By John Ingoldsby, Player Engagement Insider
When New England Patriots’ Joe Cardona took the field Sunday for the Salute to Service game, it’s safe to say there was no more of a true Patriot than him anywhere inside Gillette Stadium.
Not only is he the team’s long snapper, but the United States Naval Academy graduate is also a Junior Commissioned Officer in the United States Navy.
“This is another game where my two worlds come together, much like the Falcons game a few weeks back when we provided 200 game tickets for military members,” said the California native. “It was amazing how the whole team and organization got behind our initiative to give them that personal experience.”
That initiative spearheaded by Cardona for the October 22nd Super Bowl rematch ushered in a November to remember both on and off the field for the 25-year-old.
The military honors month kicked off on November 3rd when the NFL announced that he was named the Patriots’ Salute to Service nominee, joining 31 others from each team who were recognized for their efforts with the armed services.
“It was an incredible honor to be mentioned in the company of these men around the league who all do tremendous work,” he said. “They are all so accomplished in their support of the military, so it is truly humbling to be nominated.”
The following weekend was Veterans Day, which the Patriots punctuated by beating the Broncos on Sunday Night Football, after which the team set up camp on familiar turf to Cardona.
“We went to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to practice that week, and they did a great job of bridging the gap between the military and civilians by providing everyone with exposure to the service members, which was an excellent learning experience for all,” emphasized the four-year starter at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, who faced the Falcons a few times on the very field he practiced on in the shadow of Pikes Peak.
From there, it was off to an even higher altitude in Mexico City for an international game against the Oakland Raiders, and what would be a career moment when Cardona’s snap started a franchise record 62-yard field goal for kicker Steven Gostkowski.
“Steve’s field goal was really cool, and he and I, along with holder Ryan Allen, knew that if an opportunity like that came in altitude we would be ready, and then Steve hit one of his cleanest balls ever,” Cardona said.
No surprise for the long snap specialist, who was so proficient at his San Diego-area high school, Granite Hills in El Cajon, that the Naval Academy came calling for the son of a 24-year Navy veteran.
“Given my father’s Navy service, I grew up watching the Army-Navy game so, when it came time to choose a college, and Navy recruited me, it took me just a few minutes to decide,” he said.
In what would be a precursor to ultimately landing in New England, he started at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island, before enrolling at the Naval Academy, where he majored in economics.
While there, he ran up a perfect 4-0 record in the very Army-Navy games he used to watch with his father, and recalled, “It’s an incredible game to be a part of, and means so much to so many in this country because it’s the next generation of leaders all competing on the same field, which is what makes it so unique.”
Also unique is the Annapolis connection with Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick, who grew up while his father served on the Academy coaching staff for 34 years so, drafting Cardona in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft made for a mutual connection, as does their other shared passion of lacrosse, which both played scholastically.
“It has been great to have that connection with Coach Belichick since we share common ground and both understand the ‘Annapolis Way,’” Cardona said. “But playing for him is all business and purely professional.”
Interestingly, the Annapolis Way has been highlighted this fall on the Showtime network, who has been broadcasting a weekly documentary series, “A Season with Navy Football,” which of course Cardona has been viewing.
“It has been wonderful to watch since it provides a rare insight into the daily life of attending the Academy, both the fun stuff and the painful stuff, and shows what it’s really like,” said Cardona, who has often had two uniforms for away game weekends, the Navy uniform he has worn boarding the plane and of course his Patriots uniform on game day.
But both the fun and the pain turned out well for Cardona, who in addition to his long hours of perfecting his long snapping daily with the Patriots, finds the time to maximize his Navy commitment.
“As a rookie, I was on active duty, spending time, for instance, at service warfare officer school and on the USS Zumwalt in Norfolk (VA), but now in the Reserves, my mission is unit support and participating in War Games for U.S. forces in South Korea, which is very meaningful,” he explained of his eight-year commitment, which requires one weekend a month, and two weeks a year.
But it doesn’t stop there for Cardona, who still finds time for more Navy-related activities, as noted in the Patriots’ Salute to Service nomination.
One has been more than a dozen re-enlistment and retirement ceremonies at Gillette Stadium, which Cardona described saying, “I try to make the experience special, and approached Coach Belichick who decided to have the whole team there. So, for example, I have changed into my Navy uniform in the medical tent right after practice, and the ceremony has turned out to be a special experience for both me and my teammates. Fortunately, I got all the words right, and these are events that I am always willing to do.”
He also has hosted free football clinics for military families at both Hanscom Air Force Base and Naval Station Newport, noting, “For many of these kids, dad and/or mom may be on deployment somewhere, so everyone truly enjoys these events.”
He even jumped into the breach last fall when a fire at Joint Base Cape Cod burned holiday toys meant for military families, so he visited the base and worked with the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation to collect replacement toys.
“When I heard the gifts were destroyed, it was wonderful to work with the team’s foundation to find toys and support those military families,” he said during this locker room interview the day after Thanksgiving.
And he was his usual humble self again two days later at the team’s official Salute to Service game on Sunday, when he culminated his magical month of a November to remember.
John Ingoldsby is the President and Founder of IIR Sports, Inc. (www.IIRSports.com), a sports media firm based in Boston. He has covered the NFL throughout his career that began as a newspaper reporter/editor, which includes articles in Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine (NFL Player Engagement), London-based Financial Times newspaper (NFL's international strategy), the Philadelphia Daily News (annual NFC Coaches Breakfast) and the Boston Globe (Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll).