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ORCHARD PARK - AUGUST 28: Ryan Neill #72 of the Buffalo Bills enters the field before the game against the Detroit Lions at Ralph Wilson Stadium on August 28, 2008 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Ryan Neill and his wife thought his football career may have been over.
He had a banner college career at Rutgers. He spent three years with the Bills before playing last season with the Rams. It was a good run.
Yet there Neill was on Friday, standing in front of his new locker as the Chargers' starting long snapper, sharing the story of how everything changed. It began with a cell phone ring in New Jersey.
The call came at about 8:45 p.m. Thursday when Neill was putting his two children to bed. Curiously, he lifted his phone to see who it was.
“'Eight five eight?'” Neill said. “'I don't know that area code,' so I let it ring.”
On the other end, Chargers Vice President Ed McGuire left a voicemail, asking to be called back. Neill figured the Chargers wanted him to have a workout early next week. He wasn't aware 17-year veteran long snapper David Binn suffered a season-ending hamstring injury on Monday and replacement James Dearth had just suffered a season-ending foot injury in practice hours earlier.
Neill was now the team's top choice to start Sunday's home opener against the Jaguars, but he didn't know. Not urgent, he figured. Going to go take a shower.
Then, his phone rang again. This number he recognized.
“It was my agent, and he was like, 'Why aren't you calling these guys back? They're serious! They want you there this weekend!'” Neill said. “So I called (McGuire) back immediately.”
McGuire updated Neill on the situation and asked if he wanted to be the Chargers' long snapper this season. Neill said he needed a minute to clear it with his wife. She approved.
The next morning, Neill was flying into San Diego out of Newark, driving straight to the Chargers practice field where he'd make a quick change of clothes in the locker room. By noon, Neill was in uniform, jogging to the center of the team's practice field to the jovial applause of dozens of his new teammates.
“A long snapper usually doesn't get that (reception),” Neill, 27, said. “That was nice.”
Punter Mike Scifres had a laugh in the locker room when replaying the scene.
“It's kind of a way to razz him a little bit,” Scifres said. “It may take a little bit of the nerves away knowing that guys are out there having a good time with him and welcoming him here."
The teammates kept the playful tone when Neill made his first snaps in a field goal drill. Neill said he heard jeers of “Come on, man!” and “You can't mess up!” along with reminders that he's their third long snapper this week.
While expressing disappointment in losing Binn and Dearth, Scifres and kicker Nate Kaeding were impressed with how Neill snapped the ball, especially when considering his journey to get there.
“Probably a little bit of a whirlwind," Kaeding said, "but that's kind of the nature of this business a little bit, too. We're all expecting him to step in and do great.”
That goes beyond this weekend.
As Neill told his story, a brown leather duffel bag laid inside his locker behind him, along with a few pairs of shoes, a pair of khaki shorts and a red shirt. On the floor, a black suitcase sat in front of the locker, too bulky to place inside.
"They told me to pack heavy,” Neill said, “so I brought some clothes that are going to last for a while.”