Without looking it up, can you tell me who the last long snapper for the Atlanta Falcons was before Josh Harris? Probably not.
The long snapper position is one of the most important positions in football, and is also one that is regularly forgotten about. For some reading this, it’s possible that this is the first time you’ve heard of Josh Harris. Since 2012, Harris has served as the Falcons long snapper, assisting the team in some of the best moments in franchise history. He won a collegiate national championship in 2010 while at Auburn, and signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Only Matt Ryan and Julio Jones have been in Atlanta longer than Harris and still remain with the team.
To answer the question above, the long snapper before Harris was Joe Zelenka.
“Joe had a very long NFL career, with most of it taking place in Jacksonville,” Josh Harris told The Falcoholic in an exclusive interview on Monday. “He then finished off his career with the Falcons, and Joe’s a great guy, I tried to learn as much as I could from him. Just the ins and outs of the business, how to study film and things like that. He was a great mentor for me and I hope someday I’m able to put my name in that hat and be helpful to someone else.”
What does a long snapper’s career look like, with the pressure to do one thing at an exceptional level for a very long time? We talked to Harris about just that.
How it all began
Before joining the Falcons in 2012, Harris had an interesting path to becoming a long snapper. It originated in middle school, of all places, a time where youth football programs are just beginning to utilize special teams.
“During one of the practices there was a tryout for the team, and I was the only one who could snap it back there,” Harris said. “So the head coach said that I was going to be the snapper. So that’s kinda where it all started while I was also playing other positions as well. It really wasn’t until I graduated high school that I realized that long snapping was something that could give me a chance at the next level. Prior to my walk-on tryout at Auburn in 2007 is when I committed fully to long snapping. There’s a lot of positional camps out there now that give a lot of great instructions for kids that are wanting to learn. I never went to any of those camps, I think they were around but they weren’t as big as they are now. I was just lucky to have a coach who could show me the basics and get me pointed in the right direction.”
Long snappers get no respect
The life of a long snapper is far from a glamorous one. While the wide receivers get all of the media attention, you’ll likely find the long snappers off to the side practicing their snaps. Even members of their own team may not know who they are.
“When I meet somebody, through the course of the conversation they’ll ask what I do for a living. I say that I’m a part of the Atlanta Falcons, their response is usually ‘Oh, are you in marketing?’ and I’ll tell them I’m the team’s long snapper and it’s probably the only position that makes them more confused because they’re not quite sure what a long snapper does but I enjoy it,” Harris said.
“About 3-4 years ago we played in Seattle, and the next day I was walking up to the special teams coaches office for some film review, and one of the guys in the IT department was coming down the stairs. He said he was tired from the game, and I told him I heard him on that. He said ‘Oh, did you get to fly out there for the game?’ — I just looked at him and was like, ‘Yeah... I went, I was there.’”
“That’s the life us long snappers live, and I’m okay with it. Every long snapper in the league right now is extremely talented. You don’t get to stick around in the league for over a decade just because you know how to do it, it’s because they’ve executed at the highest level and they’ve earned the right to remain for so long. Hopefully I can be one of those guys that sticks around a lot longer, and that’s what I train for every day.”
Longevity of the position
Harris is coming up on his 10th season with the Falcons, making him one of the most experienced players on the team. He’s seen teammates come and go, games won and lost, and in 2021, Harris still remains.
“There’s a ton of competition out there. There’s only one spot on each roster for a long snapper,” Harris said. “With there only being room for one, there’s a lot of guys waiting to come in and compete for the spot. For me, I say a lot of it comes from my offseason training.”
“Growing up, I played three different sports so there was never a lot of down time at any point of the year. One of those sports was wrestling, which is the oldest sport and one of my favorite sports. What you’re able to learn about yourself — mentally and physically through wrestling, it really prepared me for anything that life may throw at me. A lot of people will say ‘I snapped in high school and I can do it in the NFL’ — but there’s a lot more that goes into it. There’s a lot of guys who can snap a ball, but you have to be tough, physical, you have to be able to block and get down field to affect the coverage. The work I put in during the offseason is something people don’t see, but I take a lot of pride in that and try to take advantage of every opportunity that I get.”
Harris’ favorite moments
The Falcons were fortunate for several years to have continuity with their specialists group. Matt Bryant, Matt Bosher and Harris played together for nearly a decade helping to bring some memorable moments to Falcons fans over the years.
“It’s difficult to come up with just one moment,” Harris said. “I’ll start with 2012 and the kick we made in the Divisional Round against the Seattle Seahawks. That’s something that I’ll never forget, that was an awesome moment. As a specialist, those are the kind of moments that your train for. Also, obviously the Super Bowl didn’t turn out the way that we wanted it to, but to play on that stage is something that I’ll cherish forever, and it’s something that I’ll continue to work for and we’ll hopefully get back to and make it right. Every chance, and every opportunity that I get to put on the Falcons uniform and go out there and compete... those are special.”
