PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t quite like Nick Boyle practiced.
A week ago, he stood over the football on the practice field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, twirled it into just the right place and then sent it flying between his legs, sailing yards behind him to the waiting hands of other Pittsburgh Steelers hopefuls at the team’s rookie minicamp.
A couple of days earlier, Boyle went through the familiar motions in the driveway of his Owings Mills, Maryland, home. But the former Baltimore Ravens tight end wasn’t snapping to players on the precipice of an NFL career. He wasn’t snapping to anyone at all.
Instead, Boyle, a father of three children under 3 years old, used his kids’ Fisher Price basketball goal as his target, an inventive substitute for a partner or a practice net.
“[My kids] kind of get in the way now,” Boyle said with a laugh. “They get hit by the ball. And I know my wife didn’t want to catch a ball.
“I hit [the goal] sometimes. Sometimes [the ball] goes in the road.”
Even if his at-home training is a little unconventional, Boyle’s transition from tight end to long snapper isn’t a gimmick. Despite a catastrophic left knee injury where he tore his meniscus, PCL and MCL and ripped his hamstring off the bone against the Patriots in 2020, and despite earning more than $23 million throughout an eight-year career to date, the 30-year-old fully vested veteran wants to keep playing.
“I wanted to transition to something less taxing on my body,” Boyle said, “And it was something I learned in high school and kind of want to bring out right now. … I’m serious. Let’s go do it. It’s not like a joke. [A joke is] not what I want it to look like because it’s not. And if this doesn’t work out, I’ll just keep snapping. If someone else calls to go there, I’ll stay ready.”
Boyle last long-snapped in a game while attending High Point Regional High School in northwest New Jersey more than a decade ago, but he was motivated by scholarship hopes to pursue the position back then.
“I was trying to get a full ride for a long-snapper.” Boyle said. “That’s the easiest way. My dad’s like, ‘Hey, get a full ride. I’ll get you a car.’ I’m like, all right, ‘Let me start long-snapping or something.'”
Boyle attended camps for long-snapping throughout high school, but at 6-4, 200-pounds, Boyle got more attention from colleges as a tight end. He landed at Delaware and put together one of the most prolific careers as a tight end in program history, finishing as the leader in receptions and second in yards and touchdowns among all Blue Hen tight ends. From there, he was selected by the Ravens in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft.
“I feel old when I just talk to people and they look at my sheet. They say ‘Delaware,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I went to Delaware.’ Then they look at again, it’s like, ‘Oh, like eight years ago.'”
Even as he put together a solid career as a versatile blocking tight end in Baltimore, Boyle still snapped when he could, filling in for the Ravens’ regular long-snappers during practice periods when they were unavailable.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, I could do this. Let’s go,'” Boyle said. “It’s muscle memory. Just got to work on it and get a little better.”
Long-snapping isn’t quite like riding a bike — especially at the NFL level — but Boyle got a little more snapping experience under his belt recently at Maryland’s Pro Day in March. That’s where he caught the eye of several Steelers’ staffers in attendance and earned an invitation to rookie minicamp.
“I think the thing that you look for when you’re talking about a tryout guy is the things that you can’t coach,” coach Mike Tomlin said, describing how he evaluates players like Boyle brought in for tryouts. “The pedigree-related things. The things that they bring and if it’s above the line, meaning if it’s at a professional level, then you consider them. I think that’s where we start first.”
Once in Pittsburgh, Boyle turned heads. Not only because he’s an ex-Raven infiltrating a former rivals’ territory, but because he’s almost a decade older than just about everyone else in practice jerseys.
“I feel old when I just talk to people and they look at my sheet,” Boyle said. “They say Delaware, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I went to Delaware.’ Then they look at again, it’s like, ‘Oh, like eight years ago.'”
Even if Boyle is a newcomer to his position, his experience gave him an advantage during his audition — and he passed some of that wisdom on to the rookies around him, including fourth-round draft pick Darnell Washington, a tight end.
“[He said] just keep your head up and just keep on moving,” Washington said. “Mistakes are going to happen and it’s just how you come back from them.”
Boyle didn’t get a contract from the Steelers immediately after rookie minicamp, but that doesn’t mean his pursuit of being an NFL long-snapper is over.
“I’m looking to get signed,” Boyle said. “I’m looking to be a long-snapper in the NFL, and that’s why I’m here. If I’m not looking to be a long-snapper in the NFL, why am I wasting my time? In a respectful way, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.”