KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thomas Gafford’s value as the Chiefs’ long snapper was never more evident than during the opening week of the NFL season.
When Oakland’s Jon Condo left the game with a concussion Monday night, his replacement snapped two ground balls to punter Shane Lechler and the Chargers blocked a punt on another snap, all crucial plays in San Diego’s 22-14 win.
And Washington deep snapper Nick Sundberg suffered a broken left arm on a blocked punt at New Orleans. He finished the game but was later placed on injured reserve, and Washington signed veteran Justin Snow, who had spent the previous 12 years with Indianapolis.
Gafford, watching the Oakland game on television, winced with each bad snap.
“It was sad to see,” Gafford said. “Long snappers are kind of a fraternity. I want Jon Condo to do well … it was a cool deal that (Sundberg) was able to finish the game. It says a lot about him and how tough he is.
“Snappers get dinged up during the course of the year, and you have to learn to play through it.”
Since signing with the Chiefs in the middle of the 2008 season, Gafford hasn’t missed a snap, nor has he botched a snap in 58 games. He may be among the most anonymous pro athletes in Kansas City, but his ability to snap a ball accurately 15 yards to punter Dustin Colquitt in .75 seconds — and even faster for Ryan Succop’s extra points and field goals — makes him unique.
“It’s one of those things that you can either do it or you can’t,” said Gafford, a 6-foot-2, 235 pounder from the University of Houston. “It kind of came natural to me. When I was a freshman in high school, the varsity team said, ‘We need a long snapper; can anybody do it?’ and I said, ‘Yeah I can.’
“I just wanted to play football. So I picked up a ball, threw it back through my legs, and it came out good.… It came natural.”
Gafford, who also was a quarterback and receiver during high school in Friendswood, Texas, played 47 games as the long snapper at Houston. After graduation, he attended camps with Green Bay, Seattle and Chicago before finding a home with the Chiefs.
“It’s not hard to me,” Gafford said of snapping. “I tell people, it’s what you make it. If you think it’s hard, it’s hard. If you don’t, it’s not. The snaps are two different plays. The 15-yard snap, you’re trying to fire it back there, whereas the field goal snaps, you’re not trying to break Dustin’s hands with the ball. It’s all about touch and feel, and having Ryan be comfortable.”
But his job isn’t over after the snap. He’s got to block, and on punts, he has to chase down return men.
“One of the things he does the best is he protects really well,” Colquitt said. “He’s not one of those guys where they’re going to try and do stunts on the snap (up the middle) … because that’s not happening with Thomas. He’s a great cover guy …
“There’s no instance where he has put us in a bind with a snap. I can do my job, and Succop can do what he does, knowing we have Thomas in the game.”
In the event Gafford, 29, were to be injured, the Chiefs have linebackers Andy Studebaker and Cory Greenwood as backups. They usually work on snaps after practice and even get a few with the punt unit on Thursdays.
“Hopefully, we never get in that situation, but we’ll be ready if we do,” said Studebaker, who learned how to deep-snap while trying to make the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster as a rookie in 2008. “It takes practice, it takes repetition, and once you do that, you’ve got to learn how to block, too. It’s not just throwing a ball backward.”
Greenwood, who’s a special-teams contributor like Studebaker, has an appreciation for Gafford’s skills.
“It’s an art,” Greenwood said. “So if you’re really good at it, there are not that many people who can do it. You’ve got to snap it and then block a guy who is not even a foot away from you …”
Gafford is following in the tradition of former Chiefs deep snapper Kendall Gammon, who spent the final seven seasons of his 15-year NFL career in Kansas City and went to one Pro Bowl.
“Kendall Gammon is one of the guys I like to emulate,” Gafford said. “I want to have a career like his, for sure. He was such a legend here. At the end of my career, I would love for someone to say, ‘Wow, we’ve had two awesome longtime long snappers here.’ ”