For Meadows, playing football is a snap

Of the 45 to 50 Vanderbilt players who see action every week on a regular basis, Paul Meadows might be the most anonymous. And that's just the way the Commodore long snapper likes it.

NASHVILLE-- Do you recognize this Vanderbilt football player?

No? How about if I told you he's held a hammer lock on his starting position for the last two seasons?

No help? Of the 45 to 50 Commodore players who see action every week on a regular basis, Paul Meadows might be the most anonymous. The P.A. announcer at Vanderbilt Stadium has probably never called his name. Unlike quarterback Jay Cutler, to whom he snaps the ball on placekicking plays, Meadows has no troubles associated with being recognized in Nashville restaurants.

And that's just the way he likes it.

If Meadows ever does hear his name called, it probably means something very bad just happened... like a snap going over the punter's head. Consequently the fifth-year senior from Birmingham, who exclusively handles both the short-snapping and long-snapping duties for the Commodores, would just as soon hang onto his anonymity.

"It's an important job," says the selfless Meadows, "but an essential one."

And perhaps the most under-appreciated on any football team. Thus far this season and last, he has handled it flawlessly.

Meadows, one of 14 fifth-year seniors playing for the 2005 Commodores, came to Vanderbilt in 2001 with big dreams of suiting up at linebacker for then-coach Woody Widenhofer, one of the country's foremost linebacker coaches. But in Meadows' case, life has had a way of altering some of his fondest ambitions.

His is a story of adjusting to the inevitability of change and making the best of a bad situation.

"I loved the way Woody recruited me," remembers Meadows, whose brother David had played and snapped for four years under the Woodmeister. "He went after me hard, and brought me in as a linebacker. I came in, redshirted, and had some injuries early that I had to get through."

Out went Widenhofer at the end of the 2001 season, and in came the Bobby Johnson staff-- a huge adjustment for the players who had been recruited and groomed under Widenhofer. Continuing to battle a nagging knee injury, Meadows dressed for every game in 2002 but saw no action. Meanwhile, a young, inexperienced Vanderbilt team, Johnson's first, struggled to a 2-10 record.

By 2003 it looked as if his luck might be about to take a turn for the good. the Johnson staff convinced him to try the fullback position, where the 6-2, 240-pounder won a backup spot behind Matthew Tant. Avid Commodore fans might remember that Meadows actually had a pair of carries in the 2003 win over UT-Chattanooga.

"But I started having some knee problems again, and that was pretty much it for that year," he says. "I had surgery over Thanksgiving break that year."

The surgery would put to an end his dreams of being an every-down player. To continue to play would be to risk another ligament tear, and by then Meadows had seen more of the inside of hospitals than he'd ever wished.

He could easily have finished his career as a medical hardship case; NCAA rules would have made it possible for another player to utilize his scholarship under the limit, while his own schooling remained paid for. But Meadows found himself unable to quell a desire to be part of the team's camaraderie, as well as to contribute toward his Vanderbilt education.

"I talked with the coaches, and we decided it would be best for me just to long-snap," he said. "Ever since then, I've been long-snapping. I can't complain. I've had a great time here at Vanderbilt. I'm just really glad there's a way I can help the team out."

As such, he spends long practice hours with the kickers, rather than the offense or defense. Meadows also spends many hours in the weight room, and it shows on his muscular frame.

Strength, he stresses, is an important part of long-snapping. Snapping the ball is only part of the equation; afterwards, a snapper must be quick enough and strong enough to hold out a 310-pound nose guard or defensive tackle.

"You have to work on your strength, but you also have to work on your technique," he explains. "It's kind of like being a baseball pitcher-- you've got to be on the money every time.

"So you work on your trade. You go out and snap every day. You can't take a day off. You really have to work hard at it to be the best you can be.

"We realize the kicking game kind of went south at the end of last year. Just like anything else, you work on it every week and try to get better."

Meadows was one of a threesome of players who came to Vanderbilt in 2001 from Hoover (Ala.) High School, one of the nation's premier high school programs. All three-- Dustin Dunning, Jason Caldwell and Meadows-- have had their ups and downs over their five-year careers, but all three are still around.

"Jason and Dustin and I have always been really close," Meadows said. "We played in such a great high school program. I think all of had some offers to other SEC schools, but Vanderbilt was something special, a place we really wanted to go to and get that great education. That's the reason we came.

From left, senior receiver Jason Caldwell, freshman defensive back Joel Caldwell, senior tight end Dustin Dunning, and senior snapper Paul Meadows are Vanderbilt's contingent from Hoover (Ala.) High School. (VM / B.Wiseman)

"Jason's little brother (Joel Caldwell, a redshirt freshman defensive back) ended up coming here. I'm impressed with the fact he came here. It's just a great place to be."

Meadows is profoundly aware that only four games remain in his college career, unless Vanderbilt (4-3, 2-2 SEC) can qualify for a post-season bowl game. That thought, he says, is absorbing all of his thoughts at the moment.

But Meadows might have something in common with Cutler after all-- dependable long snappers are always in demand in the National Football League. (Jason Daniels, Meadows' predecessor at the snapping position at Vandy, got a long look from several NFL teams.)

"If they come calling, I'll always answer," Meadows says of the NFL. "Whatever happens, I'm there for it. I'm not really worried about it though."

And if not? His Vanderbilt degree, of course, which he will collect next May, will stand him in good stead.

"I'll probably wind up back in Birmingham. My brother David is there in nursing school at UAB. I've got a few job leads there, but I'll just leave my options open."


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