The long-snapper: How to anonymously make $1 million in the NFL

Clark Harris was a seventh-round pick of the Packers in 2007 and has played for the Bengals since 2009. Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

CINCINNATI -- Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was heading out of a meeting one day when he spotted long-snapper Clark Harris chatting with the other specialists.

Kirkpatrick started to wonder what kinds of things a long-snapper would discuss in a meeting.

“How much time do you [need] to know that you’ve just got to snap the ball?" Kirkpatrick asked.

Kirkpatrick decided he had no idea what snappers actually do all day. He doesn't see them post workout videos on social media, like the Steelers' James Harrison does. So their time doesn't seem consumed by working out.

So what is it they actually do?

That's the million-dollar question for Harris, one of up to 14 snappers in the league who stand to make that much or more this season.

He has spent years convincing fans and teammates alike that, yes, he does actually practice.

“If someone ever finds out I play for the Bengals, they’re like ‘Oh really, what’s your name?’ I tell them and they say, 'I’ve never heard of you,’” Harris said. "I say, ‘Well, then I’m doing my job.’ I always get a little chuckle out of that.”

On most days, Harris is on the side field with the other specialists, snapping on punts, field goals and PAT attempts. For a while during the preseason, he had more to do when the Bengals carried three kickers, and his snap totals soared high into the double digits.

Now that it’s the regular season, that’s died down a bit. During warm-ups the other day, he even had some time to retrieve and try to kick back Kevin Huber's punts.

“He thinks he’s a good punter," Huber joked.

A normal day for a long-snapper is about what anyone would expect. He works on his skills, just like everyone else.

“He doesn’t do a whole lot of running in practice. He gets paid to snap,” said Bengals special-teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. “Just like the quarterback throws a lot of passes, the snapper has to snap. That’s what he does. He’s had to snap more this offseason than in previous years, but that’s part of the deal.”

Harris is well-paid for his services, considering his position. He's entering the final season of a five-year, $4.95 million contract signed in 2013.

It might seem like a lot of money for someone who's on the field for 14 or 15 plays, but it's also harder in some ways for long-snappers to keep their jobs. After all, there are only 32 of these jobs open, and teams are always looking for a reason to go younger and cheaper.

One bad mistake could be the end of the road. But Harris has done this for almost a decade with most of the league not even knowing his name. That's exactly how it should be.

“The less you know about Clark, the better; let’s put it that way,” Simmons said.

Simmons knows as well as anyone what can happen when a long-snapper gets attention for the wrong reasons. Before Harris, there was Brad St. Louis, who snapped for the Bengals for 10 years and was even popular enough to have his own website and fan club.

St. Louis was for the most part a perfectly fine long-snapper, except for one bad snap on a PAT in 2006 that not only cost the Bengals a win against the Broncos, but a potential playoff berth as well.

St. Louis was respected enough by the organization to stick around for several years after that. But things went south in 2009 after a string of bad snaps took at least 11 points off the board and cost the Bengals some wins. St. Louis was released and Harris was signed after spending the first part of his career bouncing around practice squads.

“Mentally, Brad struggled with confidence and nerves," Simmons said. "Brad’s accuracy really went off the deep end. We brought Clark in to try to put out a fire.”

St. Louis said the problem was all mental in his case. Players typically have the ability to block out everything when they get on the field, but things happening in his personal life around that time just became too much to ignore. Once he could no longer block those things out, St. Louis knew his career was over.

Harris, 33, is now entering his 10th accrued season, the same number of years St. Louis lasted. He thinks he can go another 10 if someone wants him around.

There are a few reasons he has stuck around. As a former tight end, Harris has rare athleticism for the position and can understand coverages and make a tackle if needed.

“There are some guys who are not very athletic in coverage,” Simmons said. “They can snap well, but they don’t cover. Clark always finds a way to get himself in position to make the tackle at the right times.”

He's tougher than people think. Harris injured his groin during a game last season and could barely walk. But when it became clear the Bengals' emergency snappers weren't going to cut it, he played out the rest of the game.

As for the mental aspect, Harris seems to have that down. His attitude can best be described as carefree, with long hair down to his shoulders and tattoos on his arms.

“[Brad] was a little more clean cut, did everything the right way. Clark is a little more rough around the edges,” said Huber, who is Harris’ locker neighbor and good friend.

Harris spends his free time playing iPhone games, particularly Pokemon Go, a craze that came and went quickly last summer.

“Back when they had those little hoverboards, he’d hoverboard from his house to here and stop and hit a couple [hot spots] along the way,” Huber said. “I think it’s the most bizarre thing ever.”

Surprisingly, Harris also happens to be one of the bigger trash-talkers on the team.

“They ain’t got nothing but time," Kirkpatrick said.

Huber can attest to that. He said Harris gleefully gets into it with opposing fans when he’s on the sidelines. Considering he’s only in the game for around a dozen plays, that’s a lot of free time.

“He likes road games, because he loves it when people start talking to him, and he’ll fire back. He gets a really big kick out of that,” Huber said. “There’s some places like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, it’s usually season-ticket holders, because it’s the same guys each year. They’ve gotten to know him a little bit, so when he comes back, they’re screaming his name. He has fun with it.”

Huber said he couldn’t repeat most of the words said, but he could sum up the general conversation: “They just try to get on him for being a long-snapper. He always just comes back with ‘Well, you’re paying to watch me play.’ There are some more choice words being used back and forth, but that’s the gist of it.”

Is a long-snapper worth $1 million a year? The Bengals seem to think so, as long as he continues to remain mostly anonymous.

“Can’t mess up. That’s all there is to it,” Harris said. “You start having a couple of bad days in practice, people are going to start noticing. Have a bad game, and they think you’re slipping. You can’t mess up.”