HOUSTON — One of the New England Patriots had a prior commitment for this weekend.
Joe Cardona, a second-year long-snapper, is a reservist in the Navy. He has an eight-year commitment that is, technically, his real job. Among his obligations is two weeks of active training a year and a weekend per month on top of that. His next duty is scheduled for Newport, R.I., over the next few days and … he can’t make it.
“I had to reschedule it,” Cardona said.
The Super Bowl is a pretty good reason, but Cardona doesn’t smirk like a kid on a snow day. He wears the earnest expression of someone who is fully committed to serving. “Do Your Job” carries an added weight here.
“I didn’t go to the Naval Academy expecting to play in the NFL,” Cardona said. “That wasn’t my focus.”
Last season, as a Pats rookie who was on active duty, he had to drive to Newport multiple times every week and then back for practice – about a two-hour commute. No one at either job would have blamed him for being late, but it never happened.
“Shoot,” laughed punter Ryan Allen, “this guy is like a drill sergeant.”
He’s not wrong, of course. Cardona is one of only two active members of the U.S. Armed Forces in the NFL – Keenan Reynolds of the Baltimore Ravens being the other – and he’s only the fourth pure long snapper to be drafted into the league. He had to get clearance from the Secretary of the Navy to play this season.
The discipline and attention to detail from Cardona’s primary job fit his football job well. Most people think long snapping is just schoolyard chucking the football through the legs. It’s more like being a quarterback than most realize. Punters like Allen want the ball right on the hip, and a small variance can make a big difference. Kickers like Stephen Gostkowski like having the laces facing toward the target, so Cardona tries to spin the ball exactly enough rotations so that Allen (the holder) doesn’t have to reposition it before placing it down. Those milliseconds count, as Gostkowski likes the ball tilted just slightly according to which way the wind is blowing.
Cardona “will get in a rhythm where you have the laces pointed forward almost every time,” Allen said.
That matters, as anyone who watched the Pats’ first Super Bowl appearance in this city will attest. The 2004 game against the Panthers came down to a 41-yard field goal, which Adam Vinatieri made. Every Pats Super Bowl so far has been close – win or lose, so Cardona, Allen and Gostkowski might be the ones to determine the entire season.
They’ve all been in pressure situations, and they feed off each other.
“The way he handled two jobs [as a rookie] just showed a lot of maturity and that can instill a lot of confidence when you’re working with someone like that,” Allen said.
Head coach Bill Belichick was expansive when asked about Cardona this week.
“Joe represents everything that we want to stand for,” he said, “and he’s a great person and of course his real job, defending our freedom, is at the very top of the list.”
Cardona understands he could be deployed at some point in the future, and when asked if it’s part of his job to stay on top of world affairs, he quickly replied, “I think it’s every citizen’s job to stay on top of world affairs.”
If his football career helps spread the word about the Navy, all the better. He knows the other reservists who will be in Rhode Island this weekend will be watching the Pats if they get done with their training.
“You have a lot of football fans in the military,” Cardona said. “They’ll ask me questions. I can tell him how it relates to the Navy. If it has any influence, in any positive way, that’s all I can ask for.”
He’s probably the lowest-profile player on the Pats sideline, by virtue of the position he plays, but the team, like the U.S., is counting on him in a very unique way.
He is, in every sense, a New England patriot.