When’s the last time you heard Pat Hickey’s name called over the loud speaker at Ryan Field? By his estimation, it’s probably only happened once.
Last year against Vanderbilt, Hickey — Northwestern’s starting long snapper — got called for a hold on a punt.
“I snapped and stayed back and blocked the guy, and he was too fast for me, so I held him and prevented a blocked punt, which was good,” Hickey said.
Such is life for long snappers in college football, or really at any level — you only hear about them when they mess up. The fact that Hickey’s name has only made it onto the loudspeaker once is probably a good thing, and it speaks to his near-flawless track record while at NU.
But while fans still might be oblivious to the contributions of the long snapper, college coaches, like Pat Fitzgerald, are taking notice. In fact, NU is taking so much of an effort to make sure its long snapping is flawless that the Wildcats signed their first scholarship long-snapper, Chris Fitzpatrick, two years ago.
“We value that position,” Fitzgerald said. “We think it’s really important.”
Fitzpatrick is part of a new group of long snappers that are starting to be seen as scholarship-quality contributors out of high school. He estimates that out of a few hundred long snappers that participated in the camp circuit, 10 of them received scholarships. That’s still not many, but it’s an increase from previous years, when hardly any long snappers received scholarships.
“Yeah, I’ve been seeing it the past few years happening more and more,” Fitzpatrick said. “Coaches are starting to find out that long sappers are pretty important positions. Most people don’t think much about us, but we’re pretty much the first thing on all special teams units — the snap comes first.”
The easiest way for a long snapper to get noticed these days is to participate in camps. There are a number of them throughout the country, but Fitzpatrick participated in the ones run by long snapping guru Chris Rubio.
“(Rubio) goes to most of the colleges,” Fitzpatrick said. “He goes to Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and runs their special teams camps for them, so he’s pretty popular.”
Even after going to camps and becoming one of the top long snappers in the class of 2012, Fitzpatrick still thought he would have to go the preferred walk-on route. He had preferred walk-on offers to Kentucky, Boston College and Western Kentucky, but received an NU offer after showing well at the Wildcats’ camp.
It was a pay-off after years of work and it was an example of how long-snapping can help an undersized player earn a Division I scholarship.
“I never really knew what long snapping was until like seventh grade,” Fitzpatrick said. “In seventh grade, in middle school, my uncle — he’s a football coach in Alabama — he showed me this is a great way to get into college, get into the pros, so I started working at it. Probably freshman year I started taking it serious and me and my dad worked at it, went to a lot of camps and got my name out there.”
Hickey is just three years older than Fitzpatrick, but he seems to have come up in a different era, at least for long snappers.
“When I was coming out of high school, it wasn’t as common that you’d go to camps,” Hickey said. “There were camps but there weren’t as, like, publicized as they are now. But Chris Rubio, the guy that Chris went to, coaches contact him to talk about long snappers and it’s kind of his thing. So it’s happening a lot more often that they’re going to camps and being noticed because of those.”
Hickey had offers to play at FCS Drake and Butler out of high school and was also offered a preferred walk-on spot at Western Michigan, where he would also be given the chance to play defensive line, though he said it was basically understood that he would focus on long snapping. He was all set to go to Western Michigan and even had a roommate picked out — that roommate, ironically, is currently a starting WMU linebacker who could line up against Hickey this week — but then NU came calling, offering a preferred walk-on spot.
“Coach Fitz reached out to me and this was just a better fit, better opportunity,” Hickey said. “I came in as a walk-on long snapper, but it was clear that Fitz said, ‘Work hard the first couple years and you’ll be able to earn that role when the time comes.’”
Hickey got a scholarship in the winter of his sophomore year and has been the Wildcats’ regular starting long snapper since 2011. Fitzpatrick will take over starting duties in his sophomore year next season.
“You’ve got to have a pair,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ve got to have two guys.”
And if Fitzgerald has his way, you won’t be hearing from this duo on the Ryan Field loudspeakers this season.