Some NFL players spend Tuesdays, the league's traditional off day, nursing their injuries, studying film, or going over playbooks on stationary bicycles in the team gym. Others recover at home, where the only bone-jarring tackles coming from toddlers on spacious living room floors. Joe Cardona, the 23-year-old long snapper of the New England Patriots, does none of those things.
Instead, Cardona wakes before dawn on Tuesdays, climbs into his truck, and drives the emptied pre-dawn roads to report for mandatory military duty at the Naval Academy Preparatory School. The school, referred to as "NAPS," was founded in 1915 and is stationed on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Newport, Rhode Island. It's about an hour south of Gillette Stadium and light years away from the shopping and entertainment circus of Patriots Place.
NAPS is the alma mater of Medal of Honor recipients, astronauts, and veterans of every war in the last century. It's an introduction into the daily routine and life of the United States Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Maryland—a place made "to enhance Midshipman Candidates' moral, mental, and physical foundations to prepare them for success at the United States Naval Academy." Cardona serves as a Command Duty Officer.
"[My job as Command Duty Officer is to] carry out overall plan of the day," said Cardona. "Basically everything on campus that needs to be handled, and made to be run smoothly, I do. It's a lot of responsibility."
CDO's act like a more involved version of a college Resident Director: they are responsible for all musters and monitor the classrooms, mess, hall, and dormitory. CDO's answer phone calls from parents, from any other commands, and from anyone else looking for information on the command. During his shift, Cardona is responsible for any Midshipmen who need military or academic guidance.
"[CDO's are] on call all day, doing whatever is needed," he says. "There are easier days than others, but you have to be prepared to have the responsibility of anything that could happen while you're there. That could be a lot of things, things you never really want to think about. We're trained to deal with tragedy, the worst case scenarios. We're prepared for everything."
The responsibility is personal, too, Cardona says. CDO's feel the weight of managing the 250 students on campus operating as a solitary unit, but also walk the precarious ledge of each individual 17-21 year-old's psyche. "They're all good kids," he said. "But these are all also someone's son or daughter and you're put in charge them for the day. We're in charge of making sure everything is okay."
The shift is 24-hours, 8 a.m. to 8 a.m., which requires Cardona to leave his home in Dedham, Massachusetts around 5 a.m. While surely there are players who are so dedicated to their craft as to be awake at that hour, none probably are getting up that early to work a second job.
"You might not get to bed until 1 or 1:30, on a quiet night, just making sure everything is safe and secure," he told me, "but when command winds down and everyone goes to bed, you're still up at 5 a.m. when everything gets started in the morning. Not many people have an understanding of how tough that day is."
The job is so mentally taxing, in fact, that CDO's are given a lighter load during the 24 hours after their duty. Again, that is not how it works for Cardona, who instead makes the trek back to Gillette Stadium for practice with the as-of-now undefeated Patriots.
"[The next day's practice] is definitely a little tough," Cardona said. "Your body is tired, but when it comes down to it, I've got a job to do. Just like anything else. If you're standing watch on a ship late at night, you still have to do your job the next day. I just show up, do my best, and be a professional not only in the Navy but as a long snapper."
His dedication has earned respect in the locker room in Foxboro.
"It resonates " said Patriots punter Ryan Allen, who also receives Cardona's snaps as a placeholder on field goals and extra points. "You can really see the reality of what he's doing. We're all blessed to play this game, and we work damn hard, but in reality what he's doing is something remarkable, and that we all have a great respect for."
"It hits home with lots of guys when he walks in his full uniform, whether it's his dress blues or dress whites," said Joe Judge, the special teams coach for the Patriots. "They understand the significant sacrifice he's making and that he's balancing a lot outside of football so he can do his job."
Balancing life as a Naval officer and life as a pro football player is not an easy challenge—even when the Navy is supportive of Midshipmen-turned-NFL stars.
Lieutenant Eric Kettani graduated from the Naval Academy in 2009. He began his career with New England in 2011 and spent some of his time in Newport working with the Naval Operational Support Center and the football team. After bouncing to Washington, Kansas City, and Jacksonville, Kettani started the 2015-16 with the Patriots, but was cut before the season. He understands the grind.
"[Being in the NFL] is first and foremost a hard job," he said over the phone. "It's an all day job, 24/7. There's the weight room and being attuned to the game plan. It's mental and physical. You are the best in the world at what you do. [But] at the same time, there's a commitment to be served. That's mentally taxing at times. But Joe is strong-willed."
Currently, Cardona is the only Navy graduate on an active roster in the NFL. Kettani says he's happy to see Cardona representing the Naval Academy in the NFL. He considers the long-snapper a friend, because of their shared time in Patriots training camp and in what Kettani called the "Brotherhood."
Cardona lettered in lacrosse and football in high school in El Cajon, California, a city in east San Diego County, and Cardona credits countless hours with his father, a who spent 24 years in the Navy, developing his skills as a long snapper to his success. "[Long snapping] was a way to get an opportunity to go a college that I really wanted to go to," he says. "I'm not the most gifted athlete, but I worked hard on it on my own, with my dad."
He spent a year at NAPS before entering USNA in the fall of 2011, where he became a four-year starter under head coach Ken Niumatalolo and earned an economics degree. Cardona left with four wins over rival Army and three bowl appearances. Cardona needed special permission to leave Annapolis after being invited to the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, but he left enough of an impression that on the second day in May, the Patriots made him the highest drafted long snapper in the history of the NFL, grabbing him with pick 166.
As the sun set on a Monday filled with late-running team meetings, Cardona mused on the tightrope balance between his life in the NFL and his military obligation, before heading home to bank some sleep before another 24-hour shift in Newport.
"I think I really developed that balance at the Naval Academy," he told me. "As far as executing missions, you have to be proficient, and that was instilled in us at the Academy."
"[Being at Navy] definitely forces you to compartmentalize," Niumatalolo told me. "You need to work hard in the military side, on the football side, and you can't worry about exams. It's just the nature of this place: You dial into what you're doing."
Cardona put it slightly differently. "You have military mode, to complete the task at hand there; Then you're in classroom mode, and you have your responsibilities there. On the practice field or playing field, you're in football mode. You have your responsibilities out there. [You] can't slack off in any area because one of the others is difficult. It helped me, pushed me along and that's why I'm here. When I'm at NAPS, I'm fully focused on mission as naval officer; When I'm playing for the Patriots, I'm focused on my duties on the field."
The intrinsic similarities between football and the military, and the NFL's willed affinity with the armed forces, get more work than they should. Football is a game and combat is not. War is not sport; it's not a rhetorical device, and it's not fun. For Cardona, his military service and his life in football are something clearer, if no less demanding—work.
"When he comes in here, Joe is a true professional," said Judge of Cardona's balancing act between those two worlds. "You wouldn't know he was moonlighting elsewhere. When he comes in here, he does so with a full head of steam.
"When he's there, he's fully with the Navy; When he's here, he's a Patriot."