Scott Sypniewski cried. He sobbed, actually. He was in the visitor’s locker room at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, still in uniform. His hand grasped John Baxter’s, his head resting on his coordinator’s shoulder.
It has been four years exactly from that day to the publication of this story. Sypniewski works now in Chicago as a recruiting coordinator for NCSA, a company that helps high school athletes boost their recruiting profiles. It has been two years since he graduate transferred from Michigan to Vanderbilt, over a year since his last NFL tryout with the Jacksonville Jaguars ended without a callback. He is living his life, normal and anonymous, as far removed from that snap — the snap — against Michigan State and the world encompassing it as could be.
And still, when Sypniewski tells the story of all that led to that moment at Indiana, when everything poured out of him, he gets choked up.
Minutes before going to the locker room, as Delano Hill broke up a fourth-down attempt in the end zone and the rest of Michigan’s football team converged around him, Sypniewski was celebrating, too. His hands flew in the air in elation. He lifted his head and turned to walk off the field. Then he saw his father. He’s always been good at finding his family in the crowd, he says now.
“I saw him shaking his head,” Sypniewski said. “And he was starting to cry.”
That was when Sypniewski ran up the tunnel, into the visitor’s locker room and started sobbing.
Sypniewski cried then because of the emotions of the four weeks preceding that moment, because everything that bubbles beneath the surface of any athlete finally burst, and because for him — in those four weeks — that load exceeded its capacity. He gets choked up now when he tells the story because even in relative anonymity, four years after the fact, those emotions never quite left. When one error defines you, it stays with you.
As for that error, the clip has been played thousands of times over. You’ve seen it. You’ll see it again this weekend. There are 10 seconds left in the game, it’s fourth-and-two and Michigan leads, 23-21. Sypniewski is right there in the center, holding onto the ball, his head looking between his legs, readying for a motion he had done thousands of times before.
Instead of hitting the strike zone, the football wavers and dips. Blake O’Neill drops it, bends down, tries to pick it up. Sean McDonough’s voice goes up an octave. Jalen Watts-Jackson, a Michigan State safety, runs the ball into the end zone as time expires. Michigan loses in impossible fashion to a hated rival.
Sypniewski, to be clear, was not universally blamed. Unlike O’Neill, who spent the following week as the face of the error, getting vitriol heaped on his social media, Sypniewski lived with the anonymity of a long snapper. In a way, that made all that happened over the next month that much harder. The blame he had to get past was not that of others, but his own.
Four years later, past a football career and well into living real life with a real job, he’s asked how long it took to move on.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think I have an answer to that.
“Maybe I’ll let you know in like five years?”
Sypniewski didn’t think his grandfather would be able to watch him play football at Michigan. And yet, after making it to every high school game, he was at nearly every college home game, too. “My grandpa basically lived to watch me play,” Sypniewski said. Which meant that when Sypniewski exited the locker room the night of the 2015 Michigan State game and walked back to his family — at a tailgate put on by a group of parents — his grandpa was there.
All the faces at the tailgate were expressionless. It was less than an hour after the end of the game — nobody knew what to say or how to talk about what had happened. “It wasn’t … the best physical tailgate to be in,” said Andrew Robinson, Sypniewski’s friend and a backup long snapper on the 2015 team.
Sypniewski’s grandfather pulled him out of the tailgate and sat him down. Along with Sypniewski’s father, he stressed that Scott couldn’t dwell on this and had to move forward. The kinds of cliches that people always fall back on, in the kind of situation where it’s hard to apply them.
“He was definitely someone who was right there, putting his arm around my shoulder and telling me it’s gonna be OK, really,” Sypniewski said. “And then my dad. My dad’s been through a lot of crap, too. He kinda knows that you can’t dwell on it. Just gotta keep moving forward. You can’t even think about it. Even though it gets brought up every time someone recognizes me.”
Sypniewski’s path to that moment came with good luck at every turn. His father played for Western Michigan in the 1980s, for a coaching staff that included Brady Hoke, Greg Mattison and Dan Ferrigno — all Michigan coaches when he was a recruit. When it became clear Sypniewski was good enough to be a long snapper in college, he could only get a preferred walk-on offer from the Broncos. He visited Hoke expecting the same and almost broke down crying when a full scholarship was offered. On the car ride home, Sypniewski made his dad pull over so he could call Hoke and commit.
When Jim Harbaugh took over the program in Sypniewski’s redshirt freshman year, he didn’t just keep the starting job he was in line for, but he retained his scholarship. Within a tight-knit group of specialists, Sypniewski was viewed as a leader.
“He’s a good guy, really likable guy,” said Kyle Seychel, a walk-on who played on special teams from 2014-17. “And I just looked up I guess. I guess that’s the impression. I still have that to this day.”
