NEXT GENERATION: MARSHALL LONG
CHINA GROVE, N.C. – Whether the car wreck, or his own father, were in the back of his mind at that moment, Tim Long either doesn’t remember or doesn’t say. It’s just clear he knew this moment was important.
Marshall Long, despite growing up the son of a punter, and in the same town as a longtime NFL punter, had never punted, and he was already in high school. Tim had never forced it on him. And he didn’t now. Father and son were just throwing the football around in the backyard — Marshall hated football, by the way — when Tim off-handedly kicked it.
Marshall may have hated football, but he liked competing.
“I bet I can do better than that,” he said.
So he took the football. He kicked it. And the word he would use years later to describe his first-ever punt: “Awful.”
They kept trying. When Tim spiraled a punt, just like he’d done all those years ago, Marshall was intrigued. He was finally able to do it, but didn’t know how. Either way, he was hooked.
For awhile, Tim Long acted as his son’s punting coach, but he soon realized his son needed a personal coach.
“He was beyond me,” Tim Long said.
But not in every way.
The jersey hangs in the trophy case in the main hall, when you come into South Rowan High School. It doesn’t have his name on it, but below it is a plaque honoring the football team’s best special teams player every year, which is named after Tommy Barnhardt.
He would go on to a long and successful career as a punter: All-ACC at North Carolina, then 14 years in the NFL, with five different teams, most notably the New Orleans Saints. Barnhardt finished his career in 2000 with a career average of 42.1 yards.
“You walk in the school and his jersey is hanging there,” Marshall Long said. “For me that was motivation: I’m gonna get my jersey hanging there with it.”
Tim Long remembers as a middle-schooler in the late 1970s going past the high school and seeing footballs flying through the air.
“So I knew it was Tommy kicking,” he said.
Barnhardt now lives in Charlotte, N.C., and runs a food company, Guiltless Pleasure Desserts, that helps people with diabetes. He also helps those who ask with punting, and a couple years ago Marshall came up for a session. It made an impression on the NFL veteran.
“He’s a lot further along than I was in high school,” Barnhardt said. “I had a strong leg, but I didn’t have a lot of technique.”
Long’s size also stood out: He’s 6-foot-1 and about 190 pounds, big enough to play tight end or linebacker in high school. Barnhardt played at 6-3 and 210.
“Big kid, big bone structure,” Barnhardt said. “Obviously he wants to make it to the pro level, that’s kind of what they look for.”
Maybe that was why Tim took up punting himself. Or maybe it was his father, Gene, who was a tight end but for some reason thought Tim should try it. Either way he did, and had a promising start.
Then a bad car accident after his 10th grade year put an end to those hopes. He was fine otherwise (and the wreck pushed him into pursuing a career as a chiropractor), and now says he wouldn’t have been more than a Division II prospect anyway. Tim Long married and had two children, including Marshall, then divorced and remarried a woman named Trisha.
Trisha’s maiden name: Barnhardt.
Virginia Tech, then Georgia
The old joke goes that if your punter is seeing a lot of action, your team isn’t very good. Well, South Rowan went 1-10 last year — and the victory came on a recently-awarded forfeit, after the other team was found to have used an ineligible player.
In all, Long won three games in three years at South Rowan. Last year he punted 71 times, averaging 46.7 yards.
“I got the most playing time,” he said, laughing.
The team’s head coach, Daniel Yow, was quoted in the Salisbury (N.C.) Post after one game saying: “We played pretty bad on both sides of the ball. But Marshall was a bright spot.”
By last year, Long was also a highly-ranked recruit, but for punters, that doesn’t mean sitting at home as big-name head coaches come through your living room. It means auditioning.
Long attended a camp at Georgia for specialists in June 2015. It did not go well.
“It was one of the worst camps I had all year,” Long said. “That my first time there, I loved it, but I was still disappointed, because I (was like): I blew it. My chances of going here are done.”
But the next week was a Virginia Tech. It was a much better showing for Long, who punted in the Hokies’ new indoor facility.
