Andrew DePaola never had a serious backup plan.
At 26 years old, nearly five years after he graduated from Rutgers, he hadn’t yet found a way to stick on an NFL roster. He began to wonder whether the years he had spent pursuing his dream would ever pay off.
DePaola sat at the breakfast counter in his parents’ Maryland home in early 2014 and pondered his future. He worked on and off at Best Buy and his family’s restaurant to make ends meet while training to stay ready for whatever opportunity might pop up. He had already spent two offseasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and been cut both times before the 53-man rosters were finalized.
His mother, Janet, asked Andrew what his next step would be if his dream of playing in the NFL didn’t work out, and she instantly felt guilty for doing so.
“I do know a number of times where I said to Andrew, ‘Do we have a Plan B?’ and the answer was ‘No, not really,’” Janet said. “He had that faith that someday this was going to work out.”
It took five years of heartbreak before DePaola finally secured a starting NFL job with the Buccaneers in August 2014, but disappointment soon followed as major injuries threatened his dream. But when he takes the field Sunday with the Minnesota Vikings to face the 49ers in San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), DePaola will represent more than someone who found a way to stick on a roster. He’ll personify the type of incredible perseverance it takes to earn that opportunity and thrive. Pro Football Focus ranks DePaola as the second-best long-snapper in the NFL.
The dream has become a reality.
‘It was surreal’
Andy DePaola quickly realized his eldest son was not cut out to be a bartender.
“He’d take a liter of Tito’s and would get about four drinks out of it, where you’re supposed to get 20,” he said. “We were losing money.”
So instead, whenever Janet and Andy were down an employee at DePaola’s Pub, their neighborhood restaurant where locals flock for burgers, they’d have Andrew wash dishes, sweep the floors and bus tables.
DePaola went undrafted in the spring of 2010 after five seasons at Rutgers. The New Orleans Saints invited him to rookie minicamp as a college tryout but didn’t sign him.
He began working a seasonal shift in the winter of 2010 at Best Buy in Piscataway, New Jersey, where he’d offload HDTVs from the trucks and restock shelves. DePaola's NFL prospects were the same in spring 2011 – bleak. Rutgers let him use its facilities to train in the meantime. The New England Patriots called in August 2011 to check in but didn’t offer a workout.
Several of his coaches from Rutgers were hired by Tampa Bay in 2012, and they brought DePaola in for his first tryout in two years. DePaola was signed in the spring and stuck around for training camp before being released after the third preseason game.
The Bucs signed him to a futures contract at the end of the 2012 season and had him around all of 2013. He was the last man cut in the preseason and didn’t receive any assurances about being brought back for the next season.
DePaola took a hard look at his NFL future after pouring five years’ worth of time into making it a reality. He’d been offered a drafting/computer-aided design job in the meantime but couldn’t commit to it. He wanted to give himself one more shot at making a roster.
In May 2014, DePaola had two workouts scheduled when Tampa called back. The Bucs offered him a contract for the offseason if he signed with them and canceled his other plans. There was an open competition with Jeremy Cain, the incumbent long-snapper, through training camp.
“My husband said Andrew was on the phone, and my shoulders shrunk,” Janet said. “It’s the end of August; you know the routine. And he goes, ‘Looks like you’re going to have to buy a Tampa Bay jersey.’”
It took Janet about 10 seconds to process what she was being told before she burst into tears. It didn’t feel real for Andrew, either, until then-Bucs head coach Lovie Smith congratulated him in the hallway on his way to a meeting.
“I wanted to break down right there because it was five years of really trying and it finally happened,” Andrew said. “The feeling was indescribable. All these emotions running through your head and questioning where your future was a couple months before that. And just to finally get that, ‘Hey, you made it’ it was surreal.”
DePaola spent three seasons (2014-16) with Tampa Bay before he tore his ACL. He spent 2017 with the Chicago Bears, and he tore his ACL again in the first game of the 2018 season while with the Oakland Raiders and was placed on injured reserve the rest of the season.
He was back at square one. After completing his rehab, DePaola didn’t make it on to a roster and spent the 2019 season worrying about his next opportunity. His prospects again looked desolate, but his support group never lost faith.
“Nope. No doubt,” Andy said. “He already had it in his head. He just never stopped. He knew he wanted to be there and be part of that 32-guy club of long-snappers. He knows where he wants to be, and that’s where he is.”
DePaola had a workout nearly every week in 2020, and Minnesota called in the middle of November. Austin Cutting, the team's long-snapper at the time, was a close contact for COVID-19, and his status for a Week 9 game in Chicago was in question. The Vikings quickly reached out to sign DePaola as an emergency option. The long-snapper raced to the airport but couldn’t make the last flight out to Minnesota in time to quarantine and be available to play.
Days later, the Vikings called back. DePaola was signed to the practice squad and later replaced Cutting. He has been with Minnesota ever since, helping its special team units rise in a year’s time from the bottom of the league to the eighth-most efficient, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The perspective he has gained along the way from a nonlinear journey riddled with ups and downs keeps him grounded.
“The game has been taken away from me a couple of times, and at this point, I’m going to have fun, I’m going to enjoy being around the guys, soak it all in,” DePaola said. “One day I’m here and the next day I might not be. I’m just going to enjoy it.”