‘On our own’: The forgotten stars of Stanford’s football team

Dec. 27, 2022, 11:40 a.m.

It’s fourth down. Unable to move the chains, the offense heads back to the sidelines, their jerseys adorned with stains of green and brown. In their stead comes another group of players — a group unlike any other on the team. Their pants are still white, their cardinal red uniforms unscathed. For this small contingent, the most important moment of the game has arrived.

But when they strap on their helmets and run onto the field, boos rain in from the home crowd — their home crowd. And once the play is over, it’s not long until they find themselves banding together again, off to the side, away from the rest of the team.

“In the world of football, we’re kind of on our own,” said junior Bailey Parsons, long snapper of the Stanford football team.

Parsons is one of seven on the special teams unit, a position group made up of the program’s long snappers, kickers and punters. Responsible for kickoffs, punts and field goals, the squad is tasked with doing what nobody else on the team is equipped to do.

“Being a kicker, punter or long snapper — it’s not something that translates to a different position. So you have to be very good at that one thing,” said Parsons, who has to deliver a perfect snap 15 yards behind him to initiate every punt play. “You could take a big wide receiver and move them to tight end. Or a small safety, move them to linebacker. But you can’t really just move people around to being a specialist.”

The life of a specialist is one void of much appreciation. Fans greet them with dismay, as their presence in the game typically follows an offensive drive that came up short. Punts and field goals are not nearly as celebrated as touchdowns, and the lack of glory in their roles means that recognition comes at a premium, if at all.

“Usually if we’re in the news, it’s because something bad happened in the game for us,” said sophomore Emmet Kenney, a kicker. “But we understand that and that’s just the way it is. So no matter what press we get, if it’s a lot or a little, we try to not even think about that and focus on doing our job and helping the team win.”

Because of their unique roles, the specialists spend the majority of their time on the gridiron with one another. And while most position groups take reps within the offense or defense, shuffling with different personnel and schemes, the specialists don’t mix with many outside of themselves.

The result? A bond that seeps through every moment on the field.

“We’re probably the closest group on the team,” Kenney said. The specialists are always together, whether on the field or on the sideline. Whenever they’re called as a unit to go out, they deliver. But when they’re not in action, the group can always be found joking around, talking with each other in the light-hearted demeanor they’re proud to exude.

The specialists recall some of their favorite in-game memories happening during those times, and their discussions take on a range of topics. Of course, the unit discusses what’s going on in the game, adjustments they need to make to their technique and changes to be wary of for next time out on the field. But even after the worst of their blunders, the players stay energetic and cheerful.

“It’s always good to have those guys to lean back on. Even if you’re not having a great game, you can go over there and Bailey will tell you a terrible joke,” said senior Ryan Sanborn, the starting punter. He recalls one instance last season where Parsons’ unwavering support left the pair chuckling.

“Bailey told me last year, he was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I got this figured out,’ probably seven or eight times in a game. I was like, ‘What? What do you have figured out?’”

But the group’s relationship has transcended beyond the bounds of football. Some sideline conversations take on a more serious tone, with players confiding in one another about what they’re going through on and off the field. Other conversations maintain a carefree spirit, as jokes are thrown out constantly and hypotheticals are often the topic of discussion. While they came to a consensus on the wheels versus doors debate — with wheels winning, of course — the unit remains torn on who would fare best against the team’s star cornerback, senior Kyu Blu Kelly, in a one-on-one. Even with games and practices ongoing, the lively dynamics between the players never cease to keep them entertained.

“We’re off on our own, kind of living in our own little world separate from a lot of what’s actually going on,” said junior Joshua Karty, the team’s starting kicker.

It’s no coincidence that the specialists have come to develop this dynamic. Pete Alamar, Stanford’s special teams coordinator, intended for the specialists to be exactly how they are now.

