NORFOLK, Va. –
Many Navy Reserve Sailors have pressure-filled civilian careers. Every Sunday, Lieutenant Joe Cardona finds the fortunes of his co-workers — both literally and figuratively — in his hands.For seven years, Cardona has handled long-snapping duties for all punts, field goals and extra points for the six-time Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots while effectively managing a career as an officer in the Navy Reserve.
Cardona has made a dual-hatted commitment unrivaled by anyone in professional sports.
“Something I’ve had to learn along the way is that my teammates deserve the best out of me and so do my Sailors,” said Cardona. “It’s a huge responsibility and a lot of pressure, but ultimately pressure is a privilege.”
The Navy has been omnipresent in the Cardona household as far back as Joe can remember.
“My dad joined the Navy out of high school,” said Cardona. “He was an aviation electronics technician and served aboard aircraft carriers. [He] did seven years on active duty, spent seventeen years in the Navy Reserve and is a civilian DoD tech. rep. to this day. He works out of North Island in Miramar [California] on avionics, and [he] trains Sailors and Marines on those platforms.”
While growing up in San Diego, Cardona played football, often staying after practice with his father to add skills such as punting, kicking and long-snapping to his toolkit to make him a more versatile player. Eventually, his love of both the game and the Navy — and his unique skillset — opened the door for him to play football for the U.S. Naval Academy.
“Obviously, my Dad worked with plenty of Naval Academy grads,” said Cardona. “When I was offered an opportunity to attend the Naval Academy, I jumped at it because I knew that it was the best opportunity I could ever ask for, to get to go to a great institution but also become an officer in the Navy.”
While at the Naval Academy, Cardona became only the second freshman to start at long snapper in the history of the Navy football program. He was a four-year player at the position, lettered four times, and was regarded as one of the top long snappers in the country. Cardona’s consistency and reliability at the position put him on the radar of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whose father, Steve, served as an assistant football coach at the Naval Academy for 34 years.
In 2015, after graduating from the Naval Academy with a degree in economics, Cardona was drafted with the 166th overall pick by the Patriots in the fifth round of the NFL draft. On his first day with the team, Cardona said he stepped into an instantly recognizable organizational culture.
“It reminded me a lot of going to the academy and getting ‘Reef Points,’ our information book,” said Cardona. “On day one at the academy, you’ve got to know rates and ranks, you’ve got to know your chain of command all that stuff, and it was the same deal here. You’ve got to know your teammates, where they’re from, what they did, some of their accolades; you had to know the coaches, what their positions were. This all comes in a binder full of information, and it’s your job to internalize and learn it so you know it on the first day.”
Cardona said he soon discovered “The Patriot Way,” (a well-known moniker given to the organization’s team-first approach) closely aligned with the Navy’s “Ship, Shipmate, Self” motto, summed up through Belichick’s simple, oft-repeated sideline command: “Do your job.”
“There are definitely some parallels there,” said Cardona, of the Patriots’ operational philosophy. “Just the overall professionalism that’s expected with the Patriots, it mirrors a Navy command in a lot of ways.”
In the high-stakes world of the National Football League, every inch is ferociously contested, every point is treated as life-and-death, and field position is a team’s oxygen. With the Patriots excellence is the expectation, and victory is only made possible by players doing the little things with precision and consistency, something about which Cardona is obsessive.
“With Joe, it all boils down to trust and attention to detail,” said Patriots punter Jake Bailey, who also serves as the team’s holder on field goal and extra point attempts. “Joe is a very detail-oriented person. He does his best to make sure every single snap is perfect, every block is perfect, and that allows me to do my job to the best of my ability. Joe is a very dependable guy on this team.”
The complexities of Cardona’s role as a long snapper involve dexterity, keen awareness, speed, toughness and an almost robotically consistent ability to deliver the football to a spot 15 yards behind him in the optimal position for a punt or a kick in less than a second.
“Nothing starts without the snap,” said Patriots Special Teams Coach Cam Achord. “For a long snapper, it starts with accuracy, making sure you’re getting the ball to the spot, as we say, ‘with laces,’ with consistent control, spin and velocity at the same level every time, so Jake can catch it at the same spot.”
Achord said Cardona’s pre and post-snap responsibilities are key, particularly on punts, which require a quick protection assessment, precision and quickness on the snap, eye control and proper footwork.
“He has to protect the punter or the kicker, not just snap the football,” said Achord. “On punts, he has to identify the protection — meaning who he’s going to block — then focus on where Jake’s at and put the ball right on his hip. And Joe may have to snap it right or left, depending on where Jake’s lined up.”
“Post-snap, his eyes have to come up, he’s got to be ready to identify and engage his man,” continued Achord. “So he’s got to get up, snap the ball, quickly find the guy and engage. He also has to have good footwork moving to the left or the right, depending on where the rush is coming from.”
Achord said the 6 ft. 3 in., 245-lb. Cardona routinely brings his eyes up after the snap to identify and engage some of the NFL’s biggest and fastest rushers, furiously barreling down on him intent on blocking a Patriot punt, field goal or extra point attempt.
“It’s a unique position,” said Achord. “The long snapper is the one guy on the field not looking at the guy they’re blocking. And you don’t really think about it much, but a long-snapper still has to face off against 300-lb. linemen. You’re blocking linebackers, you’re blocking defensive ends, you’re not just engaging a guy my size.”
The long snapper is also often identified by opposing special teams units as a potential point of failure to be targeted, but to the casual fan, Cardona’s consistent effectiveness is often hidden in plain sight.
“I think you see most punt rushes attack the snapper,” said Belichick in a September 2021 press conference. “It’s a pretty tough position. Nobody knows or cares who the snapper is until it’s a bad snap, and all of a sudden, then it’s a front page story. So there’s a decent amount of pressure on that player as well, not just to snap, but to block in punt protection.”