Adapting to new punters and kickers
With the shaky departure of Bryant and Bosher in 2019, Harris was forced to adjust to a slew of different kickers and punters during the transition. For a long snapper, this means adjusting your set up, placement and snap.
“If there’s a new kicker, that may affect my timing as far as when to get set and snap the ball because everybody is a little different,” Harris said. “Some kickers are really quick in their process and some are pretty slow, and everything in between. A lot of it comes with the holder. My job is not only to deliver an accurate snap to him, but also make sure the laces are on the top half of ball when he catches it. So with that, there’s a lot of repetition and practice that needs to take place for that. With a new placeholder, it’s more about how he likes to catch it, whether it’s closer or further from his body is something I make adjustments for. We had to do that a number of times, if someone missed some time. Obviously, I was lucky to have Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher, we were all together for a number of years. But having different kickers and placeholders come in has made me a better player, with being able to adjust. At the end of the day, my job is to make their job as easy as possible and whatever that takes, that’s what I’m willing to do.”
The veteran in the room
In 2020, the Falcons specialist group was able to get back on their feet with the additions of punter Sterling Hofrichter and kicker Younghoe Koo. Hofrichter was selected by the Falcons in the final round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Koo spent some time in the AAF and NFL before finding a likely long-term home with the Falcons.
“I try to share stories and tips or tricks of the trade that I’ve picked up or noticed that may help both of them,” Harris said. “Sterling and Koo have done a great job since they’ve been here. With Sterling, last year was his rookie year and it was his first time holding, which was a big deal. Then for Koo to make the Pro Bowl the same year, I’m so proud of them both. We work and operate as one. I take pride in their success, and I’m really excited to continue to work with those guys and see how much better we can get as a unit.”
New year, new coach
With the recent regime change, Harris will have a new special teams coordinator in 2021 with Marquice Williams. Williams will be his third special teams coordinator since joining the Falcons in 2012.
“He’s a great guy,” Harris said. “I’m really looking forward to working with him, and also Steve Hoffman who has been brought on staff as well, and Charles Walker who is going to help us with special teams also. I’m just trying to get on the same page with those guys and be able to learn as much as I can, and be ready to go out there and help the team win.”
Always have a goal in mind
With such a long NFL career, it’s only natural for goals to change over time. Harris has been with the Falcons through the best of times and the worst of times, and he makes sure to always have a goal to strive for.
“I always have goals,” Harris said. “When I was younger, it was more of hopefully becoming a vested veteran and being able to provide for my family. Now, it’s more about making sure that our special teams group is at the top each and every season. There’s so much that goes into it, and I can only control so much, but I feel that every person on this roster has a job to do. My goal every year is to do my job as best as I can. That starts with how I prepare in the offseason, how I carry myself during the season, and ultimately how I perform on game day. I learned this from Matt Bryant a long time ago that ranking plays is a terrible idea because they all count the same. Whether it’s the first extra point in the first quarter or the game-winning field goal at the end, they all count and they all matter.”
(Hopefully) retiring a Falcon
Even though he’s still playing, and hopefully will continue to do so for another decade, Harris is already the best long snapper in franchise history. Since 2012, Harris has started 155 games for the Falcons, only missing five which came during the 2018 season. When he feels it’s time to hang up the cleats, it’s only right that he does it as a Falcon.
“I grew up a huge Atlanta Falcons fan,” Harris said. “I grew up in Carrollton, Georgia which is just about 45 minutes west of the Georgia Dome, and now Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Having the opportunity to play anywhere in the NFL was great, but being able to stay close to home was such a tremendous blessing. To be able to stay close to my family and friends, and be able to share a lot of this journey with them has been awesome. Another 10+ years would be great, but I just take it day-by-day and have a ‘do good today so that they bring me back tomorrow’ mentality. The Falcons organization will always, always have a special place in my heart.”
Like Josh Harris, I grew up a fan of the Falcons and obviously remain one to this day. The opportunity to speak with such as Harris never ceases to amaze me, and the opportunity to talk to a player most fans don’t know well and may never think about in the course of the game is fun.
What’s refreshing is when you finally speak with these players you have idolized, and like Harris, they turn out even kinder than you imagined, it’s a great feeling. Think back to 2012, every memory you have of a Falcons game. Harris was there. He’s always been there. Hopefully he will continue to be for another decade.
Josh Harris will appear on The Falcoholic Live show on March 31.