Those strokes of luck in his recruitment inform his career now.
NCSA, the company Sypniewski works for, is essentially a college counseling service for recruits. He used it himself in high school when trying to get noticed as a long snapper, a position where lack of recognition tends to be inherent. It’s a job that allows him to stay near sports while, generally, avoiding the spotlight that can come with being at the center of disaster.
Sypniewski, though, wants to clarify what happened and his role in all of it.
When Baxter, Sypniewski and O’Neill watched the tape of the botched snap after the season, having avoided it until then, they noticed O’Neill looked like he was lined up further back than normal. They rewound and watched again, counting the yards. “Probably did it like 30 times,” Sypniewski said. O’Neill had been taught to line up 15 yards behind Sypniewski. When Michigan lined up to punt with 10 seconds left against Michigan State, O’Neill was 17 yards behind Sypniewski. The ball dipped because it was snapped to 15.
“That’s usually one of the things that I tell people when people ask me, is that, well first off, you can’t say — I don’t want to put anyone in the ground here,” Sypniewski said. “But that was one of the things why I wanted to kind of tell my story about it, from my perspective.”
O’Neill declined to talk for this story when contacted through Sypniewski and didn’t respond to a direct message. Baxter, through a USC spokesperson, declined to talk as well.
Seychel pulls up the video while on the phone to verify, having not seen it in a while. He, too, counts the yards. “Oh yeah. That’s right,” he says. “Right at his feet. I’m sorry, man. I haven’t seen this play in a while. … I try not to think about it.
“… If he was standing at 14 yards, it might have been right at his chest.”
Sypniewski, on top of the snap itself, broke his thumb against the Spartans. Because that game was followed by a bye week, he didn’t miss any time, playing the next game against Minnesota. The following week, against Rutgers, he was running downfield and got decleated. The hit ruptured the bursa sac in his right knee. It swelled, then got infected.
He spent the week leading up to the Indiana game with a 103-degree fever, not practicing. His roommates, Robinson and Kenny Allen, had to stay at the Campus Inn until the team left. Harbaugh didn’t let Sypniewski travel to Bloomington with the team, but he told him he could play if he could get to the game. So Sypniewski’s parents drove up to Ann Arbor from Chicago on Friday morning, then drove him to Bloomington. He stayed in his own hotel room.
The morning of the game, Sypniewski dressed, keeping Harbaugh to his word. When he went out for warmups, he had to run back to the bench on the first field goal snap, Robinson recalled, “because he thought he was gonna throw up on the ball.” Still, he played. And when Michigan won, he cried.
“I couldn’t control any emotions,” Sypniewski said, “and it was kind of like collective part of everything that happened from the Michigan State game to then. All of it was just coming out and the fact that we won, I was finally done, I could just go home. That season, that stretch of four games, it really tested who I was.”
Twenty minutes after saying he doesn’t know how long it took to move on, Sypniewski claims he’s done so. Certainly, he seems to be over playing football.
He tried to catch on in the NFL after his year at Vanderbilt, but decided after a year he couldn’t keep sitting by his phone every Monday and Tuesday, waiting for a call. If something comes out of the sky, he’s game, but Sypniewksi wanted to start his next career.
He notices when the snap gets played on TV, but says he’s past it. When people bring it up, he goes to the same joke — “How many times were you the number one play of the year on the ESPYs?” When SportsCenter played it every hour on the play’s four-year anniversary last month and people around his office joked with him, Sypniewski took it in stride.
“Obviously you think about it every time it gets played on TV, you kind of put yourself back in that place, cause you know exactly what was going through your head when you were doing it,” Sypniewski said. “To say that I still dwell on it, that’s not true at all.
Yet, he wants his perspective out there, wants people to understand the play was more than a 15-second video to be looped and a meme to be shared. On a given day, Robinson estimated, Michigan could have three practice periods devoted to special teams with about 30 minutes a week devoted to punts. About three times a week, Michigan would practice against punt block looks like the one Michigan State broke out on that fourth down.
None of that, of course, accounts for the work Sypniewski and others did on the sidelines as the offense and defense practiced. None of it accounts for the minutiae that goes into long snapping, the thousands of reps and the sheer bad luck it takes for a mistake to occur in that moment. None of it accounts for the next week, either, when Michigan installed an emergency punt for a similar situation, where the punter stood a yard up, caught the ball and one-step kicked it.
Amid a conversation touching on all the minutiae of everything that happened four years ago, Sypniewski finds a moment to talk about moving forward, keeping a short memory. He laughs.
Those 10 seconds led to tears in Bloomington and years of reminders. They will stay in the memory of Sypniewski, and Michigan, for years to come.
“It’s crazy that something like that was only 10 seconds long,” he says, “but that’s what people remember.”