LIFE'S A SNAP : McDonald, 31, Has Made Himself a Mini-Career With Rams as Long-Snapper

Times Staff Writer

Life seems a never-ending game show for Mike McDonald, who is enjoying what amounts to an expenses-paid vacation in the Orient this week, courtesy of the Rams, who ask so little of him, really.

The luckiest man in the world? Perhaps.

McDonald is a professional center long-snapper. He snaps for field goals, punts and, some evenings, snaps his fingers for an occasional cocktail. And that's about it. Officially, he's listed as a linebacker, but that's only to impress his children. Truth is, daddy doesn't even go to the meetings.

"They're not going to put me at linebacker," he said. "Why should I go? They had me going at first, I think because they thought it didn't look good. But I just started sneaking out on my own, and no one said anything. You know, out of sight, out of mind."

So who do you contact to get his job? McDonald prefers to think of himself as a specialist, one of only 28 of his kind in the world. Please, take a business card. And if it's so easy, why are you at work while he's loading up the instamatic for Mt. Fuji?

The Rams have tried to get rid of him, believe them. He's what they call "mismanagement of roster space." If they were to find a snapper who has potential as a full-time employee, McDonald goes back to selling auto insurance. Until then, please pass the sushi and plum tea.

McDonald, 31, has turned out to be the novelty story that wouldn't die. He was training for the fire department in 1983 when Ram snapper Doug Barnett was injured in the regular-season finale. It was John Robinson's first season with the Rams, and he faced going to the playoffs without an established snapper. So Robinson called McDonald, who played for Robinson at USC in 1979.

He's been released twice since then but somehow always finds his way back to the Rams. Last May, McDonald sat down with general counsel Jay Zygmunt and negotiated a contract for $95,000 this season, plus another $5,000 if he plays in six games.

With some shrewd negotiating tactics, McDonald said he squeezed a couple thousand extra out of the team.

"Me and Jay had a quibble," McDonald said. "I said, 'Listen, I've got employees who work for me, and when they work good I throw them a bone at the end of the year."

McDonald finds it hard to believe he can make six figures doing what he does. But doesn't Vanna White make $100,000 a year for turning over letters? "I'll keep doing it until I die," McDonald said.

It's difficult to imagine why more marginal college players don't practice snapping.

"I don't want to find out," he said. "Coach said to me: 'I just can't find anybody to teach it.' I said 'Hey, I'll teach it. I want two years' salary in advance, but I'll teach it."

McDonald was tutored in Pop Warner League football by his coach, Jack Morales, a former center himself. McDonald refined his craft at Burbank's Burroughs High School. "I got to hating it, because as a sophomore in high school, this coach did these snapping drills with me," McDonald said. "He made me snap a 100 damn balls a day. It was a guy named Leone. I forget his first name. But he worked my butt off."

McDonald knows his days are numbered. This year, the Rams drafted an eighth-round guard, Warren Wheat, who is a fair snapper himself. If Wheat turns out to be any kind of player, McDonald knows he's gone.

"I'm a realist," he said. "I know this is going to be over with any day. If it does die on me, I've got to have something I can fall back on."

McDonald hasn't quit his day job. He and his father recently started an insurance company designed for high-risk drivers. McDonald also dabbles in real estate.

And some day, McDonald might even open a school for snappers.

"Warren (Wheat) asked me the other day. He said 'Hey, can you help me with my snaps?' And I said, 'Yeah, right after the final cut."

Ram Notes

There were more scattered reports of Ram players having difficulties out on the town in Tokyo. Wednesday night, running backs Buford McGee and Robert Delpino were stranded downtown until 3 a.m. because they were unable to hail a cab. Some of the team's white players complained of the same difficulties. Tackle Jackie Slater, who is black, said Thursday morning he has not experienced any major problems. The players are not bound by curfew until Saturday, the night before Sunday's game in Tokyo. The game will be aired live Saturday in Los Angeles on ESPN at 7 p.m. . . . Several Ram starters are expected to miss the exhibition game with the San Francisco 49ers. Tight end Damone Johnson, tailback Greg Bell and right guard Duval Love are out with contract disputes. Coach John Robinson lists receivers Ron Brown (hamstring) and Henry Ellard (back) as "50-50" for the game. Receivers Aaron Cox (hamstring) and Pete Holohan (knee) are out. On defense, linebacker Fred Strickland is out with a knee injury.

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