Who We Are: Out of sight
September 25, 2010
Alex Shackleton has built his reputation on ensuring that no one knows his name.
It’s not that he wouldn’t mind a little credit when credit is do, but he just simply knows how it is for a long snapper at the NCAA Division I level.
It can be the most overlooked aspect in the game, but the snap starts everything. It can determine every single aspect of the play. It can decide if the field goal is good or if it’s bad or if it even gets booted at all.
More importantly, though, a single snap from the center to the holder can be the difference between a win and a loss, between a season being deemed a success or a failure.
“People tend to only notice you when it goes bad,” Shackleton said.
And that’s something that used to turn Shackleton’s stomach every time he crouched over the ball for a critical field goal or punt for the Michigan State Spartans.
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On Sept. 18, Shackleton, elbows on his knees, looked back through his legs at holder Aaron Bates seven yards behind him.
It was fourth-and-14 from the 29-yard line. It was overtime, and the Spartans trailed Notre Dame 31-28.
A missed field goal would mean an Irish win; a bad snap would mean a Spartan disaster.
And there Shackleton stood, waiting for Bates’ signal to snap the ball, the play clock winding down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …
Shackleton was actually trying to become the Summit High punter when a few miscued kicks forced him to give long snapping a try.
He was given some basic instructions and a rundown on the mechanics, and with ease, he sent his first toss spiraling back behind him.
“It was kind of weird, I just picked it up right away,” he said. “I guess it was something that I just had and never knew.”
Although he was a junior, it was the first time Shackleton had ever stepped on a football field. Until that fall, basketball had been his focus. After all, not many kids have a father who balled for the Spartans. Joe Shackleton played for MSU in the 1970s.
“I always wanted to be a good basketball player,” said Shackleton. “It was part of the reason I never played football.”
Shackleton – who was a standout for Summit on the hardcourt in addition to lettering in golf as a freshman and sophomore – went out for football that fall because, well, his mom finally let him.
“I’d been asking her for years to let me play, and she never would,” he said. “She thought I would get hurt or something and just didn’t want me out there.”
But as Shackleton grew to 6-foot-2 and more than 200 pounds by his junior year, that argument became increasingly harder for his mom to win.
So, there he was on his first day of practice, launching long snaps.
In addition to his special teams duties, Shackleton also stood out on the offensive and defensive lines for the Tigers. He had 51 tackles and 20 sacks as a senior, and D-II programs were lining up for his services.
Although, his sights were on a higher level, and his long-snapping skills gave him that opportunity. He had a number of pursuers, but when his dad’s alma mater came calling, Shackleton didn’t hesitate.
“There were a lot of reasons (I chose MSU) … but I had a lot of family tradition there,” Shackleton said. In addition to his dad, his grandfather also had ties to the school, as he was the voice of the Spartan radio broadcasts in the 1960s.
The chance for playing time also didn’t hurt in his choice. Shackleton was told he’d redshirt as a freshman while a senior played his final year that the position. Then, as a roster walk-on, it would be his job to win. If he did, he’d be on scholarship.
“It was pretty much the perfect situation,” he said.
And it went about as well as it could have. Shackleton snatched up the job and collected his scholarship a year later.
There aren’t many college football players that will list Picabo Street as one of their favorite athletes. Then again, there aren’t many college football players who grew up at 9,600 ft.
Shackleton was born in Winter Park, but his family moved to Summit when he was 3 months old. And he’s still every bit the mountain kid, even after nearly five years in East Lansing, Mich.
“When I come around the corner on (Hwy.) 9, I see Breckenridge and all the mountains in front of me – it still just amazes me,” he said. “I love it.”
A product of both Breckenridge and Upper Blue elementary schools, Shackleton is about as local as most get in the county.
And that’s part of the reason he gets a bit tired of the winters in the Midwest. He prefers using the snow for the slopes rather than just making snowballs.
“I love skiing,” he said. “I started skiing when I was 2 and always went as much as I could with playing basketball and stuff. … I still love to ski as much as I can. My coaches (at MSU) always joke that they’re confident enough in my skiing that I won’t get hurt. They always say I’d have the same chance getting injured crossing the street.”
Although, he doesn’t expect to be moving back to Summit after he finishes up at MSU this spring. After all, there aren’t many NFL teams in the mountains.
After 43 consecutive starts as the Spartan long snapper, Shackleton has turned into what many college football experts consider to be the cream of the long-snapping crop.
He’s already heard the whispers of coaches and scouts that say he should get signed by a pro team next summer.
“It’s still a mystery to me how I’m even here,” he said. “Last game day, we played in front of 79,000 people. I remember playing at Summit High, and it would be homecoming, and there’d be about 1,000 people there. I remember thinking how cool that was.”
While Shackleton admits his mind wanders some nights to thoughts of playing in the NFL, he tries to keep playing pro ball as nothing more than a dream.
“I have to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I have to work hard and keep doing well. All that matters is what I do on the field.”
And that’s where his focus is. This season will be his last as a Spartan, and the next game, the next snap is his only priority.
So, while he put his hands around the ball at Notre Dame’s 29-yard line a couple weeks ago, he didn’t feel the nerves that some might expect. He was confident, he was excited.
Maybe more importantly, he knew something the Irish defenders didn’t.
The snap flung perfectly, a couple feet above the tips of the grass, squarely into Bates’ hands. The holder, punter and former high school quarterback didn’t put the ball to the turf, though, instead spinning to his right, rolling out and finding tight end Charlie Gantt open down the right sideline for a touchdown pass.
Spartans 34, Irish 31.
The team went nuts, and the following days, seemingly every TV sports network broke the play down, highlighting the heroic call of MSU coach Mark Dantonio, the calm throw of Bates and the sure hands of Gantt.
The only player that wasn’t showered with praise over national TV was the one who started the play.
Although, that’s exactly how Shackleton makes a name for himself.
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