long snapper because you're not really competing against a person; there's not a man across the line you're trying to beat -- you're just trying to be the best you can be.

"Certainly we're all aware that we're in a competition, but I don't that really changes how we would perform -- whether it be now with (multiple) guys here and in the season when there's just one of us. You're competing with yourself, just like all times.

"The most important part is being the best snapper that you can be and hopefully it all works out."

That's the only sane way to go for a job where perfection is the goal and error is magnified.