It was a snap decision.
In the summer of 2011, Cory Alcantar was fresh out of high school, a boy among men trying out for the offensive line at Riverside Community College near Los Angeles.
Undersized and not athletic enough to compensate, Alcantar and his dreams were being pushed into the dirt by the “monsters” on the other side of the line.
It was a summer of despair for a young man who’d been told for most of his life that football was his only path out of poverty.
But suddenly, there it was: a path as straight and true as Alcantar himself – the path of the long snap.
One day at practice, “I looked over at the long snapper, and said to myself, ‘I could do that,’ ” said Alcantar, now a long snapper at Eastern Washington and one of the best feel-good stories in the Eagles’ program.
Deep in the trenches of life
As a youth in Southern California, Alcantar got the message early and often: “You don’t want to end up like this when you’re older,” mother Jennette told him from the one-bedroom apartment they shared with his stepfather and sister.
Poverty was compounded by divorce, “cops at the house every weekend” and a custody battle that clogged the courts for months.
Caught in the middle, Alcantar struggled academically at Yucaipa High School and almost was a nonqualifier. His self-esteem took another dive after football coaches told him that he’d never be good enough play in college.
Validation came on the wrestling mats at Yucaipa, where the coaches “were all about developing you … that when you’re hurt or tired, you don’t quit,” Alcantar said.
One of the coaches doubled as a scoutmaster, spurring Alcantar on a 10-year quest that ended when he became an Eagle Scout on his 18th birthday.
His favorite merit badge, for citizenship, was earned many times over by cooking breakfast for the homeless and cleaning yards of the elderly.
The last badge was earned after a 25-mile hike, a bit of symbolism for Alcantar’s long journey to success.
Not exactly a snap
Despite Alcantar’s first impressions, long-snapping isn’t as easy as it looks. For one thing, it’s the only position in football in which the player is not only looking backward, but upside down.
Fortunately, the coaches at Riverside pointed Alcantar toward Snap, Hold, Kick, a California-based nonprofit group founded by former Texas El-Paso place-kicker Hugo Castellanos, which not only offers community outreach, but help for football specialists who can’t afford costly private camps.
“Every weekend we’d start working,” recalls Alcantar, whose father, a backflow technician, pitched in with a water-filled ball to improve Cory’s arm strength.
By fall he was the team’s long snapper.
Alcantar played two seasons at Riverside in 2011-12, and drew attention from BYU, Colorado State, Hawaii and others – but only as a walk-on.
Enter Jeff Schmedding, the special teams coach at Eastern Washington.
“We were looking for a kid who could come in and play right away,” said Schmedding, who watched Alcantar during a junior college game.
“I could see a kid who had talent,” said Schmedding, who passed the word to head coach Beau Baldwin.
Two more crises passed
All seemed well in the spring of 2013: Eastern had extended a scholarship offer and Alcantar made the dean’s list at Riverside. However, he was still scrambling to complete his associate’s degree.
As spring turned to summer, Alcantar began to despair. He worked at a Pizza Hut and did some construction work – and waited.
“I didn’t know what to do … I was about to call coach Schmedding and say I wasn’t going to be able to make it,” Alcantar said.
As Alcantar was on the verge of enlisting in the military, Riverside issued his degree and Alcantar left in July for a new adventure in Cheney.
“This means the world to me,” said Alcantar, who worked hard in fall camp but was beat out by veteran Trevor Moles.
“I was determined to get better – it was burning me up inside, because as an athlete you always think you can do better than that,” said Alcantar, who won the starting job four games into the season.
Since then, the Eagles haven’t given up a single blocked punt.
Straight and narrow path
The fans barely notice him, but most of the coaches want a piece of Alcantar.
Schmedding assesses his snapping technique, offensive line coach Aaron Best works on his post-snap blocking and defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer works with his hands and footwork to help him shed blocks during punt returns.
Baldwin, who rarely recruits junior college transfers, also takes keen notice on all phases of special teams.
“Ultimately he took it over and has run with it,” Baldwin said of Alcantar’s progress.
Embraced by the larger Eastern football family, Alcantar spends most of his time with kicker Tyler McNannay and punter Jake Miller, and they usually arrive at practice before the rest of the team.
“It’s a great bond that we have – we’re always making each other better,” said Alcantar, who’s spent the last two Thanksgivings at the Miller home in Spokane Valley.
The two long snaps require different techniques. Ball speed is paramount in punting, not as much in place-kicks, as the chance of a block is less. Alcantar always tries to send the ball exactly where the holder wants it, usually at the elbow.
“As long as your snap is decent, they’re not going to block it,” Alcantar said.
Practice builds muscle memory, but the other kind can be dangerous. Like most long snappers, Alcantar has the occasional nightmare involving a snap gone bad.
“I just try to go into a game blank, to clear my mind of everything,” he said. “Confidence is everything.”
Alcantar could say the same thing about his life, a path made easier by the generosity of others.
He wants to repay the kindness. A senior, he plans to finish his degree in criminal justice and become a police officer. Looking back at his childhood, Alcantar said he has an appreciation for law-enforcement officers, some of whom he credits for pushing him in the right direction.
“I can level with kids in those situations … and I want to be a part of that,” Alcantar said.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.