Gafford Finally Gets His Chance


Thomas Gafford already had two chances to make it in the NFL, but neither could be considered a genuine opportunity.

Which makes it easy for Gafford, a long snapper whose collegiate career finished four years ago, to recognize his second tour of duty with the Green Bay Packers for what it is - the chance of a lifetime.

Two years after getting an extended look in Green Bay during training camp but failing to beat out reliable veteran Rob Davis, Gafford is back with the Packers in 2008. This time, Davis has retired and moved on to a front office position as Director of Player Development, and there's no incumbent long snapper in front of Gafford.

While no one in the organization is handing the 25-year-old University of Houston alum the job, the situation is pretty easy to read. Opportunity is knocking for Gafford louder and clearer than it ever has.

"I thought I did well in '06 when I was here, but it just wasn't in the cards, it wasn't the right situation for me to stay," Gafford said. "But I'm pleased they would bring me back, and I'm happy to be here."

Gafford has a right to be happy considering what he's gone through the last four years.

After concluding his college career at Houston in 2004, Gafford couldn't latch on anywhere in 2005 and was out of football, taking classes to keep busy. Then came a full offseason in Green Bay in 2006, competing with Davis for a job he had little to no chance of winning, provided Davis stayed healthy and maintained his desire to play into his late 30s.

Gafford performed well, but to beat out a (then) 12-year veteran and locker-room leader who was still at the top of his game probably would have required something extraordinary to happen, and Gafford knew it.

"I was really pleased with my performance, but I wasn't surprised when they released me because of the situation," Gafford said. "I think had it been any other situation, I probably would have made the team. I was really pleased. The coaches told me they were really pleased too.

"I kind of had a feeling if Rob decided to move on soon, I might have a future here. I'm really pleased that I do."

Gafford's eight months in Green Bay, which ended with his release at the conclusion of training camp, were by no means a waste. Not only did he make a strong enough impression, obviously, to get the call from the Packers as Davis was retiring following the 2007 season, he also got a taste of NFL competition. And though it was nothing on the scale of the Aaron Rodgers/Brett Favre three-year quarterbacking tutorial, he got to learn from one of the best.

"Being here in '06 with Rob, I learned a lot from him, in the locker room, how to be a leader, how to mesh with guys. It meant a lot to me," Gafford said. "I wanted to just watch everything, even the little things. It goes a long ways on a team."

Unfortunately for Gafford, his commendable efforts in 2006 didn't produce any immediate opportunities. After leaving Green Bay, he had positive workouts with several teams around the league but heard the same refrain from everyone.

"They'd say, 'OK, if we need somebody, you're the guy we're going to call,'" he said. "So I'm sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for something to happen, and it never did. No one would get hurt. No one would do bad."

Working for a sports training facility, Gafford kept himself in shape and kept waiting. Finally, during the 2006 playoffs, the Seattle Seahawks called and signed him to a future contract.

But that never materialized into much of a chance either. Just one week after the Seahawks were knocked out of the playoffs by the Chicago Bears, Seattle changed special teams coaches, and the former coach who had lobbied to bring Gafford on board was no longer around.

Released before the start of training camp, Gafford returned home to Houston, got a job working construction, and had to consider the bleak reality staring him in the face.

{sportsad300}"I was sitting around thinking, 'Man, am I done before I started? This is tough. I feel like I still have it in me,'" Gafford said. "I felt I was still good enough to play, but the opportunity hadn't arose."

Gafford didn't give up, though. Boosted by some encouraging words from his father David and other family members, Gafford did all he could to stay prepared in case another call came. He got up at 5 o'clock every morning to work out prior to going to his construction job. He was able to use his alma mater's facilities, and he'd grab a random athlete or staff member in the locker room and ask them to catch field-goal and punt snaps for 10 or 15 minutes to keep his skills sharp.

But as the 2007 season wore on, the phone still wasn't ringing.

"It got discouraging at times," Gafford said. "When half the season has gone by and I haven't gotten a phone call, I'm thinking, 'It could be over. I could be getting up early and working my tail off every day for nothing.' But my dad always supported me, always said just to stay at it, stay at it.

"I think the most encouraging words were, 'If you get another opportunity and you're not ready, you'll never forgive yourself,' and he was absolutely right. Had I come in here out of shape and hadn't snapped a ball in a year, they would have known, and I probably would have gone right back home. It meant a lot to show up confident, in shape, better shape than I was when I left, and just ready with all cylinders firing."

Even though he hasn't stepped on an NFL field since the 2006 preseason, Gafford feels he's a better player now, and better prepared to earn a full-time job because of everything he's been through.

It also helps that he's returning to familiar territory, where he noted everyone from teammates to the coaching staff to the trainers remembered him by name the day he walked back into the locker room in March.

"Even if he didn't make the team, he was still here from March until the end of August in 2006, so the level of comfort is there," said Jon Ryan, who says the on-field transition to catching Gafford's snaps, as the punter and holder on field goals, has been smooth through the offseason. "You're more familiar with everything, and we have the same coaching staff, so he's comfortable with them."

Gafford's certainly comfortable with the other specialists he's working most often with - Ryan, who was his training camp roommate two years ago, and kicker Mason Crosby, a fellow Texas native. He says they're already becoming a close-knit group, and these surroundings as a whole make him feel nothing like a rookie, even though he's never played in an NFL regular-season game.

That will only help as he tries to maximize on this opportunity, one that was definitely a long time in coming.

"I just feel like the table is set for me to be successful here, if I take care of business and I work hard and I do things right," Gafford said.

"It's been a long road, but it just feels like it's all paid off. I'm not there yet. By no means have I arrived. But I just feel like I'm a hair away. I can see my hard work paying off, and it makes it all worth it."

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