They may not be the type who become bubble-gum card heroes, but no football coach will ever discount the value of a good long snapper. Without a player who can make like Johnny Unitas while standing on his head, a Rafael Septien or a Ray Guy would be worthless.
Long snappers are usually backup centers (once in a while guards or tight ends) who spend hours of their practice time shooting little spirals between their legs at a holder or punter and never getting their name in the paper until they bounce one on a game-winning field goal attempt.
Sometimes, when no one on the squad can get the job done, coaches go to extreme lengths to get someone, anyone, who can.
Dave Roberts, coach at Western Kentucky, was so desperate this season, he took out an ad in the campus newspaper.
"We'd take a skinny kid out of the library and suit him up if we had to," Gene Murphy, the Cal State Fullerton coach, said. "We have tryouts every year and if we find a freshman with any kind of promise, we work him on it every day."
Usually, the only requirements are uncanny accuracy and the size to slow down a 6-foot 5-inch, 300-pound nose guard who's obsessed with blocking a kick.
Murphy didn't get his long snapper, Kelly Ross, through a newspaper ad. But if Ross showed up for a tryout unannounced, Murphy probably would have told the 5-8, 180-pounder he was just a bit too small to be a lineman in major-college football.
After all, Cerritos College Coach Frank Mazzotta had already determined he was too small to snap on the community college level.
Ross, a second-string cornerback at Cerritos, was set to attend Fullerton anyway and had notions about trying out for the football team as a walk-on. He told Mazzotta of his intentions and the Cerritos coach called Murphy.
Ross was working the counter at Pep Boys one afternoon, hardly expecting to have "the biggest day of my life," when Murphy called and told him to come out for spring ball.
He was ecstatic, but he wasn't harboring any all-conference dreams. He just loved to play football.
"I was a second-string quarterback and a cornerback at Santiago (High School in Garden Grove)," Ross said, "and I did the long snapping there. So when I got here I told the coaches I'd love a chance."
Ross got the opportunity his first year (1983) and bounced a couple in his first few games. But he settled down and didn't have another bad snap until last week when he overshot holder Todd White on a field goal attempt at Utah State.
But the Titan special-team captain isn't content to just snap well and leave it at that. On punts, he races downfield and "risks limb and life," as Murphy puts it. And he has two career touchdowns--one on a fumble recovery in the end zone after a punt and one on a pass reception from White on a fake field goal--to show for his hustle.
"The classic overachiever," Murphy muses, shaking his head. "He's an old guy (23) and you look at him and you figure he's got no business playing football at all. But he does a helluva job.
"Then you look at his special team play and what he's accomplished and it makes it all that much more amazing."
Ross looks like a guy who would whine, "No canning the center," during a pickup game in the park. But he hasn't always been the team runt. In fact, he had to diet to meet the 125-pound weight limit for his last year of Pop Warner ball.
"I was an offensive guard and defensive tackle in Pop Warner," Ross said. "And in high school, I was an average-size cornerback. When I got to Cerritos, I began to notice everybody was a lot bigger."
Nowadays, he's coming up against some very huge young men who are literally drooling at the prospect of flattening him.
"I get a lot of verbal abuse and last week one Utah State player spit on me when we ran the fake field goal play and got the first down," Ross said matter-of-factly.
"I've got Daryl Titsworth (6-1, 280) and Ed Gillies (6-5, 240) on each side of me and they stick up for me. Still, I've got to slow down the guy across from me and sometimes they're twice as big as me. But I've never been flat-backed yet. I just try and get tangled up in their legs."
For a diminutive long snapper and seldom-used defensive back, Ross manages to get tangled in a lot of things. In 1983, after the Titans had a rash of injuries in the secondary against Nevada Las Vegas, Ross got in at cornerback and started a brawl that almost reached riot status.
The Titans meet the Rebels on Saturday at Santa Ana Stadium and the residue ill feelings from that fight are still a hot topic of discussion in both teams' meetings this week.
"This Vegas wide receiver threw a block and I hit him back and then we both pushed after the whistle," Ross said, smiling. "Then I pushed him into (former Titan defensive end) Andre Pinesett and Andre lit him up."
Then both benches emptied and even a few assistant coaches got involved.
Ross' actions went pretty much unnoticed in that melee, but he's drawn a few unsportsmanlike penalties in his two-plus seasons at Fullerton.
A bit of a Napoleonic complex?
"I don't think so because, as far as I'm concerned, there is no size difference," Ross said. "If I actually thought about the size difference when I was out there, I wouldn't be out there."
Murphy, who has a special affinity for Ross' Irish temper and Irish attitude, marvels at the recollection of Ross trying to level Las Vegas' All-Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. linebacker Tom Polley (6-2, 230).
"He peeled back to make a block on Polley and guys on the sidelines were yelling, "No, Kelly! No!" and then, wham , he was laying there unconscious at my feet.
"He just doesn't know he's too small."
He may be too small, but he's got his own uniform and his own helmet and he travels on the same planes as the real football players.