According to Cardona, no amount of external pressure, whether physical or otherwise, can match the level of pressure he routinely places on himself — both on the gridiron and in the Navy wardroom.
“On the field, one thing I’ve always done is put myself in the mindset of maximum pressure,” said Cardona. “I've gone through the mental reps of doing it in the biggest moments and putting the most pressure on myself when it’s just a practice rep, so when I know it’s real life, and it’s pressure-filled, I’m prepared. I think if we work towards that as individual service members and we work toward that standard, we’ll be that much more prepared to face any adversary.”
To ensure they are effectively prepared for the things they can’t control, Cardona and the kicking team routinely subject themselves to adverse conditions to make a high degree of difficulty the norm.
“We practice in [cold weather] all the time, so we’re very well versed in it,” said Patriots place kicker Nick Folk. “We try to make it as hard on ourselves in practice as we can; we’ll put water on the ball, we do anything we can to make it as hard as we possibly can so we’re ready for all those conditions.”
“Sometimes the wind is coming, there’s inclement weather,” said Achord, “but Joe still maintains that consistent velocity, he does a really good job of spinning the ball so Jake can catch it in the same spot.”
“I’m always confident going out there with Joe because we’ve been at it in practice, in games, time and time again,” said Folk. “You always feel really confident when Joe has the ball in his hands and Jake is holding, so I think the three of us have a pretty good routine, a pretty good understanding of what’s going on.”
Over seven full seasons, Cardona has never missed a game, a testament to both his durability and mastery of a unique skill position.
“Joe has a lot of toughness and reliability, he shows up every day for us,” said Achord. “It’s great to be able to put a guy on the field who really knows what he has to do, understands his assignment and knows his role. As a coach, that’s really reassuring.”
For his fellow teammates, Cardona’s accomplishments speak volumes.
“Joe has won two Super Bowls,” said Bailey. “That carries enormous weight around here.”
Part of Cardona’s job on punt coverage is also to get downfield after the kick and weave his way through the chaotic, high-speed traffic of blockers to tackle the kick returner. In three Super Bowls, Cardona has eight total special teams tackles, a testament to a relentless work ethic which has produced results on the biggest stage in professional sports — success he routinely tempers with a heavy dose of perspective.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to play in some very high-pressure football moments,” said Cardona. “Ultimately, I like to keep in mind in those moments, you know, ‘Hey, this is nothing compared to what a lot of my fellow service members have faced along the way,’ and I use that as kind of an example to provide a little perspective. I get an opportunity to embrace this pressure. It’s good for me to practice in it and perform under it so that one day, if called upon, my Sailors can depend upon me in the same way.”
As a supply corps officer, Cardona has provided vital logistics support to both Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) and United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Currently assigned as logistics officer for Navy Reserve Expeditionary Medical Facility Bethesda, Maryland, Cardona has been directly responsible for providing much needed medical supplies and support to the fight against COVID domestically at critical hotspots such as New York City, USNS Comfort and elsewhere.
To his unit leadership, Cardona is a solid officer who leads from the front, demands accountability, gets results and demonstrates a great deal of humility despite his key role on a perennially championship-contending, high-profile, professional football team.
“Humility best sums up LT Cardona,” said Cmdr. Aleksei Razsadin, Commanding Officer, Navy Reserve Center Newport, Rhode Island. “Even during football season, he can be seen at NRC Newport providing leadership to staff and SELRES alike. No one around him even suspects he’s a football player. They just see an exceptionally skilled Naval Officer who inspires and leads by example.”
Cardona said he’s able to make his Navy Reserve career work alongside his professional career using lessons he learned at the Naval Academy and has since sharpened in both the wardroom and the locker room.
“Best practices for managing the workload required of us really come down to the lessons imparted to us all on day one: compartmentalizing,” said Cardona. “Doing one thing at a time while balancing a full workload. Giving that total effort every single time. Nothing can receive less focus than something else.”
For Cardona, readiness is the whole ballgame. “Ultimately, I think readiness comes down to the preparation you put in so that you can handle moments of giant responsibility,” he said. “It’s easy to be given an assignment that’s down the road and you have a lot of time to prepare for it. But you can’t always tell when the biggest moments are going to come at you. Ultimately, it’s the preparation for the biggest moments, the moments with the highest amount of urgency that will carry you through when
you’re called upon to do something that’s extremely difficult and there’s a lot of pressure upon you.”
When Cardona returns from duty, takes off his Navy uniform and dons his blue number 49 Patriots jersey, his quiet leadership still sets a tone, even in a locker room filled with some of the NFL’s biggest superstars.
“Joe is a tremendous leader and someone everyone looks up to,” said Bailey. “Whether it's briefing the team on Veterans Day or Memorial Day or talking about the importance of service, he offers us a lot of perspective. Joe carries a lot of respect in this locker room.”
“I have a great deal of respect for him and that part of his life,” said Folk. “He takes it very seriously. It’s really interesting to see a person kind of have two careers in the NFL, you know, football and something related to public service. It’s really unique to see it every day. I couldn’t commend him enough for what he’s done for this football team and for this country and the way he respects and responds to everything he’s asked to do on that Navy side. He just does it with the most class. He puts all the time he can into both professions, and he does them really well.
“To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to the fact that he’s always a phone call away from possibly being deployed,” said Bailey, “but if a call like that came, I know for him there’s no higher honor than being called to serve. For now, we’re lucky to have him, and I’m not alone when I say I’m really happy to have him around.”
“He is a true renaissance Naval Officer with capabilities that span from Supply, to Public Affairs, to Human Resources,” said Razsadin. “He is a national treasure and true Patriot — both on and off the field.”