Trey Junkin spent nearly every minute of his 19 years in the NFL trying to be invisible, and might have succeeded, if not for his very last snap.
That came at the end of a 2003 NFC playoff game, when a New York Giants team he had joined only four days earlier botched a last-gasp field goal to complete an epic meltdown against the 49ers - and left Junkin to shoulder the blame. Nine years later, he is still toting up the costs and wondering whether even one of those teammates will come forward and share the burden.
"I owned up to it that day and every day since, I've owned every bit of it," Junkin said. "It's how I was brought up. But I think about that ... snap still. Not every day or every night anymore, but every now and then I get jerked out of my sleep and re-live that feeling the second the ball left my hands. And it brings the taste of vomit to the back of my mouth."
Junkin is back home in Winnfield, La., pop. 5,800, helping out with the high school football team on occasion and watching dozens of NFL games every season with a notepad in his lap - always - charting special-teams play. He'll be back in front of TV set Sunday when the Giants and 49ers meet again in the NFC championship, wondering if the game Junkin loved all his life will ever welcome him back.
"I still feel bad for all 53 guys on that team. And the last thing I want," he said, "is people to feel sorry for me. I've got a wonderful wife, two great kids and my parents are still alive. Football gave me the means to enjoy all of it.
"Do I want to get back in? Absolutely. I'd love to be a special-teams coach. I did it for a year in Canada (with Calgary) and loved every minute. I played every facet of special teams and still study it to this day. Interestingly enough, though, I can't get an interview. Everybody knows me, but nobody returns my calls? I mean, c'mon," Junkin said, then paused and drew in a sharp breath.
"I don't want to lay it on that snap," he continued, "but I don't know what it is. I wish I did."
When that fateful January call came from New York, Junkin was 41 and had filed his NFL retirement papers two months earlier after playing for seven different teams as a long snapper and sometimes special-teams player. By his own count, he had messed up five or six snaps in 281 previous games. The Giants, meanwhile, had already lost three other long snappers during a season that began with low expectations, but thanks to a late surge, began to take on a championship feel. They built a 24-point lead at San Francisco and still led 38-22 beginning the final quarter when everything fell apart. Their last shot at redemption came on third down, trailing 39-38 with six seconds left, as kicker Matt Bryant stepped onto the field to attempt a 40-yard field goal.
What happened next remains a point of contention. All these years later, though, Junkin still is the only guy to take responsibility for his part. But if you made a list of those who blew assignments on the play, he might not even make the top 10.
For one, there's Giants holder Matt Allen, who could have fallen on the ball and called timeout, leaving enough time for another try. Or, Allen could have run outside the tackle box - which he did - and thrown the ball out of bounds, stopping the clock with a few ticks left. Instead, he panicked and heaved an incomplete pass at teammate Rich Seubert.
Next would be the seven NFL officials on the field, backed by a quartet in the instant replay booth. They mistakenly believed Seubert - normally an offensive lineman - was an ineligible receiver and so refused to call pass interference when San Francisco's Chike Okeafor pulled Seubert down from behind on the play. Okeafor practically boasted about his handiwork after the game - "I wasn't going to let him catch it, score and be over then," he said. But it wasn't until Monday that the league got around to acknowledging its role in the fiasco. Though another Giants lineman was downfield on the same play, Seubert was indeed eligible. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue later called it the worst officiating blunder of his tenure. At the least, offsetting penalties should have been called and the down replayed.
Then there's the offense, which fizzled after building the big lead, and the defense, which gave it away, and finally, then-coach Jim Fassel, who could have been a little more assertive about the missed call and a lot less conservative in his play-calling.
"It's still kind of amazing," Fassel told the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger earlier this week. "The referee announced over the PA system that `No. 69 is eligible.' So there were 90,000 people who knew Seubert was eligible. The only one who didn't know it was the back judge. We should have had a rekick."
Instead, Junkin stood dutifully in front of his locker as wave after wave of reporters asked questions.
"I'd give everything in the world, except my family, to have stayed retired so these guys could have had a chance," he said at the time, then watched a replay and good as his word, promptly re-retired on the spot.
"You can't fault Trey," said Fassel, who lost his own job soon after. "I remember he said it cost us the Super Bowl, but I don't want him to feel that way. To let a team come from behind like that, they get a lot of help. And the referee was clearly wrong, so that part was hard to swallow."
Yet Junkin repeated his version of events a day later in New York after cleaning out his locker. Among all his teammates, only Michael Strahan and Jeremy Shockey went out of their way to cushion the blow.
"Strahan said, `It wasn't your fault. You didn't play defense. You didn't have a hand in giving back 24 points,"' Junkin recalled. "Shockey said something similar. And I talked to Kerry Collins about hunting, I think, but that was pretty much it. I talked to Jim a week later. He apologized, and said the same things Strahan and Shockey did. ... I think I drank three nights straight after the game. I can only remember one of them.
"I was such a perfectionist. I thought if I did my job right, no one outside the game would even know who I was. And everybody that knows me was worried for a little bit after that because they know how neurotic I am - or was - about snapping. I had to know where every snap was caught by the punter or holder. I needed to know where the laces were, stuff like that, because those were the things I could control.
"But another thing I learned playing the game that long? That you win or lose based on how you play," and here Junkin dragged out the words for emphasis, "as a team."
"And if I had a wish, it's that when this whole thing gets hashed over, people who remember that snap remember it's one play out of an entire game," he said.
Junkin plans to watch it - without a notepad this once - in the bar at a nearby resort casino. He and his wife made reservations to celebrate his 51st birthday over the weekend.
"I'm curious how many times they show my face. I never played football to have my name known. You can be pretty anonymous with a helmet on and I wanted to keep it that way. The funny thing is that was the only time I ever walked out of the tunnel and down the middle of the field. Taking it all in and thinking, `This is pretty damn cool.' I'd never really appreciated where I was and what I was doing before then. Football was just a job to me.
"Look," he added, "I hated talking about it then. I hate talking about it now. The snap was mine. I got over the fact of it, but the feeling of it I'll never get over.
"The rest of it? I won't name names or throw anybody under the bus, like some guys did to me on TV and radio. But somebody else needs to stand up."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke.