Last November, sophomore long snapper Patrick Eby found himself with a leftover apple from lunch, and nothing to do with it.
It was the day before Columbia traveled to Cornell, and Eby was short of some snapping practice after spending time recovering from an illness. So, the Baltimore, Maryland native settled into a stance halfway down Carman Hall and asked for a fellow student to stand motionless on the other end with the apple on her head.
In a flash, the football spiraled toward the student and struck the apple perfectly, sending it bouncing off the wall. A video of the stunt soon made its way to Facebook, where it reached 10,000 views, but it wasn’t until more than 10 months later that Eby began to see himself all over the Internet.
According to Eby, the flood of media attention began when he and his fellow special teamers created the CU Specialists Twitter account.
Specialists––a term referring to kickers, punters, and long snappers––might seem unlikely members of a football team to go viral. They are involved in a relatively small fraction of the total plays in each game and rarely draw attention, except, as Eby noted, for their mistakes.
“No one really gives special teamers love,” Eby said. “We [have to] kind of stand out.”
Eby does just that, repeatedly demonstrating his knack for snapping, juggling, magic, and more––talents he has been honing since childhood. He credits his grandfather with showing him his first magic trick, adding that an episode of “That’s So Raven” he watched in third grade set him on the path to juggling everything from knives to torches.
But long snapping didn’t come quite as easily for Eby, whose interest was piqued at his first NFL game by Baltimore Ravens long snapper Matt Katula.
“He just tossed the ball between his legs 15 yards effortlessly,” Eby remembered. “I thought that was really cool, and, so, I tried it.”
According to Eby, he was terrible at snapping at first, but improved steadily heading into high school. The turning point finally came during the summer before his junior year of high school, when, at his father’s urging, Eby attended a specialists camp with the goal of mastering his craft.
The camp paid off. Eby returned to Loyola Blakefield as the varsity snapper, and quickly became one of the top-ranked long snappers in the country. When it came time to consider playing at the next level, he sent an email to the Columbia coaching staff, and, as Eby put it, “the rest [was] history.”
Eby arrived in Morningside Heights in the summer of 2015, and has since flourished in Columbia blue, with his interests in magic and juggling helping to complement his job on the gridiron.
“Snapping requires a lot of hand-eye coordination, and, so, the juggling definitely factors into that,” Eby said. “I don’t juggle specifically to keep my snapping stroke, but it keeps my motor skills sharp.”
That wide array of skills is on full display on the Specialists’ Twitter account, but Eby is far from the only contributor.
Sophomore kicker Chris Alleyne stars in one video, which begins with a sharp kick to put the ball into a dreidel-like spin. Without any hesitation, he proceeds to boot it through the uprights from 50 yards away.
In another video, senior punter Matthew Panton shows off the kicking precision acquired during his years spent playing Australian-rules football. While standing in the far corner of the end zone, the Melbourne native angles three consecutive punts through the goalposts.
The specialists often use the extra time at the end of their special teams meetings as a way to brainstorm for future projects.
“A lot of them are just freak things that happen,” Alleyne said. “We just figure out we can do one little thing, and just try to roll with it.”
But none of them—even Eby’s own magic tricks and juggling—tops the apple video. ESPN put it on that week’s SportsCenter Top 10, while Bleacher Report, NBC, and FOX Sports 1 also aired the video, introducing the wider world to Eby and his fellow special teamers.
“That’s when we knew we made it, and that it was successful,” Eby said. “[We knew] we had a real thing going with this Twitter account.”
While the light-hearted videos may not continue into the season, the account is more than a way to relax during the preseason. The unity and camaraderie demonstrated by those videos is vital to the specialists’ performances on the gridiron. Punts and kicks regularly play out as seamless exchanges during games. But to achieve that level of precision, it is essential for every member of the kicking unit to be in sync with one another.
“I always trust that he’s [Eby] going to get it in the spot,” Panton said. “And he does every time, and, so, why wouldn’t I?”
That rapport helped catapult Eby and his teammates to fame this summer, and while they may not make SportsCenter again, it may well pay dividends on the field this fall.