If Garrison Sanborn does his job correctly, no one notices he’s on the field. As a long snapper, it is Sanborn’s job to start the play by tossing the ball to the punter or the placekicker’s holder. This unheralded position is something Sanborn has excelled at, all the way back to his freshman year at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla.
In 2003, Sanborn took his skills to Florida State University. Despite a Seminole career capped off by being named one of the top long snappers in the country, he was not drafted by an NFL team.
Not one to dwell on the negative, Sanborn redoubled his efforts, and, through systematic and persevering work, he was able to land a job with the Buffalo Bills in 2009.
While Sanborn has achieved his goal of making an NFL team, he and the Bills are now setting their sights on a winning record and a successful playoff appearance. They have an uphill battle, since the team went 6-10 last year, and they begin this season against the perennial powerhouse New England Patriots on Sept. 8.
Sanborn spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about how his Catholic faith has provided stability during the ups and downs of his football career.
What are your expectations for this season?
Individually, I want every snap to be quick and accurate, none going haywire. As a team, we want to play well enough to make the playoffs and win once we’re there. It is an uphill battle, but we’ve been working hard.
What are some of the misconceptions people have about professional football?
One is that all NFL players are troublemakers. So much attention is focused on the relative few who cause problems, while most other players are kind of left behind. We might be even more blessed here in Buffalo than the average NFL team when it comes to most players being reliable men. We’re a hardworking, blue-collar type of team.
Another misconception is that the “superstar” players have it easy, that they just walk on the field, and everything turns out fine for them. I’ve been told and have been able to witness just the opposite. Nothing is easy in the NFL. You have to put the work in just to get here, but to be among the best of those who are here, even more work needs to be put in.
A third misconception is that if you have the money, you should spend it. Some players do operate by that mindset, but I’m not one of them. One example of this is that I drive a 2007 Mercury Mountaineer that I bought at the end of 2009.
My father taught me from a young age that you don’t need to buy the latest and greatest of everything. It’s more reasonable to get something a little less than the ideal, so you don’t get bogged down in materialism. You learn that what you’ve given up really doesn’t matter anyway. Small sacrifices bring great rewards.
Have you found small sacrifices have helped you to be a better athlete?
Anytime you want to achieve something, you’ll have to give up something else. Sometimes those things are small, but other times they can be sizeable. What makes the sacrifices easier is if you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in the first place. Then what you give up doesn’t seem as important. Even if others look at the things you give up as being important, you see that they really aren’t.
Dominick Ciao, the former head football coach at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla., saw me snap as a freshman. He told me that I was further along in my first year there than two other Jesuit guys who went on to play at Boston College and Notre Dame. This gave me motivation to work hard in order to play in college.
I ended up being able to play at Florida State University, which has one of the best football programs in the country, thanks in large part to the work of Bobby Bowden over many years. The quality of the program was enough for me to want to go there, but a Jesuit alum named Xavier Beitia, who was playing at Florida State at the time, endorsed the school as well.
Did you keep practicing the faith in college?
In college, it’s very easy to abandon the faith, and most students do just that. However, I knew there was something vitally important I would be missing out on if I stopped going to Mass and confession, so I kept up a sacramental life and a life of prayer.
I’m very happy I did that, and I’d recommend doing so to every other student, because the little effort it takes on our part to maintain our faith brings great rewards. By putting God first, we have a solid foundation on which to build. If we forget God, we’ve got a very shaky foundation, if there’s one at all.
I was able to meet my wife, Tara, at Florida State, and we pray together every day. It’s such a blessing to be married to someone who takes the faith seriously. If I hadn’t kept practicing the faith in college, I would probably have met someone just as unstable as I would have been.
Was there a tough time your faith got you through?
Prior to the 2004 season, in which I would be a redshirt freshman, I was competing for the long snapper starting spot with a junior. I did very well and expected to be the No. 1 guy. However, the job was given to the junior. I was so upset about it that I talked with Coach Bowden. He said that I was a better individual player than the other guy, but because he was a junior, he would be the starter.
I was always under the impression that if you played the best, you’d be rewarded by having a starting position, but this experience ran contrary to that belief. It didn’t make sense to me, but, obviously, Coach Bowden knew how to run a football program, because he had 304 wins with the Seminoles. You can’t win that many times by accident.
One of the unexpected blessings I got from that experience was having a little more time on my hands. I decided to spend some of that time attending Mass during the week, in addition to Sundays. If I had gotten the starting position early in my career, it may have been easier for me to stop practicing the faith by being overly dedicated to football. Instead, I was more deeply grounded in the life of the Church.
What is one of your favorite aspects of the Church?
I really enjoy the traditions of the Church, which unite us despite our many differences. This summer, my wife and I were in Belgium at Mass, not knowing a word that was spoken. Yet we knew what was going on, because the Mass is essentially the same anywhere. The same concept was played out when we next went to Germany. No knowledge of the language, yet a very deep knowledge of what was happening in the Mass.
Traditions are seen in a negative light by some people, but as long as they’re the ones passed down to us by the Church (apostolic traditions), they are very good. St. Paul praised the people in Corinth for preserving the traditions he gave them: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). Apostolic traditions are also recommended in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 2 Timothy 1:13-14.
Have you found a lot of professional athletes to be religious?
I think more professional athletes are religious than the population in general. Pro sports can be very tough; a lot is put on the line, and you’re made acutely aware of any weaknesses you have. People are constantly assessing whether you’re good enough to keep playing. You realize you need help from a higher power than yourself, so it’s easier to seek out a relationship with God.
Also, in pro football, you can’t play tentatively. We make a million decisions every play, so if we hesitate, we can’t succeed. A great benefit of having a relationship with God is knowing and trusting in his plan and knowing not to doubt the abilities he has given us. Just being able to play with a free spirit and confidently is a huge benefit.
How else has your relationship with God enabled you to play at a high level?
Being closer to God has also enabled me to see that there’s more to life than football, which, in a paradoxical way, is a good mindset to have if you want to play well. One reason for this is that you don’t let the negatives get a hold of you. There will be negatives in anything you do, but not letting them rule your life is key.
It’s easy before a snap with the game on the line to think about all the bad things that might happen. However, my philosophy is to be positive. Instead of thinking of all that could go wrong, I think of all that could go right. It’s a simple but powerful thing to think of what should be done rather than what should not be done. When you have a clear idea of what you’re expected to do, it’s easier to do it.
That clarity helps you persevere when others don’t expect much from you or when they have different ideas than your own. I experienced that not only during college, but after college as well.
Despite leaving Florida State as either the No. 1 or No. 2 draft-eligible snapper (depending on the poll), I was not taken in the 2008 NFL Draft. At that point, I could have given up, but I didn’t.
I gave myself three years to make an NFL team, and I put every effort into that goal. I worked from 7am to 4pm in an office, then worked out for three hours, ate dinner, made lunch for the next day and fell asleep exhausted. During that time, I used my vacation days to go to tryouts and combines for specialist positions in order to get all the looks I could from NFL teams. After so much work, so many tryouts and making connections with teams, I was finally able to sign with the Buffalo Bills in 2009, and I’ve been with them ever since.
There have been plenty of guys I’ve played football with who were more talented than I am, but they stopped playing long before the NFL. I’m still here, and I think it’s for two reasons: One, I’ve always believed in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. God gave me the rare ability to snap, so doing anything other than working my hardest to take this talent as far as I can is as good as burying it in the ground. Two, I’ve always had a trust in God that things would work out well.
With that trust, it’s easier to make the necessary sacrifices and persevere.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.