By Christopher Price
Mike Bartrum. Kendall Gammon. Dave Binn. Not exactly household names for football fans. But for a young Lonie Paxton, these were his heroes — and not just because Binn once dated Pamela Anderson.
Among special teams players in the NFL, Bartrum, Gammon and Binn are legends as long snappers, men who rose above the relatively obscure world of offensive linemen to redefine the art of special teams. If there’s a Mount Rushmore for long snappers, Paxton believes these faces should be the first three carved in stone.
According to Paxton, what made them great as long snappers was their consistency — they were all able to unfailingly execute a perfect snap, no matter the conditions.
“Those guys were just always consistent, always fast, with a tight spiral,” the 29-year-old Paxton said of the trio, which includes Bartrum, a former Patriots tight end. “They could snap in any type of weather.”
Long snappers have always been an overlooked part of the special teams unit — you only hear about them if they’ve screwed up, failed to successfully execute a snap, missed a block or committed some other sort of football faux pas. But they can often hold the outcome of the game in their hands — according to a recent story in Sports Illustrated, over the last decade, 24 percent of all NFL games were decided by three points or less.
And since he was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of Sacramento State in April 2000, no long snapper has had surer hands than the tattooed Paxton. He’s been the long snapper for two of the most memorable field goals in NFL history, and has provided a sense of stability for a special teams unit that has seen plenty of turnover. Since 2000, he’s handled five different starting punters, two different starting kickers and innumerable holders, all without a hiccup.
In the transitory nature of today’s NFL, Paxton, like his heroes, is a monument to consistency.
“With the changes lately, it is a little different,” he said, referring to the recent departure of punter/holder Josh Miller. “But being able to throw a consistent ball, you should be able to put anyone back there and have them catch it in the same spot. That’s something I work on – putting it in the same spot every time.”
Paxton wanted to be a long snapper since the Southern Califonia native started going to Los Angeles Rams games with his father in the 1980s. Their season tickets were near where the long snappers warmed up, and his father pointed something out to him.
“He was always saying to me that the long snapper was just someone who found something he could do better than anyone else, and there’s a position for him on the football team,” Paxton said. “It was one of those things – I just kind of watched him and felt like I could try to help the team.
“It was just something I could do – and no one else on the team could. And I wanted to help the team.”
And a long snapper was born. Paxton served as the long snapper at Centennial High School (in Corona, Calif.) and Sacramento State, but didn’t really expect to play professional football until he got a call from Bill Belichick in April 2000.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was going to play professional football,” said Paxton, who has now played in 109 professional games heading into Sunday’s season opener against the Jets. “It just worked out to where I took the first phone call, and it happened to be the Patriots, so everything happens for a reason.”
Along with former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, Paxton has helped cleanly execute 10 game-winning snaps over the course of his career. With the game on the line, Paxton has always done his job successfully. He has been at the center of some of the most memorable events in franchise history, including wins in the epic divisional playoff against the Raiders in the 2001 playoffs, and the win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
All the while, he’s always remembered a simple maxim: consistency is everything.
“You have to be consistently accurate — not consistently bad,” he said. “Consistently fast. A slower snap creates a faster punt, so you want to have a faster snap so the punter can take his time.
“You have to be able to block consistently — if you can snap it straight but can’t block, it does nothing for the rush. You have to be a consistent factor on coverage,” he added. “And you have to be able to just stay in the game, because a lot of times you aren’t playing as much and you have to be up on the situation.”
Paxton is currently fifth in seniority in the New England locker room, trailing only Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Kevin Faulk and Tom Brady when it comes to years of service in Foxborough. He’s hoping he’ll be around for a while longer.
“I appreciate and enjoy every second of it,” he said of his run with the Patriots. “There’s been a lot of changes in my little group recently, so that’s a work in progress, trying to get everyone on the same, consistent level to where we don’t have to be a factor in a game and we can continue to do great things.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. How the Patriots defend Jerricho Cotchery. The Jets’ No. 2 wide receiver had 16 catches for 291 receiving yards and three touchdowns in three games against New England last season.
2. The Jets’ pass rush. According to the Pro Football Prospectus, New York blitzed more than any team in the league last season — the Jets sacked Tom Brady six times in three games last year.
3. Laurence Maroney. The Patriots running back should enjoy a big day against the Jets, one of the worst teams in the league at stopping the run last season.
4. Jarvis Green and James Sanders. How the likely backups for Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison do Sunday will go a long way in determining how the Patriots start their season.
5. The Patriots’ wide receiving corps. Will Randy Moss play? And will the new faces be on the same page with the quarterback?
STAT OF THE WEEK
4. Including Sunday’s game, the number of times the Patriots have faced the Jets over the last 12 months. In that time, no team has faced New England more.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“I will not be satisfied until I’m out there with the boys. That’s what I do. I don’t cut checks. I don’t shine shoes. I don’t tape ankles. I play football. That’s what I came here to do. By me not being able to do what I came here to do, of course it’s going to be frustrating.” —Randy Moss, speaking with reporters Monday about his frustration he’s developed from not playing.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released in October by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at [email protected].