The outcome of last Sunday’s Super Bowl was in doubt for about 12 seconds. That’s when the Denver Broncos’ center Manny Ramirez unwittingly hiked a shotgun snap before his quarterback, Peyton Manning, was ready, giving the Seattle Seahawks two points before their offense ever took the field.
I felt bad for Ramirez. As a former high school center, I know the pressure you’re under to deliver the ball to the star quarterback in just the right way to start the play. Fortunately for my teams, I was always the second-string center, so I didn’t have to worry too much about real mistakes in a real game.
I cemented my career back-up status in pre-game warm ups one Friday night, when, like Ramirez, I snapped the ball prematurely. In those days quarterbacks didn’t take that many shotgun snaps. Instead, they put their hands right up under the center.
So when I snapped the ball a count too early, quarterback Mike Newbauer’s fingers were bent because he wasn’t expecting to receive the ball. The football jammed one of his fingers. He spent part of the pregame period taping his fingers, and shaking his hand to get rid of the pain. I was worried to death about what I’d done to him. Fortunately, I didn’t hurt him so bad that he couldn’t play.
My friend Jim Kelly knows a thing or two about the pressure of being an offensive center when it counts. He was the starting center at East Wake the year I hurt our quarterback in 1982.
“I never worried about a regular snap. That was almost second nature. The shotgun snaps were a little different. Sometimes I would say to myself, ‘I might have gripped that one a little too long.’ I’d look behind me and Mike would be chasing the ball,” Kelly told me. “But that snap in the Super Bowl was early. I don’t think I ever snapped the ball too early.”
That is why he was the first string center and I warmed the bench.
Poor old Manny Ramirez will go down in history as the guy who started the first play of the Super Bowl too early. Lost to history will be all the good plays he might have made in the game. Offensive linemen play their game bent over all the time in the middle of a scrum where the only people who can pick them out are their mothers. I asked Kelly, who now works as an engineer at the Newport News Shipyards, about that.
He never worried too much about not being the.... ahem... center of attention.
“I was sick the first week of school and I came to school on Thursday. David Jones (East Wake’s running back) saw me in the hallway and said ‘Man am I glad to see you.’ I told him not to worry. I’d make sure he got his picture in the paper. I think he ran for 250 yards that week,” Kelly said. In other words, the people who knew how important the center was, appreciated his presence and skill.
I suspect, despite the miscue in the big game, Peyton Manning probably appreciates his center more than most of us realize.
And, even if the game wasn’t that competitive, it was a wonderful social occasion. My daughters and I watched from beginning to end. We commiserated over bad plays and celebrated good ones. If for no other reason, that meant this year’s Super Bowl exceeded expectations.