“When you hit the ceiling in front of Frank Beamer, that helps a lot,” Long said.
Beamer Ball is a famous phrase in college football, with special teams carrying Virginia Tech to great success over the years. But all Long knew was the Hokies were the only major school to offer him — and that he really liked Shane Beamer, the head coach’s son and then a Virginia Tech assistant coach.
“He was just a cool guy,” Long said. “I remember at the camp, he would help me out and give me tips. A lot of coaches — I went to eight camps, and the coaches just stood behind you, stop-watch, didn’t say a word to you. But with Shane, he’d hop in with you, he’d talk to you, where are you from, how long have you been punting, stuff like that. That really made me like him. It really did not have much to do with who his Dad was.”
For the longest time, Long never figured he would play Division I college football. He knew he was good enough to play somewhere, but figured it would be Division II, as his friend Brennan Lambert, South Rowan’s kicker, did when he accepted a scholarship to Catawba College.
It wasn’t until Virginia Tech offered that Long realized he could go to a major school. But it’s not like it resulted in a flood of offers: Syracuse was the only other ACC school that offered. And the only SEC school that offered him was Georgia, which came after the coaching change.
The Bulldogs, under then-head coach Mark Richt, offered Long a chance to walk on. That couldn’t trump a free ride at a Division II school or especially Virginia Tech when it offered.
But then came Richt’s firing, and the hire of Kirby Smart, who was longtime friends with Beamer. When Beamer was hired as the special teams coach in early January, things moved quickly. He committed just before signing day.
Long wore No. 3 in high school and is hoping to get that number at Georgia. It’s available on offense — having been vacated since 2014 by Todd Gurley. Big number to fill? Not a problem.
“I joke about it: When you go to Georgia games and everybody has on a No. 3 jersey for Gurley, I’m like: No that’s actually for me,” he said.
He was joking, to be clear.
But he does not lack ambition.
“What motivates me the most is I want people to be able to say, ‘Hey I played with him, I knew him,’” Long said.
Six thousand miles to somewhere
Two years ago, as Long was still learning the craft, he drove to Matthews, N.C., for a personal training session with Barnhardt. While the experience was “pretty cool,” according to Long, they haven’t kept in touch.
Tim Long also thought it best not to serve as his son’s personal coach. But he’s been with him at nearly every step.
“I’ve shagged a lot of balls for that boy,” Tim Long said.
He’s sitting in the media center at South Rowan, talking about last summer. It wasn’t a beach trip, or to Europe. It was spent mostly in the car. Eating McDonald’s, staying in motels, and getting back in the car, going to camps and trying to show what Long could do with a football.
“This was one of the best summers of my life just because I was able to spend it with my Dad,” Long said. “Just knowing it was me, and Dad, six or seven thousand miles, that was a great time. A stressful time, but a great time.”
Before the scholarship offers came in, when it was just a lark, Tim Long’s message to his son was three words: “Why not you?”
He would repeat it over and over.
“At first it was annoying,” Long said. “But then I started thinking, ‘Hey what is he actually saying?’ That was a big thing for me.”
Now comes the next stage. Whether Long surpasses Barnhardt isn’t known, but he already has in one way, by shattering South Rowan’s high school punting record. Georgia fans will want to know whether Long beats out Brice Ramsey to become the punter this fall, or if it takes longer.
In the meantime, in this tiny North Carolina hamlet, which has seen the birth and death of some punting dreams, there is a very proud father.
“There’s no words to explain it,” Tim Long said. “It’s just a proud, proud feeling. … Hold on a second …
His voice goes silent a few seconds, either thinking or composing himself.
“My Dad took me out in the yard, hoping for me to get a scholarship. A free education. And I just didn’t complete the path,” Tim Long said. “That’s kind of how I got the idea. And it worked out for Marshall. My father is so proud.”
Let Marshall Long have the final word, speaking about the man who first taught him the craft, and then got out of the way.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without him,” he said.
Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.