Ford: New Eagle goes from making subs to subbing for Dorenbos

Rick Lovato long snapper
Long snapper Rick Lovato, who is from Monmouth County, played in two playoff games with the Green Bay Packers in the 2015 season. Here he was on the field when the Packers played the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC divisional game at University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan. 16, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.

Rick Lovato and his father were at the artificial field in Normandy Park near Lincroft, N.J., on Sunday afternoon, just north of where the Garden State Parkway cleaves through Monmouth County, and it was cold.

Just this year, Rick Sr. began to wear gloves when the two of them go to the field, and he was glad to have them. Rick Jr. is a football long-snapper, and heaving a ball between your legs with speed and accuracy isn't something you can practice by yourself.

"I used to complain. You sprain a finger here or jam a finger there, and the laces can cut you. It comes back so fast at you," said Rick Sr., who wrestled four years at Temple and is a pretty good athlete himself.

Sprained fingers or no for the stand-in punter, Lovato has to practice, and he likes to practice every day. He would take a shift at the sandwich and pizza shop owned by his father and uncle - Joyce's Subs and Pizza in Lincroft - and then do his lifting and cardio work and, of course, practice snapping for punts and placekicks.

Poll

Do you support Malcolm Jenkins’ efforts to foster better police-community relations?

It's an odd profession, and there aren't very many jobs available in the entire world, but it has been Lovato's obsession since high school, and, as it turned out, Sunday was a pivotal day in his career. At just about the time long-snapper Jon Dorenbos, playing in his 162nd straight game for the Eagles, suffered a broken right wrist in the third quarter against the Redskins, Lovato's phone began to ring, buzz, vibrate, and suffer a meltdown on the bench adjacent to the field.

"My phone died while I was trying to see who was calling me, and I ran to my car and put in the charger and everyone was like: 'Philly's long-snapper's down. You need to contact your agent.' I went home and saw [Brent] Celek was snapping the ball and thought, 'Jeez, this is bad,' " Lovato said.

A couple of hours later, news of the injury to Dorenbos reached Gary Zauner, a former college and NFL special-teams coach who operates one of the most respected training programs and camps for kickers, punters, and snappers. He immediately called Dave Fipp, the Eagles' special-teams coordinator.

"I left a message and told him, 'You better call Rick Lovato,' " Zauner said.

Monday, that's exactly what the Eagles did. They didn't organize a tryout for a bunch of snappers. Lovato was brought in, went through a workout, and was signed that afternoon.

"He's like a fireman. The bell goes off, he slides down the pole and jumps in there," said Zauner, who has coached 19 long-snappers who made it to the NFL in the last eight years. "Some guys it takes three or four years to get in and get a chance. Rick's been at this for two years, but he's back on the merry-go-round now and has the opportunity to prove he can do it."

When the 24-year-old Lovato takes the field Sunday for the Eagles in Baltimore, it will be his fourth stop with an NFL team. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015 by Chicago after playing four years for Old Dominion University. The Bears cut him at the end of training camp, and Lovato went back to making sandwiches - the pork roll, egg, and cheddar cheese on a hard roll is a specialty - until Brett Goode of the Packers injured his knee in December and Lovato played the final two games of the season and two playoff games for Green Bay.

The Packers kept him to the end of training camp this season before cutting him loose in favor of Goode. Then it was more pork roll until Nick Sundberg of Washington tweaked his back in the weight room and Lovato got two games with the Redskins last month. Now, it is the Eagles, and Lovato knows he might just be holding the spot until Dorenbos returns next season.

"It's difficult not having a permanent job, but it's tough to break into the league at my position," Lovato said. "I had to keep doing what I needed to do just as if I was with a team in order to stay ready for this opportunity, and then repeat the process until I land in a spot permanently. If they wanted to keep me around here, that would be awesome, but if it doesn't work out, hopefully I've built up my resumé enough to land on a team permanently and not just jump around filling in for a guy who gets hurt."

There are 23 regular long-snappers in the NFL who have been in the league five seasons or longer. It isn't a position teams like to fiddle with when they find a reliable one. The Eagles, who have had just two long-snappers, Mike Bartrum and Dorenbos, since 2000, are a good example of that. Once a snapper gets into the fraternity, he's in, but that's the trick, and, despite the unique demands of the position, there's plenty of competition.

"The specialist's life is an odd life," Lovato said.

On placekick attempts, which take just 1.2 seconds from snap to kick, the ball must travel 8 yards to the holder and rotate exactly 2.5 times, so that the laces are pointing skyward when the holder catches it.

"That's so he just has to put it straight down," Rick Sr. said. "An eighth of a turn off is allowed. Anything that's a quarter of a turn off or more is a bad snap."

On the practice field when it's just the two of them, Lovato gets exasperated if his father drops too many snaps and he can't tell whether the laces were in the right spot or not. When the snaps are for punts, the ball has to go 15 yards and arrive in 0.7 of a second. It has to arrive at hip level and a good snapper can hit either hip on command or even snap the ball slightly sideways if the punter is offset by a yard in order to angle a punt.

At Old Dominion, Lovato played 50 games and never had a bad snap.

"Well, there was one that was low, but it didn't hit the ground," said Rick Sr., who has attended every game of his son's high school, college, and professional career.

The Bears, Packers, and Redskins were also satisfied with his work, but, well, the specialist's life is an odd life.

"They all said you're good enough to play in this league. You just have to find a spot," Lovato said.

Right now, he has one, and he spent the last week learning as much as he could about how punter/holder Donnie Jones and kicker Caleb Sturgis like things to operate. He learned his responsibilities on punt coverage. (Get up after they knock you down and go tackle somebody, preferably the ballcarrier.) He tried to blend in, which is what long snappers strive to do.

"The only time you get your name in the paper is if there's a bad snap," Lovato said.

If all goes well, he gets three more games on the resumé and maybe a spring invitation from the Eagles. Then, who knows? He might not have made his last sandwich, but for the time being at least dad can rest his hands.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports