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McDermott Most Anonymous 49er – As He Likes It

Posted Nov 1, 2013

You may not know his name, face or what position he plays, but rookie Kevin McDermott has been one of San Francisco's keys to success through Week 8.

It’s in the realm of possibility that you already know Kevin McDermott’s name. You might even know his position with the 49ers. But you probably don’t know his face.

Who needs to know what the long snapper looks like?

If he’s doing his job, the answer is no one.

And McDermott isn’t bothered by this fact. He actually welcomes the anonymity. Where teammate Colin Kaepernick has stopped trying to walk around the city of San Francisco, McDermott enjoys free range. The fans don’t know who he is.

The question becomes: Shouldn’t they?

To borrow special teams coach Brad Seely’s word, McDermott is vital to the 49ers success on punts and point-after attempts. The squad is off to a 6-2 start, thanks in part to its Pro Bowler-laden third unit, and is enjoying its Week 9 bye away from the facility in Santa Clara.

McDermott, though, was taking part in what Jim Harbaugh called opportunity practices beginning on Tuesday. The specialist hasn’t made a single error – a noticeable one anyway – on the field so far in his rookie campaign. He seems out in front of making his first.

And he’s doing it without the attention that a Kaepernick or Frank Gore doesn’t ask for yet receives.

Go ahead, Google him.  There are a handful of semi-famous Kevin McDermotts in the world. Type those two words together in any search bar, and learn about a men’s underwear photographer and a Scottish singer-songwriter.

San Francisco’s newbie snapper is also on the list. But he’s clearly in need of distinction.

Not searchable on the web: The fact that McDermott – our McDermott – likes a good story above most else. And more than being told a good tale, he likes to offer his own, taking his listeners from start to finish without sparing a single detail. The means are more fun than the ends, especially if his audience lacks patience for the punch-line.

There’s McDermott’s narrative of catching a 250-pound blue marlin off the coast of Costa Rica – and we’ll get to that – but first things first.

McDermott doesn’t always get to spin his stories in the 49ers locker room. His stall is along the far wall and closest to the exit. Situated nearby and to his right are the coworkers he spends most of his time with, 31-year-old punter Andy Lee and 38-year-old kicker Phil Dawson. Nice guys both, but grizzled veterans not about to let their 23-year-old teammate spout off about just anything.

And McDermott doesn’t necessarily want his story – his real one – shared. But it’s a good one. And it won't require removing his helmet.

NASHVILLE – McDermott was destined to snap. There were only 14 players on his seventh-grade football team. Coach Robbie Sinks asked him to be the one among them. McDermott accepted the challenge.

So he wasn’t surprised to also receive the assignment as a freshman at central Tennessee’s Ensworth High School. He had about 30 teammates, 16 of which had never played the sport before. They were a part of Ensworth’s inaugural 82-student class that year, 2004. A pioneer among peers.

Ricky Bowers, the coach there back then and now the athletic director, remembers McDermott as the smartest, most hardworking and willing player on that first squad. He was also growing into his 6-foot-4 frame, and his large hands made him a natural fit under center on special teams.


That wasn’t McDermott’s only duty. Bowers asked him to play tight end and along the line on offense, and at tackle and end on defense. He never came off the field.

Football wasn’t even his best sport. Playing everything asked of him by the fledgling school – lacrosse, you name it – McDermott had his eyes on playing college basketball, the way his father, Kevin, once did.

An easier route to amateur athletics revealed itself. McDermott set up this self-promotional website – OK, fans, he still has that thick brown hair and chiseled chin that he did as a teen – to get the word out.

COSTA RICA – Hours passed without a bite. In his first open-sea expedition, McDermott, flanked by his dad, and coach Bowers, among other friends, were starting to wonder where the fish went. Their inhospitable local for a captain wasn’t keen on helping them either.

Pointing their boat back toward shore and shallower waters, the group stopped to swim with a porpoise. Once back on board, however, the McDermotts and their party were, to steal Bower’s phrase, starving, hot and still without fish. Kevin, a movie buff, was very likely running out of James Bond-connected conversation or anecdotes about his college choice.

This, after all, was the spring of 2008. McDermott was no longer just any Tennessee teen.

Then a blue marlin appeared. He wouldn’t fill their empty stomachs – they’d have to throw, er, slide him back into the water – but they still wanted to catch him. After taking turns on the rod that snared him, they soon realized this was a chase, not a catch.

Finally getting him onto the boat and at their feet long enough to take pictures of him – the suddenly smiley tour guide estimated the weight to be 200 to 250 pounds – their day was made. And McDermott had another story to tell.

WESTWOOD, CALIF. – In the self-titled Three Amigos that also comprised punter Jeff Locke and quarterback Kevin Prince, this was McDermott’s idiosyncrasy. He’d start telling his roommate/teammates about a particular adventure – and they couldn’t wait to know how it ended. The son of an accomplished journalist – Deb McDermott was inducted to the Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame this week – McDermott enjoyed the turns as much as it turned out.

Locke, now a punter for the Minnesota Vikings did not. He was thrilled with being a part of McDermott’s story, however. Without a specialists-centric coach at UCLA – then-special teams assistant Jeff Ulbrich, a former 49ers linebacker, could only teach so much – the two spent their four years training themselves. There were side sessions on adjacent fields and extra reps in the weight room. Whatever they could do to push each other to get better.

Without a scholarship and behind then Bruins snapper Christian Yount, a four-year standout and now a member of the Cleveland Browns, McDermott redshirted in 2008, the year he used his spring break for a memorable fishing trip. In 2009, he appeared in a game at tight end, the position he believed he could play long-term. It wasn’t until 2011 that McDermott made the first of 28 straight starts as a snapper in the Pac-12 conference.

He was a rock, according to Ulbrich, who arrived in 2012. As steady a football player as he’s been around, and Ulbrich’s been around many. He played for the 49ers for 10 seasons, until 2009.

NEW YORK – At the recommendation of the 49ers scouting department, Seely had already seen McDermott on video and visited him for an individual workout at UCLA. When San Francisco’s higher-ups decided it didn’t need to spend an NFL Draft pick on him here on the East Coast in April, Seely waited until its completion to phone McDermott and convince him to come West.

All McDermott needed to hear: He would be given equal opportunity with 49ers incumbent snapper Brian Jennings to win an Opening Day job. First, he would have to best another ex-undrafted free agent in Kyle Nelson during OTAs.

When Seely spoke with his recruit after the seventh round, McDermott told him that his parents, Kevin and Deb, knew who Seely was. Turned out that while Mr. and Mrs. McDermott were playing hoops and cheerleading at South Dakota State University, Seely was playing offensive line – and snapping – for the football team. From 1974 to 1977 to be exact.

McDermott does like good plot-twist.

San Francisco started to feel right, especially when his girlfriend accepted a job with a Bay Area firm soon before he signed on the dotted line. Everything seemed to point him there, except for the challenge that awaited.

SAN FRANCISCO – The odds were against McDermott of staying here for more than months, if not weeks, when you consider what – rather, who – he was up against.

Jennings was the longest-tenured 49ers player. In 13 seasons, he was charged with a single fumble (on punter Jason Baker’s mishandling of a catchable snap in 2011). He was, time and again, a model of consistency.

And Jennings, one of the most likeable members of the team throughout his career, had warded off whippersnappers before. Just last year, he bested in a training camp competition a player with twice as many Pro Bowl appearances (two) as he had, ex-Browns specialist Ryan Pontibriand.

Part of why Jennings was so successful: He knew his role, and he performed game in and game out. Had Jennings made the 2013 Opening Day roster, in fact, he would have played in a franchise record 209th straight.

He’s stuck on 208 and out of the league.

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. – McDermott and Jennings haven’t spoken in the two months since. The latter wasn’t in the locker room when the former found out he had taken his place.

McDermott actually learned his fate from an equipment manager, who wished him congratulations after seeing Jennings’ empty locker. Then McDermott made his phone calls. His long-running group text with Locke and Prince blew up.

All Seely said was, Let’s get to work.

They already had, too. While Jennings was still around, he was more than cordial and even offered tips. But beyond McDermott's pre-draft interaction with specialists guru Gary Zauner, Seely was the first true special teams coach he ever had access to on a daily basis. His feedback on the so-called little things was invaluable.

An example: When McDermott first showed up on the practice fields and snapped the ball the way he had been taught – and become accustomed to – at every prior stop in his career, the football’s nose perked up at the last instant, sometimes sailing inches higher than usual.

McDermott got away with this slight imperfection at the picturesque Rose Bowl stadium while playing for UCLA. But in the NFL, with his home games taking place at the windy Candlestick Park and his road games on first visits to new ballparks – wet Wembley in London – it could cost him dearly.

The margin for error even smaller, Seely helped McDermott close it. His instruction: to lay the ball more flat on the ground before starting his motion backward and between his legs. This way, the ball would rise naturally.

Seely, who believes there’s a fine line between the best and the other guys, thinks McDermott can join the former group.

LOS GATOS, CALIF. – Even the nobody among somebodies needs to get away. Fishing at the nearby reservoir is one way for McDermott to be noticed even less. It’s an escape from work and a potential treasure trove for future stories.

Eight games into his NFL career, McDermott hasn’t stopped trying to improve.. except for short spurts like spending an afternoon on the lake.

Back at the facility, there’s a placard above his locker stall reminding of him of his Not Ranked high school status by every major college recruiting outfit. There’s also the absence of Jennings, who he wants to emulate but not embody. There’s even his younger, bigger brother, Conor, a talented offensive lineman at UCLA blessed with greater physical talents.

And yet, the minute Kevin McDermott becomes a household name is the minute he’ll have to start worrying. This is the dynamic of being an NFL long snapper. The better McDermott does at his job, the more thankless it becomes.

Fortunately, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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