Cancer survivor resumes pursuit of his NFL dream
Rob Long's hand combed through his hair, and he dipped his head when he reached the back.
"It's all titanium back here," Long said, spreading the strands of his light brown hair.
And there it was. A four-inch scar - in the shape of an S - left behind from brain surgery that drained the former star athlete of his energy and tried its best to dash his NFL dream.
A day after Long turned 22 in 2010, a surgeon opened up his skull with a drill and removed a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball.
"My neurosurgeon described it as ice fishing," said Long, a Downingtown West graduate. "You remove the piece of ice, and fish out what you need to get."
He was the starting punter at Syracuse then, a few months away from possibly being selected in the later rounds of the NFL draft.
Instead, he was forced to put his final semester on hold to undergo chemotherapy.
Now, he's looking for another chance.
Four days a week, Long carries a purple sack of footballs through the open gate of Downingtown West's stadium.
On a recent afternon, the stadium was empty, except for two maintenance workers power-washing the metal bleachers.
Wearing his old Syracuse pregame T-shirt, Long caught the snapped ball and took a series of short steps. His orange cleat wound back as he dropped the ball toward the artificial turf and boomed it down field. The ball sailed in an arc, dropped to the field, took a few bounces, and rolled toward the goal line.
"How about that," Long said to his snapper as the ball stopped nearly 90 yards down field.
His snapper was Nick Caruso, a high school senior. Other days, Long recruits his girlfriend or parents to help him fetch balls. If not, he goes alone.
"No coach in the NFL is going to call me today and say you should kick three or four times a week," Long said. "It's up to me to do that."
No longer wanting to be represented by an agent, Long fills NFL teams' e-mail inboxes with updates and videos of his punting. It's a lot like networking, Long said, as he inquires about open positions and tryouts.
For about every 50 messages the 24-year-old sends, he receives two or three responses.
There are only 32 positions, one punter per team. Rarely does a team have a backup.
"I only need one," Long said. "One of the 32 needs to give me a chance. I don't need all of them."
Long began to suffer headaches during his senior year at Syracuse and became sick after the team traveled. His punting was inconsistent, and he finally saw a doctor that December. An MRI revealed a tumor that took up a quarter of Long's brain, and he underwent surgery the next day.
After the brain surgery, Long said, it was as if someone had deleted everything he knew about punting.
He modified his technique, shortened his steps. He considers himself better now than when he was a two-time all-Big East punter in college. He averaged 43.84 yards per punt in his senior season, good for 25th in the nation and fourth all-time at Syracuse.
He worked out two months ago in Dallas and supplied the Cowboys with copies of his MRI and piles of medical paperwork. Everywhere he goes, Long said, the cancer subject comes up.
As long as he is committed to the NFL, Long said, he is unable to commit to a full-time job. He double-majored in marketing and supply-chain management and has had to turn down job offers. Instead, he works odd jobs to earn cash.
Later this month, he will help launch Syracuse's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization that helps raise money and awareness for rare diseases.
A few friends recently started the Rob Long Project and filmed The Rob Long Story, a 10-minute YouTube documentary about Long's path.
Possibly, Long said, there will come a time when his dream ends. He said he is OK with that.
"My whole thing is that I can go from this terrible thing and go back to doing what I wanted to do before any of this happened," Long said. "It was my dream to play football, and I can still do that."
Contact Matt Breen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @matt_breen on Twitter.