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INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa State's Steve Wirtel is a football 1 percenter.
Sure, he didn't get a podium when he spoke at the NFL combine on Wednesday. He sat at a table and unfurled a life steeped in the desire to become a long snapper, which included lots of indoor practice with his brother, John, who earned a scholarship at Kansas and was with the Chicago Bears last preseason. This started after their father, John, looked in the back seat after the older Wirtel was forced to move up in youth football because of weight and thought, why not long snapping?
Wirtel was bitten by this bug in the fifth or sixth grade. He isn't a headliner here, but he's here and that's huge.
How many longsnappers are at the combine? Two, Wirtel is joined here by LSU's Blake Ferguson.
But if you read this through the eyes of a long snapper, you see that Wirtel is a 1 percenter.
Coming out of Chicago prep powerhouse Mount Carmel, Wirtel was offered a full-ride scholarship by Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell. He was a Mannelly Award finalist (for the nation's top long snapper) last year. He earned an invite to the Senior Bowl. And now he's here at the combine.
'It's funny, people were like, 'Sixth grade and you want to be a long snapper?'' Wirtel said in an accent that is straight out of the Chicago suburbs (Orland Park, Ill.). 'It's not something you think about, but we just explored the possibility of being a specialist in general. You can get college paid for potentially, so, shoot, might as well give it a shot.'
Of course, the free college happened for Wirtel. But he took that a step further and said the scholarship was great, but his experience with Campbell and the Cyclones program turned out to be just as rewarding.
'I didn't know much about coach Campbell at the time, but four years later, it's the best decision I've ever made,' Wirtel said. 'Coach Campbell has done so much for me. He's a guy I'm lucky to have in my corner for the rest of my life.'
The four-year scholarship also does give Steve family bragging rights. As is the case with 99 percent of long snappers, John had to perform and earn his scholarship at KU.
'We'll get competitive and there will be some back and forth,' Wirtel said. 'But at the end of the day, we're each other's biggest fans and want the best for each other. I was fortunate enough to compete against him at Kansas in the Big 12, so hopefully, the next goal is to be out there together one Sunday on the field. That would be a dream come true, for sure.'
What are NFL people looking at with long snappers, beyond hitting the bull's-eye on a 100-percent basis?
With punt snaps, Wirtel wants those fast and consistent. On field goals, he wants consistent location and a delivery that makes it easy for the holder to find the laces.
Wirtel said athleticism should help. He said he's a little on the smallish side (6-4, 235), but seven career special teams tackles, including three last season, does show athleticism. He hopes that shines through in drills on Friday.
'One of the big things I've learned through this process is you have to find that one thing that separates you,' Wirtel said. 'For me, it's been that athleticism. After snapping and blocking, how can I be a weapon? To me, that's getting downfield and making plays.
'At the end of the day, I'm a football player, too. I want to stick my nose in there and make plays. That's what I love to do.'
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