Holding Their Own in the Super Bowl

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Jonathan Daniel / Getty

Chicago Bears kick holder Brad Maynard holds the ball for kicker Robbie Gould in a game against the Buffalo Bills, 2006.

Patrick Mannelly has just one wish for Super Bowl Sunday; that you have no idea he's even playing in the game. "At the end of the day, I don't want anyone to know who the heck I am," says Mannelly, the long snapper for the Chicago Bears, who will face Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl this Sunday "As long as I do my job, the guys at CBS will have no reason to say my name."

The long snapper, along with his cousin in obscurity, the kick holder, have the most specialized jobs in football, perhaps in all of sports. And they only get attention when things go horribly wrong. The long snapper, his backside thrust into the air, head peering through his legs, has one goal in life — to deliver a tight spiral to the holder, standing eight yards away on field goals and extra points, or to the punter, some 15 yards behind his butt. "It's just not a natural motion to be upside down throwing a ball between your legs," explains Mannelly on the rigors of his job — a rather lucrative one, by the way (a nine-year vet, Mannelly makes over $700,000 per year).

The holder — these days usually a team's punter like the Bears' Brad Maynard and the Colts' Hunter Smith, though occasionally a backup quarterback — must catch the ball and place it in the exact spot the picky kicker wants it. The whole process, from the snap to the boot of the ball, must happen in a flash. "The industry average is 1.3 seconds," says New York Giants long snapper Ryan Kuehl.

On the eve of a Super Bowl that features superstars like Manning, Colts receiver Marvin Harrison and Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, plus a pairing of the first two African-American head coaches to ever make the game, why ponder the merits of the snap-and-hold industry? Well, perhaps, because it's more important, and challenging, than you think. Consider: if not for a couple of snap-and-hold miscues, right now we could be dissecting a Cincinnati Bengals-Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl. But Cincinnati's Brad St. Louis botched a game-tying extra-point snap on Christmas Eve, ending the Bengals' playoff run. And in the wild card round, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo fumbled a hold on a game-winning field goal attempt against the Seattle Seahawks. The special-teams frat cringes at these gaffes. "I feel so bad for the guy," says Maynard of fellow holder Romo. "It's not something you're going to get over very quickly."

There's also the fact that kickers are sizzling these days, and the Bears and Colts sport the two of the game's best, Robbie Gould and Adam Vinatieri. Kickers are 42 for 45 on field goals this postseason — a 93% rate — and they often mean the difference between a post-season victory and defeat. So expect plenty of field goal attempts on Super Sunday, which means just as many chances for the snappers and holders to screw up in front of 140 million viewers.

How does Mannelly try to avoid achieving that kind of notoriety? For a detailed tutorial of his craft, visit longsnapper.com, his website. Don't miss the heavy metal intro: "Perfect Snap to Punter," the first message jumps at you, power chords blaring. "Then Sprint! ... And Make the Tackle. Just Another Day in the Life of a NFL Long Snapper." The key, he will tell you, is to grip the ball with your dominant hand like a quarterback would, and use your weak hand, or guide, for support. You release the ball through your legs with both hands, but your legs provide most of the power. "It's a full body motion," says Mannelly. He usually flicks 75 balls per practice session, and his favorite drill is to hit the goal post from 15 yards away (you can even watch him do it on his website).

As for the holders, some place the ball on the ground with one finger, others with two or more. Koy Detmer, a quarterback by trade, holds his thumb and forefinger on the tip of the ball. "I pinch it like a nipple," says Detmer, who held for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2000 to 2005, and was brought back just for this year's playoffs after Eagles punter Dirk Johnson botched a late-season snap (with Detmer holding, Eagles kicker David Akers hit a 38-yard field goal with no time left to give the Eagles a 23-20 playoff victory over the New York Giants). The two most important rules for a holder: first, get those laces out, toward the goal post, so the ball flies. And second, listen to your superior. "You've got to be open-minded to the kicker's needs," says Maynard. "The kicker may tell you one day to hold it like this, and the next day to do it a different way. Do what he tells you."

They're not the jobs players dream of — Mannelly tried to make the NFL as an offensive lineman, and Detmer would rather be tossing touchdown strikes than holding kicks. But long snappers and holders care deeply about their work. "I take pride in holding, absolutely," says Maynard. "I've held for some pretty good kickers, and I want people to remember it was something I was good at." He has only dropped two over a decade, so Maynard is certainly solid. But unfortunately, to be remembered, he'll have to muff one in the Super Bowl.