Ask an average fan to name a guy on an NFL roster. Most likely — even one-game-a-year Super Bowl watchers — could name Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. Look at any crowd in the stands for a game. Back in the day, some of the more obsessive fans could be seen wearing jerseys of defensive players like Mike Singletary or Lawrence Taylor. Today, jerseys for players like J.J. Watt or even Tyrann Mathieu are visible.
But how many NFL fans sport the jersey of a center?
Ironically, the center is one of the few players on the field who touch the ball on every play; each one begins with the snap. In fact, the center is usually the brains of the operation. He has countless responsibilities. Under pressure, he must make sure everyone is in the right place and communicate to his teammates the right way to counter the opposing defense — knowing that every single success or failure begins with the guy holding the ball before the star skill players make plays.
College football’s Campbell Trophy is often called “the academic Heisman.” Centers win this award more often than not. Oklahoma center Ty Darlington was a 2015 finalist for the hardware.
“The center has to be the brain,” Darlington told ESPN. “He has to be the smartest guy up front, if not the smartest guy on the field, to be able to adapt and make decisions under fire.”
For the Kansas City Chiefs, Austin Reiter is now “the firestarter.” Behind him, Mahomes may get all the accolades — but every play begins with Reiter, who must take the responsibility to start the fire correctly.
Speaking to reporters after Saturday’s training camp practice at Arrowhead Stadium, Reiter said that his first responsibility had been to make an NFL roster.
“Coming in as a seventh-round pick — practice-squad guy — and over the years, just working myself up, working up my confidence to where I’m at now, [is] night and day to when I entered this league,” he said.
Reiter earned his position the hard way. After joining the league in the 2015 NFL Draft, the young journeyman was released from both the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Football Team. When opportunity knocked with the Chiefs, Reiter answered the call, earning a two-year contract extension in 2018 — before Mitch Morse departed for the Buffalo Bills in the offseason.
“I will say I thought the kid Austin Reiter did a hell of a job,” said Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy the week before Reiter signed his extension. “He stepped up. The good thing is, sometimes without any bad luck, you wouldn’t have any good luck at all. He had an opportunity to step in and play and show that he can perform at a high level when needed.”
Reiter said the kind of support and belief like Bieniemy displayed in him has been a key factor in his success.
“I credit that to probably all the coaches, all the organizations and people that believe in me — and obviously the hard work. It takes thousands of reps to get there — and confidence, honestly — but I’m still trying to improve. There’s no complacency.”
For a center, timing is of the essence. Practicing over and over again to learn the nuances of the offense is critical — and in 2020, missing the preseason makes finding that rhythm even more difficult. Reiter credited his offensive line coach with making it easier.
“Coach (Andy) Heck and the coaching staff [do] a great job with being able to plug and play guys when needed,” he said. “The practice part of it — especially with guard and center — kind of learning each other’s footwork, not tripping over each other, knowing on singles and all sorts of combination blocks, where guys are going to be. But I think it’s going very well.”