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Bartrum's job really isn't a snap

"I'd give anything in the world, except my family at this point, right now to still be retired."-- Trey Junkin, New York Giants long snapper, Jan. 5, 2003.

PHILADELPHIA -- Mike Bartrum is one snap away. One snap a bit right. A hair left. Too high. Or low and into the ground. There's nothing worse than low and into the ground.

One such snap, and everyone will forget the 11-year NFL career. The smiles he's brought to children's faces. The after-school center he built back home in Pomeroy, Ohio, where 62 percent of kids under 18 live below the poverty line.

Mike Bartrum is one snap away from becoming Trey Junkin.

You remember Junkin. Not for his lengthy NFL career with Oakland, Seattle, and Arizona but for that fateful day in San Francisco two years ago.

Junkin, 41, had received a phone call earlier in the week. The Giants' usual snapper was hurt, and the team needed someone on short notice for a playoff game against the 49ers. Junkin obliged and un-retired.

New York, ahead by 24 points in the third quarter, blew the lead, thrusting Junkin into a position he never should have been in. The Giants trailed by 1 with six seconds to play. They lined up for a 41-yard field goal that never got kicked, because of a bounced snap.

"The guy's had thousands of snaps, perfect snaps," Bartrum said of Junkin last week. "You don't wish that upon anybody. My respect goes out to him and his family because I've heard he's had a hard time dealing with it.

"God forbid that ever happens to me."

Best in the business Thing is, if anyone in the NFL could live with such a burden, it's Bartrum. And, if anyone in the NFL is unlikely to commit such an error, it, too, is Bartrum.

He's regarded as the best in the business at the NFL's ultimate third-rail duty -- snapping the ball on punts, field goals, and extra points. Come Sunday's Super Bowl, he'll probably take the field only about 10 times. But, few members of the Eagles are more valuable. And few are more well-adjusted.

"I take pride in my job, but I don't stress about it," said Bartrum, who played 61 games with the Patriots from 1996 to '99. "I get nervous, everybody gets nervous before a game. But I just go out there and do my best. That's all you can do. Just have faith in your skills."

That's what the woman inside Burger King had to be thinking: Have faith in my skills. In her case, the skill in question was catching a football.

Two years ago, Bartrum agreed to film a few skits around town for the local NBC affiliate. In one scene, wearing his jersey and helmet, he lined up outside the drive-thru window at a Philadelphia Burger King.

"I got lucky on that one because I was about 30 yards away and that lady was inside trying to catch it," Bartrum recalled with a laugh.

He snapped it, and she caught it.

"First try," he said.

At Villanova University he lined up at halfcourt.

"I did it on the second try," Bartrum said of snapping the ball into a basketball hoop. "But they didn't have the film rolling. So about 20 [tries] later I finally put it back in there. The team was waiting to practice."

Bartrum also snapped a ball into a 12-inch mailbox, a moving vehicle, and off street signs from 20 yards.

All good fun, with emphasis on the "good."

"I wouldn't want anyone else snapping to me," said Philadelphia punter Dirk Johnson.

A valued asset Bartrum's value as a snapper is so great that the Eagles are reluctant to expose him to injury as a tight end. As the club's third tight end this season, he caught just five passes, one for a touchdown. (In his post-touchdown excitement, he snapped the ball about 20 yards to Donovan McNabb, drawing an unusual excessive-celebration penalty.)

He has just nine career receptions, four for touchdowns.

"Mike is a very talented tight end, but they don't give him an opportunity because he's so valuable as a snapper," said kicker David Akers.

When tight end Chad Lewis suffered a season-ending foot injury in the NFC Championship game, Bartrum was poised to slide up the depth chart to No. 2. Instead, the team signed Jeff Thomason, who'd been working construction, out of retirement. The reason: If Bartrum were injured, the backup long snapper would be center Hank Fraley.

Summed up Akers: "We hope we don't get in that situation."

Bartrum continuously wrestles with this Catch-22.

"My role on this team is to snap the ball," he said. "I have to tell myself that time and time again because I'm a real competitive person and I want to play.

"But if it comes down to a winning field goal, I want myself in there. I don't want anyone else to have that pressure."

The whole long-snapping idea came along in college when Bartrum blew out a knee playing at Marshall.

"Mike had been a QB," said Greg Briner, then the offensive coordinator at Marshall. "He knew how to throw the ball. I moved him over and had him throw it through his legs."

Voila.

To this day, Bartrum, 34, regularly calls and sends thank you cards to Briner, who is now offensive coordinator at Florida International University. For Briner -- who also coached Patriots receiver Troy Brown at Marshall -- the pleasure is all his.

"It's one of those positions that all you can do is make a mistake," Briner said. "He's getting his brains beat in every snap. I'm really proud of him."

While Briner introduced Bartrum to long-snapping for punts, Bill Parcells was the first to ask Bartrum to short-snap for field goals.

"I'll never forget this as long as I live," Bartrum said, relaying a scene from early in the 1996 season. "He came up to me on a Wednesday and said, `Remember when I was talking about short-snapping? Have you ever done it?' I said, `No.' He said, `Well you are this week.'

"I'm like, `Oh my goodness.' It's totally different. After that practice, Tom Tupa was the punter and also the holder. I said, `Tupes, I need to get with you after practice.' "

Bartrum credits Tupa with teaching him to snap the ball without holding the laces. Thus, the ball makes 2 1/2 rotations on its way to the holder, who gets the ball on the laces. That almost always eliminates the need to spin the ball to turn the laces out.

Bartrum went on to snap in Super Bowl XXXI against the Packers. He played three more seasons with New England until he was released by Bill Belichick.

"I enjoyed my time up there," Bartrum said. "I thought I had proved myself. But Belichick didn't have me in his plans and released me. I'm happy he did to be able to come here and continue my career."

A teacher of children Bartrum signed with the Eagles in 2000 and re-signed for five more years in February 2003. He's unlikely to play beyond next season, if that long.

He's eager to commit his full attention to his genuine passion: kids. An elementary education and special education major at Marshall, he helped teach kindergarten in Kansas City back in 1993. At 6 feet 4 inches, 250 pounds, he was some sight in the classroom, especially for one student.

"This little girl was like, `Kindergarten Cop', " Bartrum recalled. "I was like, `No, no, no.' I had the mom come in, and I read to them."

Last year, while home in Pomeroy, Bartrum stopped into a former elementary school purchased for a dollar by a local church. The church was planning to convert the school to a Christian-based after-school program called God's Net.

Bartrum introduced himself to the pastor, who made an offer.

"He said, `The kindergarten- and first-grade rooms are yours, but you have to renovate it. You have to use your money,' " Bartrum said.

Bartrum established a non-profit organization and sought donations from acquaintances back at Marshall. He also applied for a grant through NFL Charities. With that money, he converted his two classrooms into preschool rooms for kids ages 3, 4, and 5. The center opened last month.

"We're just so happy to have it open," Bartrum said. "It's something I want to do to give back to our community because we need it. Not that I'm anything more special than anybody else.

"I need help every day raising my kids. I have three boys at home. There's decisions every five seconds on behavior and things that they do. Every bit of help we can get raising kids, that's our future.

"That's the reason I want to do this."

That's also the reason why snapping a football in the Super Bowl doesn't seem so daunting after all.

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