Countless NFL hopefuls get as far as Andrew DePaola did after his career at Rutgers. As a rookie minicamp invitee, DePaola tried to make the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints but couldn’t crack their 90-man roster. Like so many before him, DePaola waited for the phone to ring after being cut, but nobody called. So DePaola worked at Best Buy, his parents’ restaurant, and other “odd jobs” to make ends meet. Like so many, his brief stint in the NFL was just a fun weekend that could have been more, but life moves on.
DePaola grew up in Sparks, Md. as the second-oldest of four boys. As is natural for four brothers, everything got competitive. Backyard roughhousing, high school sports, and anything else they could dream up became a competition. That molded DePaola into the kind of competitive athlete who has the chops to make it in the NFL.
As a middling high school quarterback, DePaola didn’t get any scholarship offers from Division 1 schools. But he got one half-scholarship from West Virginia Wesleyan, and walk-on offers from Rutgers and Towson. That presented a choice: Do you use football as a means to get some schooling paid for, or are you chasing a career in this? DePaola chose the latter, attempting to walk on to the team at Rutgers.
There, he made the team as the third-string quarterback. Working on the scout team was fine, but DePaola wasn’t going to supplant then-starter Mike Teel. But DePaola had more skills than that. “I figured out young, with my dad being a coach, that it would only help me if I played a lot of positions,” DePaola said in an interview with NJ.com in 2008. Part of all that backyard goofballing included long snapping and holding.
When the Rutgers coaches, led by Greg Schiano, asked which backups wanted to take on special teams duties, DePaola volunteered. His scout team responsibilities took up too much practice time for him to learn the position, so he came in early every day to practice. It was there that he earned his first true snaps: as a holder, even scoring a touchdown against South Florida on a fake field goal.
In another matchup against South Florida, long snapper Jeremy Branch fell to injury, and DePaola filled in. He never relinquished the job. By his final year at Rutgers in 2009, it was clear that DePaola could have a shot at long snapping in the NFL. He declared for the draft without any expectation of getting selected, but he figured he would take the shot. Sure enough, during the last parts of the 2010 NFL draft, the defending Super Bowl champion Saints called him with a rookie minicamp invite.
That’s not a spot on the 90-man roster; it’s just an invite to help the Saints with drills for a weekend. But if he played well enough, he could earn an invite to true camp. However, that didn’t happen. Many undrafted rookies get invites to several minicamps over the course of a summer. So DePaola waited for a call that never came, and eventually, he had to make ends meet. So DePaola took whatever job he could, training and long snapping for practice when he got the chance.
Nobody else called in 2010. The 2011 season came and went, too. After two years out of football, DePaola’s spirit began to waver. In an interview with Buccaneers.com, he said, “I was very fortunate to have a great family, two loving parents, and three very supportive siblings. Every time a little doubt would creep in, those five people in my life were the quickest to squash it immediately.”
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were struggling mightily. So they cleaned house after a 4-12 campaign in 2011 and brought in Greg Schiano. Since Schiano knew about DePaola’s special teams versatility, he brought him in for a true training camp. But the Bucs had an entrenched long snapper, Andrew Economos, who wouldn’t give up the job easily.
In 2012, DePaola was “more of a camp body” and sat out of the regular season. In 2013, Schiano invited DePaola to try again. It was a true competition, but DePaola still lost. After the 2013 season, the Buccaneers fired Schiano, severing DePaola’s strongest tie to the organization. Still, Lovie Smith brought DePaola in to try and win a spot a third time. Economos’ contract expired, so this time his competition was Jeremy Cain, a longtime journeyman.
After three failed tryouts, four years away from the sport, odd jobs, and losing his closest ally in the organization, Andrew DePaola made an NFL team in 2014. He’d remain the long snapper through the 2016 season. In the meaningless waning minutes of the 2016 season, DePaola pursued a high, lofty punt to the Carolina Panthers, took an awkward step, and was pushed over by a Panther simultaneously, leading to the ever-feared pop in his knee. He had torn his ACL and would need surgery to recover.
DePaola wasn’t under contract, so the Buccaneers signed him and some more competition to a one-year deal. This time, the Buffalo Bills had cut their eight-year mainstay, Garrison Sanborn, to save cap space. Sanborn joined the Bucs, and DePaola lost yet another camp competition. However, this time, he was claimed off of waivers by the Chicago Bears and played out his one-year deal there.
As a free agent, DePaola became somewhat of a journeyman himself. He went to Oakland to play one of the Raiders’ last seasons in that city, earning the job with his now veteran experience. But in Week 1, on a Monday night, DePaola once again popped his knee as a punt return was winding down. His ACL was torn a second time, ending his 2018 season. Oakland wouldn’t re-sign him.
In 2019, DePaola would fail to make Carolina’s roster and ultimately sit out the NFL season for the fifth time since his NFL career began. It wasn’t until the Vikings’ 2020 special teams imploded that they reached out to the journeyman. After releasing Austin Cutting in December, DePaola got the job.
Now DePaola has to win a camp competition once again. This time, he’s the wily veteran with a young upstart threatening his place on the roster. But what’s a little competition to the man whom the NFL can’t seem to shake? DePaola’s patience and persistence got him to this point, and it could take him even farther. Win or lose in August, it’s a miracle his career got this far.