FOXBOROUGH — On the third day of the NFL Draft this year, the Patriots selected a long snapper in the fifth round with the 166th overall pick.
But it wasn’t just any long snapper. No, this long snapper ticks every box on the mythical Bill Belichick dream draft pick list: Special teams, Naval Academy, former lacrosse player.
Yes, Joe Cardona is all of these things. He grew up playing the (other) sport Belichick adores, and went to the school where Belichick’s late father served as a coach and scout for more than 30 years.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound Cardona, a San Diego-area native, was a four-year letter winner in lacrosse at Granite Hills High, and lettered twice in football. After graduating from high school, he spent a year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., before going to the Naval Academy, where he spent all four years as long snapper for the Midshipmen.
In April, the Patriots made him the first Navy football player taken in the draft in more than 20 years — the last was defensive lineman Bob Kuberski, whom the Packers chose in the seventh round in 1993. Cardona is just the sixth Navy player to be drafted since the merger.
But part of what makes it difficult for NFL teams to commit to Navy players is their commitment to the Navy. After graduating, all service academy members must do either five years of active duty or, in some cases, can do two years of active duty plus six years in the reserves.
Cardona and another member of his graduating class, All-America soccer defender Joseph Greenspan, who was drafted by Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, both have been given special permission by the Navy to delay their respective deployments as they pursue their rookie seasons in their chosen sports.
That doesn’t mean their focus is solely on the field, however.
Cardona spent the spring balancing his job with the Patriots with his commitment to the Preparatory School, helping the school get ready for this year’s incoming class.
It made for some busy days as he balanced his duties to the service with his duties to the Patriots.
“I have a lot of people supporting me. Since graduation I’ve had a lot of busy days, been showing for work every single day, whether it be here or down in Newport,” he said Sunday. “I’m working and it’s just great to be here.
“I’m definitely used to longer hours, but that’s just a product of the environment that I’ve been around for the past five years. It’s made the transition to being here a little bit smoother.”
Cardona was the only long snapper invited to the Combine in February and a participant in the Senior Bowl (he needed special permission from the Navy to take part in both). For all intents and purposes, Cardona will be New England’s snapper this year. The team did not re-sign Danny Aiken, who held the gig for the last four years, and there is no one in camp challenging him.
Calling the experience of being with the Patriots “surreal,” Cardona put off his post-graduation leave until now, so he could focus on training camp. He likely will return to work once the regular season begins; fullback Kyle Eckel, the last Navy player on New England’s roster, also had an assignment at the prep school in Newport, and traveled there on the team’s off days to fulfill his obligations.
“As of right now, there’s a lot of people supporting me. My command in Newport is super supportive of me, the Patriots are supportive of being flexible, and it’s been evident through OTAs and everything,” Cardona said. “So as far as I can tell, everything seems smooth and I just have to show up and do what I’m told, do my job, and we’ll see what comes of it.”
As a Navy Prep graduate, he is enjoying interacting with the current generation of students coming through the school.
On the field, there has been an adjustment, as kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter/holder Ryan Allen work with Cardona.
“He’s come in and worked hard and done well with us, and that’s what training camp is for, to go through the ups and downs, the bumps,” Gostkowski said. “They try to tire you out and wear you out mentally and the coaches are doing a good job of doing that to him. He’s handling it well so far and we’re just excited to form a lot of chemistry and make a lot of kicks and keep special teams doing really well.”
In between it all, Cardona even has managed to have a couple of conversations with Belichick about lacrosse, though there hasn’t been time yet for them to get out their sticks and play catch.