Joe Zelenka is familiar with the business side of the NFL.
Zelenka knows each offseason will bring new competition for his role as long snapper for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He is smart enough to realize if the special teams unit fails to live up to expectations, there could be a change on the coaching staff the next season. A punter you worked with for six years and became close with could be gone before minicamp.
But Zelenka never complains, always rolling with the punches. He hears the mantra that the NFL is a young man's game. Every play could be your last, and Zelenka lives by the philosophy.
"You play every week during the season knowing that each snap could be your last," Zelenka said. "Everybody in the lockerroom has to play with that in the back of their mind. It's the fun part of the game, competing and going out there and trying to be the best you can be on every single play. I like the competition, knowing someone is pulling the best out of me simply by being here and giving me their best. That is how you know what you are made of."
Zelenka has put his stamp on the long snapper position in Jacksonville, playing in 96 consecutive games since signing with the Jaguars in 2001. The nine-year veteran spent time with San Francisco and Washington before finding a home in Jacksonville and has not missed a game in each of the last seven years.
Most importantly, he is considered one of the NFL's top long-snappers. The best way to recognize a great long snapper is by not his hearing name on television or seeing it in the newspaper, which usually means a botched snap took place on a punt or field goal. Long snappers live in anonymity.
Training camp competition awaits Zelenka each year and it's no different in 2007. The Jaguars signed Arkansas' Brett Goode as an undrafted free agent and he will compete for the starting long snapper job.
"They are always trying to replace you with somebody," Zelenka said. "It is just going to make you better."
The Jaguars special teams unit has a different look in 2007 with the addition of a new punter and new leader in special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. The Jaguars drafted Maryland punter Adam Podlesh in the fourth round of this year's draft and he has been impressive during offseason workouts. Podlesh was the only four-time All-ACC selection in school history and he immediately unseated veteran punter Chris Hanson, who has since signed with New Orleans.
"It's part of the business," Zelenka said. "Chris is doing well in New Orleans. He is going to go down there and compete for a job. We have a great kicker in Adam. He has a foot on him, he's young and raw. He still has to learn, but he is going to give this special teams a definite advantage in the kicking game."
Zelenka and Podlesh have spent the offseason getting acquainted with each other. Zelenka said it's not a difficult transition, but something that takes repetition.
"We spend all practice together," Zelenka said. "He likes the ball a little different than Chris did, he's a little closer. Every punter wants the ball where they can catch the ball and get it off in a timely fashion. They want to make sure and know you are going to give them the ball in the same spot."
DeCamillis, who is known as one of NFL's top special teams coaches, has 19 years of NFL coaching experience and he has spent the past 14 seasons as a NFL special teams coach. It's easy to see the enthusiasm and intensity DeCamillis brings to the practice field.
"Coach D brings a great reputation with him," Zelenka said. "Anybody that plays special teams in the leagues knows Joe DeCamillis. He is a high-intensity coach and he's fun to be around. He makes practice fun and exciting. He's going to bring a different mindset and mentality to special teams and correct some of the problems we had in the past.
"He has been doing it a long time in this league and he knows exactly what needs to take place on the field for that one play. We get one play on special teams, not three or four like offense or defense. There's no extra series, it's one and done. "
Zelenka has spent the offseason doing his regular work in the weight room and on the field. He can be seen during practice off to the side of the field, running sprints, doing speed drills, anything to get an advantage on an opponent. One area he admits needs improvement is his coverage skills.
"I have never been an exceptional cover guy," Zelenka said. "I'm always an effort guy. When I run down field I want to make plays. If I get a chance, I am going to hit somebody. It's something I have to work on and keep working on every single day."
The Jaguars had one punt blocked and two punts returned for touchdowns in 2006. Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio made the decision to make a change on special teams three days after the season.
"You know when the unit is not playing well and there are going to be some changes," Zelenka said. "You come back in with a fresh attitude and know that you have to put your head down, put your hardhat on, grab your lunch pail and get right back to work to get your job done. I am no different than the guys that report to work at Mayport or the guys loading the ships down at the dock. I just come to work every day wanting to do my job."
Zelenka has not only shown consistency on the field, but he has played a major role with his contributions off the field. He is a regular visitor to Wolfson Children's Hospital where he can be seen pushing a "Wolfie Wagon," a snack cart filled with candy, balloons, teddy bears, snacks and drinks each time he visits. He has co-hosted the Jaguars Foundation's Straight Talk program. He is hosting the 3rd annual Joe Z. Celebrity Bowling Classic on Monday, June 4 to benefit Ronald McDonald House of Jacksonville.
"You want to give back to the people that come out and buy tickets to the games," Zelenka said. "There is going to come a time soon where no one is going to want to hear Joe Zelenka, the ex-Jaguar, talk. I have a platform now that I have been blessed with to raise money for organizations, just talking to kids, getting them on the straight and narrow. It's so much fun for me to get out there and touch people's lives."
Zelenka doesn't plan on slowing his schedule down anytime soon.
"I will play until they kick me out," Zelenka said. "I will play until they say we want your pads back and don't come back. I love the game of football. I love being here. I love the Jaguars, the team, being on the field, smelling the grass and snapping the ball. I'm living every kid's dream right now to be able do what I am doing and do it as long as I have. I don't want to stop doing it."
That might be fine with his wife, Rebekah, and their 11-month old twins, Benjamin and Grace.
"She likes me being out of the house," Zelenka said. "When I'm home I think it's another baby to take care of, someone else that is getting in trouble, breaking stuff, spitting up. She loves having me there as an extra pair of hands to help, but she knows I have a job to do here."