NEW YORK (AP) — As the family legend goes, Tanner Purdum was about 3 when he reached down and grabbed a football, crouched and launched it between his legs for the first time.
The ball didn't travel very far, but a long snapper was born.
"For me, I could do that before I could even throw," said Purdum, entering his sixth season with the New York Jets. "Whenever I could do it without falling on my head."
Purdum has followed in a long line of long snappers. His father, a football coach, did it in college. So did his grandfather. His uncles can snap, and so can his sisters.
"It's one of those things," Purdum said with a smile, "that we can all just bring out of the bag of tricks that we can do that other people can't."
Sure, snapping a football looks simple enough, with videos of players zipping footballs through tires and into trash cans or other targets all over the Internet. Long snapping camps have also cropped up around the country, run by current and former pros. But the amount of speed and precision that goes into being a good long snapper might be one of the most underrated and pressure-packed gigs in all of sports.
Some call it a skill, while others consider it an absolute art.
"It's about 50-50," said Tennessee's Beau Brinkley, entering his fourth NFL season. "I look at it as an art just because of the complexity as well as the simplicity."
NFL teams frequently had players pull double-duty in the past, using an offensive lineman, linebacker or tight end. Today, the role is considered so highly specialized that every team dedicates a roster spot to a player whose primary job is to solely snap the football and help on punt coverage.
"Sometimes guys will look over and say: 'What did you do at practice today?'" said the Giants' Zak DeOssie, in his ninth season. "Then they turn on the film and see me turn around like a crazed animal on punts."
The job requirements include being able to fire a spiral to the punter 15 yards away — 7 or 8 yards to the holder on field goals — between 0.7 and 0.8 seconds.
A long snapper stands with his feet wider than his shoulders, with one of his hands on the laces of the football as if he's going to throw a pass between his legs. The other hand helps guide the ball.
"In college, if you didn't have the laces right, if it wasn't perfect, it was OK as long as the ball is on the spot," said Minnesota's Kevin McDermott, who beat out 12-year veteran Cullen Loeffler for the job this summer. "In the pros, if the ball is an inch too low or high or to the side, you're going to get someone telling you that needs to be better."
A snapper's body weight rests on the balls of his feet, giving him balance and power. He looks back through his legs at the punter or field-goal holder and straightens his legs as he jumps back to launch the football.
"You've got to do the exact same thing every time," Buffalo's Garrison Sanborn said. "I always use the pendulum theory. You throw that thing this way, and everything's going to scatter. It's got to be in line every single time. Finish with your hands straight through."
Oh, and then you need to block, especially on a field goal, when a long snapper has big, snarling defensive linemen across from him.
"Basically, take a 300-pound bat and slap it across your head and shoulders as soon as you snap the ball," Purdum said. "That's what it's like."
Long snappers are among the lower-paid players in the league, but it's not too shabby a living, either. Brinkley signed a 5-year, $5.75 million deal with the Titans during the offseason, making him one of 14 long snappers in the league with an average annual salary of at least $1 million. Three of the 32 snappers are rookies — Cleveland's Charley Hughlett, Kansas City's James Winchester and New England's Joe Cardona — and their average salaries are about $522,000.
Long snappers are rarely recognized in public.
"I don't think anybody cares to know about long snappers," said Miami's John Denney, entering his 11th NFL season. "There's no glory in long snapping."
DeOssie, whose father Steve was also a long-time NFL long snapper, says he could write a book on the subject.
"No one would read it except for the 31 other guys out there," he joked. "Maybe, not even that."
The job is one of the most tenuous in sports because each snap needs to be perfect. One mistake can make a player infamous.
Trey Junkin spent a 19-year NFL career as a reliable snapper. He was signed out of retirement by the Giants. A botched snap on a field goal that could have won a 2003 wild-card playoff game against San Francisco changed Junkin's reputation forever.
"If you don't know who I am, I've done a really good job," Purdum said. "If you know who I am, it's been a bad day for me."
Long snappers are used to all the jokes that come with playing the position, the wisecracks about having it easier than everyone else.
"I just say I'm sorry I picked a position a little bit easier than yours," Purdum said. "I thought about it a little longer and I thought the benefits were a little bit better. Until you can come out and do my job, you don't get to say anything."
Denney is 36 and Miami's longest-tenured player, and has no plans on snapping that streak anytime soon.
"The secret is out: It's the best job in sports," Denney said. "I'll milk this cow as long as I can."
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker and AP Sports Writers Tom Canavan, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow, Jon Krawczynski and Steven Wine contributed.
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