Trey Junkin played 19 seasons in the NFL. He saw some time at tight end when he first came into the league but Junkin spent most of his career as a long snapper. For almost two decades, Junkin was one of the most reliable long snappers in the NFL but he won't be remembered for his thousands of successful snaps. Instead, he will always be remembered for his one bad snap in the final game he ever played in.
Junkin labored in anonymity as an NFL long snapper until Jan. 5, 2003 when the New York Giants played the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs. Junkin came out of retirement just before the playoffs began because the Giants had been struggling with deep snaps all season long. In what turned out to be a case of bitter irony, Junkin's low snap in the final seconds deprived Giants place kicker Matt Bryant the opportunity to kick a 41-yard, game-winning field goal as the 49ers prevailed 39-38.
The Giants blew a 24-point second half lead to the 49ers, so the blame can't all be placed on Junkin. Still, after the game, a visibly shaken Junkin apologized to his teammates and announced he would never play again. Much like the Red Sox Bill Buckner, Junkin's place in history is defined by one bad play while everything he accomplished before that moment has been forgotten.
Such is the life of an NFL long snapper. If they do their job well, the names of long snappers are rarely mentioned on television or talked about amongst fans. Analysts are never sitting around discussing which player is the best long snapper in the NFL. The only time they get noticed or talked about is if they screw up. It may not be fair but that's the nature of the position.
In New England, the job of making accurate snaps and not getting noticed on the field belongs to Lonie Paxton. Paxton has been the Patriots long snapper since he joined the team as a rookie free agent out of Sacramento State. Besides the six games he missed at the end of the 2003 season, Paxton has snapped on every punt, extra point and field goal from his rookie year in 2000 to the present day.
Paxton remembers the incident with Junkin but says making a bad snap never even enters his mind.
"I try not to think about making a bad snap," Paxton said. "I don't even put that stuff in the back of my mind, I just throw it away. I just go out there and do what I do every day in practice. You don't practice to go nine-out-of-10. You practice to be perfect.
"It's unfortunate we play a position where we only get noticed if we make a mistake but hey, we make a good living doing it and we contribute to the success of the special teams."
Paxton's path to becoming a long snapper is an interesting one. When he was a kid growing up in southern California, he and his father would attend Los Angeles Rams games. His father had season tickets and it just so happens that their seats were right next to where the long snappers would practice during the game. It didn't take long before a future long snapper was born.
"I just thought it was cool how they could get the ball there that accurately throwing it between their legs," Paxton said. "So I would go home and mess around with it myself in the backyard and things just progressed from there."
Paxton ended up playing college football at Division I-AA Sacramento State where he played guard in addition to being the team's long snapper. Despite being a four year starter on the offensive line, Paxton knew his only chance to make the NFL would be doing the craft he started mastering as a kid in his yard after Rams games.
"I knew I wouldn't play guard in the NFL," Paxton said. "I was pretty sure long snapping was the only thing they would ask me to do at this level. I didn't get any recognition playing guard in college. I thought I was solid but I wasn't the strongest or biggest guy around. It's pretty amazing coming from a school where I think we won a total of 12 games during my college career to being amongst guys who are always at the top of their game."
According to Paxton, there's a difference in how long snappers are perceived from people in the NFL and those outside the league who might not understand everything that goes into playing the position.
"I think we are well respected within the league," Paxton said. "Obviously, you have some people from the outside who will ask, 'That's all you do? You're just a long a snapper?' They don't understand how much work we put in because as professionals, we make it look easy but within the league people know the importance of having a good long snapper."
Long snappers are not only getting more respect on the field but their value to a football team is being rewarded with bigger contracts as well. Playing in the 80s and 90s, Junkin received a total of $20,000 in signing bonuses over his last 17 seasons. Today, the NFL's top long snappers have received signing bonuses ranging from $200,000 to $800,000.
"Every year the importance of certain positions gets recognized," Paxton said. "The more consistent you are at what you do, the more valuable you are to a team so they are going to pay to keep you around."
A majority of NFL fans outside New England probably don't know the name Lonie Paxton, and that's a good thing. It means he's doing his job well. Paxton is never going to get all the accolades that a Tom Brady or Richard Seymour gets, and he's fine with that. He understands his role and continues to play with consistency, quietly doing his part to help the Patriots win football games.