Andrew DePaola was 27 years old and five seasons past his last game at Rutgers when he finally made his NFL regular-season debut with the Buccaneers back in 2014.
"I remember looking at my first paycheck," said the 35-year-old Vikings long snapper. "They paid us every two weeks during the season. It was $48,000. That day changed my life."
Twenty-four grand a week was a tad more than DePaola was making restocking shelves at Best Buy in East Brunswick, N.J. Or tending bar at DePaola's Pub in Arbutus, Md.
"I did a little bit of everything at the family restaurant, so I tried tending bar so I could make a little more in tips," DePaola said. "A guy comes in and orders scotch on the rocks. I pour like a full glass of scotch. My dad sees me and says, 'That's it. You're done. You're costing me too much money pouring drinks. Go downstairs and keep the books.'"
DePaola, the oldest and most overlooked guy in the Vikings locker room, laughs. He's just an average Joe who also happens to be making $1,035,000 — $115,000 every two weeks during the season — to "throw a football between my legs" while playing for a 9-2 team along with the likes of Justin Jefferson, the hottest name in the NFL, if not all of sports, right now.
It's staggering to think of how many unlikely twists and turns life took for DePaola to get to where he is.
- He walked on at Rutgers as an all-state quarterback from Herford High in Parkton, Md. A three-year starter and one-time state champion, DePaola got only one financial offer: a partial scholarship from West Virginia Wesleyan.
- He never played quarterback in a game for Rutgers. He was switched to receiver. "I never caught a pass," DePaola says, "but I am 1-for-1 on throwing passes for touchdowns."
- He threw that touchdown pass because he had gone to coach Greg Schiano and volunteered to be the holder on placekicks. The touchdown was a 15-yarder off a fake field goal in Rutgers' 30-27 upset of No. 2 South Florida in 2007.
- He also went to Schiano and volunteered to be the emergency long snapper. And, yes, Schiano made the odd decision to have his holder also be his emergency long-snapper.
Here's where DePaola's life story gets especially fateful.
"It's 2008 and we go to Tampa to play South Florida," DePaola said. "We're kicking a PAT right before halftime and a [defender] jumps through the gap, lands on our snapper Jeremy Branch's leg. Jeremy tears his ACL."
DePaola snapped for Schiano the rest of that game, that season and the following season. When Schiano got the Buccaneers job in 2012, he brought in five long snappers, including DePaola, for a workout.
"I won the workout, went to training camp, got cut, signed a futures contract in January 2013, went back to training camp and got cut again in 2013," DePaola said.
Schiano got fired after that season, but DePaola was brought back for another shot by Lovie Smith in 2014. DePaola won the job and played in every Bucs game from 2014-16.
"I tore my right ACL in the last game of the 2016 season," said DePaola. "Came back and played all 16 games in Chicago in 2017 and then tore my right ACL in the first game [with the Raiders] in 2018."
He was out of football again in 2019 but found his way back when the Vikings released Austin Cutting with seven games left in the 2020 season.
Today, DePaola is called "Sir Po" by special teams coordinator Matt Daniels, who's two years younger. He's also one of five Vikings who were leading his NFC position group when early fan balloting for the Pro Bowl was announced this week.
DePaola said he would love to know who and why 15,556 people have voted for him.
"My name never gets called," he added. "How does anyone know who I am?"
The fan vote counts for one-third of the Pro Bowl selections. Players and coaches also vote. If selected, DePaola would add "Pro Bowler" to an already unlikely career that didn't quite sink in until he saw that first paycheck eight years ago.
"I try to remember who that person was that day he got his first check," DePaola said. "It's important to stay humble and remember where I came from so I don't forget what it takes to stay where I am."