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Little plays can bring heartache

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2003

Some people aren't happy unless they're unhappy. Some people worry if there isn't anything to worry about.

For those people, here is a list of things to obsess about between now and Sunday's playoff game between the Bucs and the 49ers.

Brad Johnson's back.

Warren Sapp's knee.

Ryan Benjamin's hands.

I know what you're thinking: "Who?"

Benjamin, the Bucs long snapper, gets this a lot. When you're the snapper, one of those guys who views the game upside down and through his own legs, you get used to people looking at you, then looking at their programs, then looking somewhere else. Admit it: Most of us knew nothing about Benjamin which, until a few days ago, seemed like plenty.

That was before Trey Junkin took a breath, leaned over and let an opportunity pass between his knees.

The point is this: It can end in a snap. It can end on the most common play, at the most critical time, at the hands of the most inconsequential player. If the opening weekend of the playoffs demonstrated nothing else, it was that you don't have to be a headliner to have something to say about the outcome of game.

Doubtless, Jon Gruden will point this out to his team today, and Steve Mariucci to his, and Herm Edwards to his. Every coach still standing will point out that battles can be lost by soldiers with no rank at all.

Coaches say these kinds of things all the time, of course. Gruden will talk about the importance of special teams and punt flyers and wedge busters and long snappers, and we will feel our foreheads start to go numb. Look, you want to say. Run a kickoff back for a touchdown for the first time in, oh, ever, and then we'll talk about the special teams.

This week is different.

This week we understand.

Thank Junkin, the heartbroken hiker, for that. He had a snap slither across the grass like a skidmark. He had another bounce like a crossover dribble. If Junkin had had another opportunity, he might have put out an eye. It was a performance of such glorious inadequacy, it probably sent a shiver up the spine of every snapper still wearing shoulder pads.

Games such as this are the nightmare of the profession. By its nature, snapping a ball a little longer than your average center is an anonymous task. It's a thankless job where the task at hand is to pass the ball backward, like a quarterback hanging upside down like a bat, while a nose tackle prepares to leave dents in you. All that is expected is to do it right every time.

Otherwise, you turn out like Junkin, the newly elected Bill Buckner of his sport. Junkin will get a featured role in every pregame speech of every surviving team this season. From now on, any time a coach wants to convince a player his thankless job is important, Trey Junkin's name will be invoked.

Yes, in times like this, you notice Junkin. Unless you're a fellow snapper, in which case you ignore him. It's like climbing a mountain. Even if someone else falls off, you keep going. Benjamin, the USF grad, has to keep 'em spinning, tight and low and crisp and quick. If he can do that, Benjamin can keep the fans from saying the same warm, friendly things they always say: "Hey, No.66! Can I have your wristbands?"

The thing is, it wasn't just Junkin who strained to show you duringthe weekend how important the relatively unimportant players can be.

Take, for instance, the entire field-goal unit of the Giants. Junkin forgot how to snap it. Holder Matt Allen, contrary to the belief of the blithering broadcasters, couldn't have spiked the ball, but perhaps he could have thrown a quick incompletion. He forgot, evidently, it was third down.

As for kicker Matt Bryant? He didn't do a lot during the play. He probably still was thinking about an earlier kick that was so bad, it almost missed gravity. Seriously, Bryant's kick may have been the worst thing to leave a foot since the invention of Dessenex.

Around the league, Atlanta's Matt Simoneau blocked a punt. San Francisco's Cedrick Wilson fumbled one. Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle-El dropped one and ran one back for a score. Indy's Troy Walters fumbled two kickoffs.

You never know. There are so many tiny plays, so many small moments during a game that are important. There are so many overlooked battles between the highlights.

Johnson should remember. The last time the Bucs had a home playoff game, Johnson was the quarterback for the Redskins. He had led his team downfield and was set to hold for a game-winning 52-yard field goal by Brett Conway. And then the snap, from usually dependable center Dan Turk, came bouncing back, and the game was over.

Little plays.

Big disappointments.

During Sunday's game, there will be 130 or so plays. Who knows? Maybe the key play is Derrick Brooks intercepting a pass, or Simeon Rice sacking Jeff Garcia or Sapp recovering a fumble.

And maybe it's Corey Ivy on a special teams tackle.

Maybe it's Tom Tupa, punting dead inside the 10.

And maybe it's Benjamin, sending it swift and clean backwards and remaining safely in the shadows.

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