“I love the group. I think it’s a very cohesive group. They get along well, they work hard together and they work for each other,” Alamar said. “That’s what you want — you want the guys to get along. Part of the recruiting process is recruiting the right people for your room … We want a highly competitive room that’s also highly compatible.”

The age distribution within the group makes competition a given. Karty, a junior, and Sanborn, a senior, serve as the starting kicker and punter, respectively. Backing them up are Kenney and Connor Weselman, who are both sophomores. Parsons enters his third year on the team, and Alejandro Chavez and Jacob Lowe — both freshmen — back him up. But with this makeup, the competitive spirit plays out in a collaborative way.

“I think it’s been pretty healthy,” Sanborn said about the internal competition. “I mean, obviously we’re very friendly off the field. And then on the field, it’s very much like, ‘How can we become the best unit in America?’ I think between me and Connor, it’s not necessarily about who’s having a better day. It’s more about how we can each have our best day.”

While group dynamics have generated a fun environment, they’ve also contributed towards the ultimate goal ahead: on-field success.

The specialists’ efforts have translated into a continually-improving track record. Stanford ranked 33rd in the country last year with a special teams grade of 78.8. Karty missed only one field goal from less than 50 yards out in that campaign, and he also went a perfect 27-for-27 on PATs en route to an All-Pac-12 Third Team selection. Sanborn played a pivotal role in keeping opponents’ field position in check by placing 21 of his punts inside the 20-yard line, finishing with the 12th-highest PFF grade among all punters in the country. Parsons finished the 2021 season with a perfect slate, as the unit did not give up a single fumble when he was on the field, yielding him a position on the All-Pac-12 Fourth Team.

Ironically, in doing so, Parsons maintained his anonymity — the holy grail for a long snapper, according to Alamar, since their names tend to arise only in negative situations. And the group’s success has not stopped there.

As hard as it is to obtain recognition, the strong play from Stanford’s specialists has thrust them into the spotlight anyways. Entering the 2022 season, Sanborn was selected for the Ray Guy Award Watch List, an honor given to college football’s best punter. Karty has found his midseason stride, putting forth an unprecedented string of performances in October with three Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week awards in four weeks, a feat no Stanford player has ever done.

“We’re all really confident that we have one of the best — if not the best — specs units in the country,” Karty said. “We’re all extremely physically talented, mentally talented, and we’re just really excited to show the country what we’ve got this year.”

But as talented and successful as they are on the field, what really makes this bunch unique is that their bond extends beyond the bounds of football.

“We all enjoy football and we’d say it’s fun,” Kenney said. “But I think with the intensity that goes along with it, it’s nice to have time off the field to unwind with each other.”

Outside of meetings, the unit has gone from a group of football players to a group of friends. When they’re not living together — as some are roommates with one another — they’re out doing everything together. Some days mark a visit to the golf links or the bowling alley. Others are spent staying in freestyling and making diss tracks, playing video games and telling stories. But among their many shared experiences, one night in particular stands above the rest.

Spec-lympics, an event the specialists hold at the end of every quarter, is nearly a consensus favorite memory. Starting early in the evening, the night is full of competition and fun, perfectly epitomizing what the group is all about. 

Events like three-point contests, eating races and jeopardy combine elements of competition, teamwork and companionship — things that define the unit both on and off the field.

“It’s something that we do that’s just kind of another exclamation point of how close we are,” Parsons said.

While football is what brings the specialists together, it in no way defines them. The football team rosters 107 players, but the group has developed their own team within the team. And even when their helmets and pads are absent, the guys’ friendship doesn’t waver. Their palpable joy and constant laughter stand to show that the specs team isn’t just a position group — they’re a community that finds comfort in knowing they hold lasting relationships.

“I just think anytime I have free time, these are the guys I want to hang out with,” Parsons said. “These are my go-to guys for just about any situation in life.”

Zach Zafran is the managing editor of the sports section. He is a sophomore from the Bay Area, who is majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. Zach has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE, and you can find him around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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