Sept. 23, 2008
Fifth-year senior Craig Gelhardt has averaged a measly 10 downs a game in his career and never played as many as 20. He has gone through a coaching change and the disruption caused by devastating Hurricane Katrina.
Yet, it would be an understatement to say he has made pretty good use of his time at Tulane. Gelhardt has snapped for almost every punt, field goal and extra point since the first game of his redshirt freshman season in 2005. He was selected to the Conference USA Commissioner's honor roll in 2007 and 2008 and been a member of Tulane's 3.0 Club (determined by grade point average) six times. He is one of only two football players from Louisiana to earn a spot on the 2008 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, an honor bestowed on athletes involved in their community.
On the field, Gelhardt is the ultimate specialist, performing one role to perfection. Entering Tulane's season opener at Alabama last Saturday, he had not botched or bounced a single snap through three years and 35 games, earning Conference USA honorable mention honors as a sophomore and junior.
"I don't have any complaints at all," Gelhardt said. "I'm very happy. I love Tulane. I love the football team, I love the program and I love what I do."
Off the field, Gelhardt is even more special. A native of Tallahassee, Fla., he could have taken the safe approach and returned home after Katrina forced the Green Wave to become vagabonds in the fall of 2005. Instead, he chose the SAFER approach, joining the Student Advocacy For Equitable Recovery, a volunteer group that helped gut and rebuild houses in the New Orleans area.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm not doing enough because he does enough stuff for everybody," Tulane junior placekicker Ross Thevenot said. "He's always willing to help, between his friends, the community, everyone. He'll go out of his way to help for no price, no matter what time."
He remembers the smells. One time, the volunteers had to open the door of a meat freezer to wedge it through a door. Another time, they had to take off the pipes of an old washing machine that was full of water, and the putrid water leaked through the house as they did it.
The process was draining but worth the effort.
"It wasn't really physical, but it was rough on the mind," Gelhardt said. "Seeing houses in such devastation was very hard. Seeing the families in the trailers out front when you're gutting their houses, and they are trying to salvage pictures or a frame someone gave them, it was really sad to see what they lost.
"A lot of those families did not have the money to get a construction company in there to move all their stuff out. Just doing that for them and clearing out a house, it's really rewarding to see they are actually going to get back on their feet. If you're not helping out your community, you don't feel like you're part of that community. New Orleans is my community right now, so I just want to do as much as I can to help it out."
Gelhardt also was committed to getting the Tulane football program back on its feet after Katrina. A lifelong resident of Tallahassee, he admitted he did not even know how to spell Tulane when the Green Wave started recruiting him in his senior year. After signing in 2004, he needed some time to get comfortable on a campus where he knew no one, but he adjusted quickly.
Two years later, he was making everyone else comfortable. Thevenot, from Lake Charles, La., took his official recruiting visit to Tulane in January of 2006, less than five months after Katrina. His wary parents accompanied him, but Gelhardt, his host on the visit, made a winning pitch.
"Craig found the positives in everything for us," Thevenot said. "He took us around and had the right answers for every question. He had my parents at ease."
He had the same effect on Tulane head coach Bob Toledo, who arrived after the 2006 season. New coaches have a million things to worry about, but Gelhardt was not one of them. After watching Gelhardt at work, Toledo named him the special teams member of the team's leadership council.
"He's so good on and off the field," Toledo said. "He's just a model citizen. You want to do something with little kids, he's the first that raises his hand. You can count on him. He wants to help people and help the community and do whatever it takes."
Like most perfectionists, Gelhardt remembers his rare mistakes with clarity and probably magnifies them in his mind. He recalls the missed block that led to a blocked punt against Southeastern Louisiana last year - his man faked left, then went right and raced past him. He can describe his last lousy snap even though it happened at Tallahassee Lincoln High School, when his right hand slipped on a wet ball and he bounced the ball to the punter.
His accuracy is the product of hard work. Actually, he says he worked too hard when he arrived at Tulane in 2004, snapping 180 balls a days before learning that 50 or 60 snaps would suffice. He has stuck to that routine since then, getting to practice 40 minutes early with the other specialists and warming up to prepare for the kicking drills at the beginning of practice.
About 20 or 30 minutes into the practice, they take a break.
"I get a blood rush to my head when I lean over the whole time for snapping," Gelhardt said. "If you're doing the same thing over and over and over again, you're going to wear yourself out. You warm up, you snap, take a break and snap some more. You can't go all the time."
After an initial glance to see where they are, he never looks at the punter or holder when he snaps.
"I've just gotten into a little groove where I know where to release it and know where it is going," he said. "You just kind of feel where the ball goes."
If you have not heard of Gelhardt, don't feel guilty. His anonymity means he is doing his job well because long snappers get noticed only when they mess up.
Still, he earned a few moments in the spotlight against LSU last year, downing a pooch punt at the 2-yard line and making three tackles on special teams as Tulane hung with the eventual national champions well into the second half. He even made a tackle after running down the field with one shoe, losing the other one as he planted to block on a punt.
Gelhardt will do whatever he can to help Tulane have a special season in his final year. Although the Green Wave won the same number of games (four) in 2007 as in 2006, he loved what he saw from Toledo and the new coaching staff, pointing to the LSU game and a 45-31 pounding of Rice in November as proof of improvement.
"I like the coaches' discipline," he said. "They don't beat around the bush and get straight to the point and tell you what you're doing wrong and what you need to do. Coach (Toledo) has this motto - make us do what we don't want to do to get where we want to be."
Academically, Gelhardt is already there. He will graduate in the spring with a degree in computer internet application development and plans to move to California, the technological hub of the United States. Other than not wanting to work at a cubicle all day, he is open to various possibilities.
"I don't know exactly what I want to do, but I know it's going to have something to do with technology," he said. "I love web sites. Maybe I can work on the web site of a business or in a company's technology department."
If his professional life matches his athletic accomplishments, it should be a snap.