Super Bowl surprise: Journey to the universe of the center

A lot happens in the 30 seconds between when the huddle breaks ups and the ball is snapped

Story highlights

  • Schulder: Most exciting time of football game is between the huddle and the snap
  • Centers get hit every play, a former player for the Buckeyes says
  • The center has to process vast amounts of information instantly
What's the most important position in football? Who's the guy who we need to watch most closely to determine which way the Super Bowl will swing?
I've been asking that question of every sports fan who knows more about football than I do today, from 10-year-old dreamers to veterans of the field and couch.
I keep getting the same answers: Quarterback. Wide Receiver. Kicker. Running Back.
Nobody got the right answer.
Nobody said center.
(The opinion just expressed is solely the opinion of the writer and some very huge men who play center or were protected by centers).
Just try, this one Super Bowl Sunday, to think of the game through the eyes of the center and see what happens.
The walk on
This journey begins with a chance encounter I had the other week with a guy who owns a sports marketing firm, a guy named Peter Miller. I looked up at this giant of a man (for context -- I'm 5-foot-8 -- in cleats). I asked him, "What's your sport?"
"Football," he answered. He played center for the Ohio State Buckeyes a long time ago.
Not a star player, he emphasized. No football scholarship. But a guy so determined to play center for the college of his choice that he paid full tuition and tried out for the team as a walk-on. He made it. One of the 100-plus players on the Buckeye's roster. And each season, he worked to become a center worthy of the Buckeye name.
So I asked: What does a center do besides snap the ball and block the guy in front of him?
That's when he led me on a journey that convinced me that the most exciting 30 seconds of the game is the 30 seconds between when the huddle breaks ups and the ball is snapped.
The snap
"Everyone talks about hitting the quarterback," says Miller.
Quarterbacks get hit during the game. Seven, eight, nine times. And Miller doesn't dismiss the punishment that inflicts.
But a center, says Miller, a center gets hit every single play. If the offense is controlling the ball, that could mean 70 or more times a game that the center takes a hit. Every time. Same guy. 70 hits.
So centers are tough. But are they smart?
Center brain
The center brain has to process vast amounts of information instantly.
Every play is very detailed. Very specific. More specific than I ever imagined. Often, right down to how many steps back the quarterback will take before he plants his foot and throws the ball.
You know the expression in war -- that a battle plan changes the moment the first shot is fired. In football it often changes, repeatedly, before the first shot, before the ball is even snapped.
Take a pass play.
The center -- and his offensive line -- know the QB's planning to pass. The center knows all the details of the play.
He bends down, puts his hands on the leather and that's when he begins to read the defense.
The defense, says Miller, is often trying to mess with your head -- confuse the offensive line and the QB.
It's the center's job to read the defense and help rewrite the offense.
The defense is mixing things up, trying to create confusion for the offensive linemen.
The QB's got a big brain. We all know that. So, says Buckeye Miller, if the QB knows the defense he sees at the line of scrimmage is not the defense he thought he'd see, he realizes his team can't throw the ball now.
So the center is audibling -- shouting out a new protection plan to his offensive linemen.
I knew the QB shouted audibles -- changed plays on the fly. I didn't know the center had to do that, too.
"BLACK, BLACK," shouts the center, which tells the offensive line they're about to change the play. But you can't shout BLACK all day because at some point the defense -- even if they're not as bright as the center, which I would never say, because, as I mentioned, I'm 5-foot-8 -- early on realizes BLACK or BLUE or RED means the offensive line is on to the defense's tricks, so the offense needs to keep changing the colors that signal an audible so the defense is forced to keep guessing too. The QB shouts BLACK 26 -- which, for our purposes now, might mean we're not passing any more. It's a run.
The center knows the count for the snap, a little extra detail he has to keep in his brain during all this processing.
It's a noisy place to process information. A stadium full of fans are screaming. It's hard to hear. But the brawn has to use his brain.
And all this is happening, Miller points out, "just after you got your brains beat in and the snot knocked out of you" on the previous play.
Too much information
"On top of it, the QB is getting information called in through a coach who's on the sidelines who's listening to other coaches with a bird's eye view of the field.
But "you can't get frustrated."
That's how it is for anyone who works in any company, including a football team.
"You can have eight coaches on the sideline, some high in the booth, others on the ground, they can all see things -- things that you may not see. But at the end of the day," says Miller, "it's the player who has to see things."
All this is happening, Miller notes, while the center and everyone else on the field is out of breath. Because they've been working out on the field -- real time.
At the Super Bowl in particular, he says, you need to make sure that during the pregame hype (which is going on at this very moment) all the way through the coin flip and the national anthem -- that you, the player, the center, can calm yourself down.
Have we mentioned the snap yet? No. The ball hasn't even been snapped yet. And you know what else the center has to have on his mind.
As soon as the center jumps out of the huddle and gets to the line, he puts his hand on the ball.
With the shotgun hike -- which we'll see a lot of today -- the center has to get it to the QB's waist level quickly. "Not too high. Not too low. Not too left. Not too right." Almost sounds like reading Dr. Seuss when you're about to collide with 300 pounds.
The play is on
A lot more goes on in those 30 seconds between the break of the huddle and the snap of the ball.
But there's just one more thing that the former Ohio State Buckeye center -- who says he had the privilege of playing in about five Buckeye games for a total of about 50 snaps -- wants to let us all know to look for when we watch the Super Bowl and remember when we return to work Monday morning.
Football, says Miller, gave him "a real controlled environment in which to learn that life's not always going to be fair. A controlled environment of stress and discipline. Things aren't going to always work out the way you think."
And so this big man, this Buckeye walk-on, who is now a father of four with his own business, wants us to know this about what happens when the play is over and the whistle blows.
"You finish the play, and see whether it succeeded or failed -- whether everyone did their job or didn't. Guess what," he asks as my young daughter asks when she's excited to teach me something she knows. "You know how you get rewarded after all that, after the whistle blows and the play is over? You go back in the huddle. And you have to do it all over again."
The universe of the center. It's the universe we share.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Schulder.