The Long Snapper

A Second Chance, a Super Bowl, a Lesson for Life

By Jeffrey Marx

Harper One. 250 pp. $24.99

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Reviewed by Bill Lyon

Envision a turtle turned on its back, defenseless, helpless, legs flailing in vain attempts to flip back over before the predators arrive.

And now you have an idea what it's like to play long snapper in football - the center who must fire those Swiss-precision spirals to the punter, or to the holder for placekicks, who must deliver those spirals from a position of great vulnerability, bent over and looking back between his legs, while men the size of small continents await the chance to gleefully fall on him like a mine cave-in.

In a time when sport seems awash in specialists, long snapper is a particularly demanding, especially painful, and mostly unappreciated occupation. Its highest accolade is anonymity. If they know who you are, goes the creed of the long snapper, then you have messed up. You have one thing to do and one thing only, and all we ask is that you be perfect. Every time.

Brian Kinchen was a long snapper, and a very good one. He plied his specialized trade at the highest professional level, the National Football League, for 13 meritorious years. Inevitably, as is the cruel way of sport, the day came when there were no takers for his services. Age and surgery had made him expendable.

Sullen, rejected, taunted by a phone that no longer rang, he retreated to his native Louisiana. It was an unrequited love - he missed the game, but, alas, the game did not appear to miss him.

Until, that is, one December afternoon in 2003, when he was almost three full years removed from his last game. There Brian Kinchen was, a 38-year-old husband with four young sons, minding his own business, teaching Bible classes to seventh graders in Baton Rouge, when a player personnel man from an NFL team called to say: "We need a long snapper."

Nor was this any old rag-tag, play-out-a-dismal-season team offering him employment. These were the Patriots. The New England Patriots. The 12-2 Patriots. The dynasty-in-the-making Patriots.

Do you need more than one guess to know what Brian Kinchen told those Patriots? If he had turned down the offer, then 250 pages would have gone unwritten. Instead, he accepted and we have The Long Snapper, a moving-right-along recounting of one of those odysseys that screams to be made into a movie. It is much, much more than your conventional "sports book."

Kinchen helpfully brought along his tape recorder and the author, Jeffrey Marx, has fleshed that out with interviews of more than 100 people. The result is the detailed and engaging tale of a most improbable journey, made by a man whose faith and perseverance sustained him through agonizing times.

Brian Kinchen's story is too good not to be good. And Marx, whose impressive resume includes five books and a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, draws the themes carefully, purposefully, without the sense that the reader is being bludgeoned with religion and morality. It is inspiring without being maudlin.

Kinchen is given that rarest of opportunities - a second chance. A mulligan in life. And he very nearly whiffs on it. You know how it ends, but as with most things, it's the journey that matters, not the destination.

(A quick aside for a nugget that must not be allowed to pass: For each of the two regular-season games in which Kinchen played, his paycheck was $44,411.76. That was, he said, triple his first year's teacher salary. No further comment necessary.)

The Patriots and their new long snapper blitz through the playoffs and roll into the Super Bowl. But to his great frustration and anguish, Kinchen finds himself unable to perform the task that had been, almost for as long as he could remember, second nature to him. Suddenly, his spirals veer off target, and the more he presses, the more erratic his snaps. He was, Marx writes, in a prison of fear and doubt.

Anyone who has ever attempted to putt a golf ball for money will recognize that malady that afflicts the nerves: "The yips."

Kinchen tries everything, even aligning pillows in his hotel room at night and firing perfect spiral after perfect spiral into the sound-proofing pillows. But on the field, he is more erratic with each passing day, his confidence shattered, and, finally, so great is his agony that four days before the Big Game, he tells the player personnel man, plaintively: "I want to go home."

He is persuaded to stay.

And just before kick-off, he confesses, for the first time in his life, he prays for a win: "Give me a blowout and I'll never again ask for anything."

That one goes unanswered.

The game comes down to a 29-29 deadlock, with scant seconds left, and the Patriots are lining up for a field goal that will win the Super Bowl.

The football, and the game, are in the hands of the long snapper . . . .

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist. "Deadlines and Overtimes," a collection of his columns, has just been published by Camino Books.