On Sunday afternoon, a man and his father were practicing long snaps on a turf field near Middletown High School South in Middletown, N.J. Middletown’s mascot is the Eagles.
Middle schoolers ran around the field near the son, playing their own game but stopping occasionally to gawk at the younger man’s dead-eye accuracy in throwing the football out from between his legs.
“Why are you here?” they asked the son, apparently getting an inkling that he was better than the average high school long snapper. Before he had a chance to answer, the kids had rushed to Google and found their answer. His name was Rick Lovato. He used to go to Middletown High South, before he went to play football at Old Dominion, and then to Chicago to play for the Bears, and to Milwaukee to play for the Packers, and the nation’s capital to play for Washington.
He’d never made any of the previous stops stick, because sticking as a long snapper in the NFL is no cake walk. There are only 32 spots available, and those spots can be filled for decades at a time.
Lovato’s brief stops along the way, usually filling in for injuries, had been encouraging. He thought he played well in Green Bay. He felt good about what the future held.
Sunday, though, Lovato was just another New Jersey resident playing a game of football on a crisp afternoon. He was filling his weekdays working at his father’s pizza shop, Joyce’s Subs & Pizza in nearby Lincroft, where he assembled breakfast sandwiches and the occasional slap-dash pizza. The Eagles were on television, but he was snapping instead of watching. It was hard to blame him. The Birds were struggling through another long afternoon. The defense couldn’t hold up, the long snapper was hurt, and —
Wait, the long snapper was hurt?
“I started getting about 10 phone calls,” Lovato said Thursday afternoon, standing in the Eagles’ NovaCare facility as the team’s new long snapper for the final three games of the season. His phone, under siege from the calls and the cold, died before he could figure out what the cellular commotion was about.
He scrambled to his car and plugged the phone into a charger, to find out Jon Dorenbos, the Eagles’ long snapper, had suffered a wrist injury. People were telling him to contact his agent. This could be another chance. He’d spent 10 days with Washington earlier in the season. He needed another shot. Maybe this could be the big one.
On Monday, he waited anxiously until he received the call he’d been hoping for. The Eagles wanted him to swing by for a tryout. As it turned out, he was the only guy they’d called.
Lovato felt a rush wash over him.
“It’s so tough to break in,” Lovato said Thursday. “It all depends on me going to work every day. Even if I’m not on a team, going to work every single day, snapping, lifting, doing what I’ve got to do like I was with the team, and just repeating that process until I land in a spot permanently.”
Lovato, 24, started long snapping in middle school, but he got serious about it in his junior year of high school. He found out about long snapping camps — did you know there are long snapping camps? — and started going to a few. He attended Rubio Long Snapping, the longest-running long snapping camp in the nation. He learned from Gary Zauner, a former NFL special teams coordinator. Things started to click. Lovato was nationally ranked.
But, of course, long snappers aren’t exactly draft-able commodities, no matter how well they play in college. Lovato knew he would have to grind, and get some good luck, to find a landing spot in the league.
Now with his fourth different NFL team, Lovato is starting to wonder what exactly it will take for him to find a permanent home.
“With me now having more experience, building on my resume, building games and having that experience, it’s helping me prove things to other teams, not just Philadelphia,” Lovato said. “I’d hope that, by now, my resume has built up so much that I can land on a team permanently.
“It all started last year with Green Bay, and that little bit of luck — yeah it sucks to fill in for a guy who gets hurt. You never want anyone to get hurt in this league. But it’s an opportunity that you have to take advantage of. This is the NFL, and that’s how jobs like these work.”