Aug. 8, 2017
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a Thursday night late last month, the University of Virginia football team gathered in the McCue Center for what long-snapper Joe Spaziani expected to be a routine pre-training camp meeting.
He soon learned otherwise. After introductory remarks by staff members, including head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the focus shifted to special teams. Assistant coaches talked about the goals of the kickoff-return and punt teams, and during the latter discussion a photo of Spaziani appeared on the screen. Then Mendenhall took over.
“He had me stand up and asked me what year I was,” Spaziani recalled. “I said, `I’ll be a fourth-year,’ and he said, `You’re on scholarship now.’ ”
The response in the room was immediate.
“Everyone went nuts,” said inside linebackers coach Shane Hunter, who also oversees the punt team, “because there’s not a guy on our team that works harder than Spaz, and not just on the football field. He’s awesome.”
Mendenhall, who’s in his second year at UVA, treasures such moments.
“I think it’s the ideal way for someone to get a scholarship,” he said. “I think the world of recruiting doesn’t necessarily send the right message, where players are given something before they’ve actually come to an institution and carved their way.”
Asked what impressed him about Spaziani, Mendenhall said, “Just a fierce commitment. He’s diligent. There’s not a time where he’s not trying to learn. Regardless of position, he’s just everything you could ask for. He has a clear idea of what he wants to do for his future, and that’s to be a coach, and he treats each day like it’s an amazing gift of preparation for that.”
A redshirt junior from Hingham, Massachusetts, Spaziani is the older son of former Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani, who spent nine seasons as a UVA assistant under George Welsh, the final six as defensive coordinator.
Joe Spaziani was a standout quarterback at Hingham High School, near Boston, but early in his senior season he suffered a serious injury, breaking the tibia and fibula in his right leg.
Two operations and a long hospital stay followed after Spaziani developed compartment syndrome, and his hopes of earning a Division I scholarship out of high school faded. So he enrolled as a walk-on at UVA, where several members of the staff, including then-head coach Mike London and assistants Tom O’Brien and Jon Tenuta, knew his father.
Spaziani, whose right leg bears prominent scars but is otherwise healthy now, is still listed as a quarterback on the roster. But his playing time at Virginia has come as a long-snapper. He didn’t snap for his high school team, but he’d learned the fundamentals as a boy hanging out around the college teams for which his father coached.
“As time went on, my dad would always tell me, `Get good at long-snapping and you can go places,’ ” Spaziani recalled.
In August 2014, during his first training camp at UVA, he approached then-special teams coordinator Larry Lewis and said, “Hey, I can kind of snap,” Spaziani recalled.
“I didn’t have anything to lose. He let me snap a couple and was like, `All right, I see something we could work with there,’ and I just kept working on it, watching tape on NFL guys or other guys around, picking things up here and there.”
For most of last season, linebacker Zach Bradshaw and tight end Richard Burney were the Wahoos’ long-snappers during games, Bradshaw on extra points and field goals and Burney on punts. But injuries to both resulted in a promotion for Spaziani, who capably handled the long-snapping in Virginia’s final four games.
In addition to honing his long-snapping skills, Spaziani filled multiple roles on the scout team last year, playing “tight end, quarterback, running back, fullback, O-line, wide receiver,” Hunter said.
“Wherever you needed him. He never complains. He’s that ultimate team guy, and the coolest thing last year was when he got in to snap. And so to see that, see all his hard work pay off, was great.”
Hunter, an honorable-mention All-Mountain West selection at linebacker as a BYU senior in 2010, began his college career at Snow College. After one year, he transferred to BYU, where Mendenhall was head coach, and joined the program as a walk-on.
Mendenhall put Hunter a scholarship for his senior year. Now, as a coach, Hunter loves to see the hard work of walk-ons rewarded. That group at UVA has included one of Spaziani’s roommates, wide receiver Ben Hogg, a former walk-on who was put on scholarship last year.
“Personally, I kind of feel a little bit more of an emotional connection with them, because I’ve been through it,” Hunter said.
Frank Spaziani, who was Boston College’s defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach there, is in his second year as defensive coordinator at New Mexico State. He and his wife, Laura, have three children: Joe and twins Avery and Andrew. Avery is a student at UConn, where she plays volleyball, and Andrew attends New Mexico State.
The elder Spaziani’s reaction when he learned Joe had received a scholarship?
“He was really proud,” Joe said, “because he knows how hard I work and … how far I’ve come since I’ve been here. Also, he was really grateful that Coach Mendenhall did it, because it wasn’t something Coach had to do.”
His father stressed to him “that it doesn’t change who I am or what I’m doing,” Joe said. “It just gives me more freedom and responsibility, and what I do with those two things is going to determine how the next two seasons will turn out for me personally.”
A foreign affairs major, Spaziani hopes to compete for the `Hoos as a graduate student in 2018.
“I think I’m going to stick with playing as long as I can, till that dries up,” he said. “I like being here at Virginia. I like being around these guys, this team, this coaching staff. I don’t want to just give it up.”
Bradshaw was a senior in 2016, and Burney underwent surgery late last year to repair a fracture in his left hand. That left Spaziani to handle all the long-snapping during spring practice, and “I got a lot better,” he said. “And throughout the summer I was working on it, knowing that this is a spot where I can really have a role, a continuous role.”
Training camp started on July 28 for the `Hoos, whose long-snappers are Spaziani, Burney and true freshman Tommy Christ, a defensive lineman. Spaziani, true to form, stays busy during practice.
“I’m doing field goal, I’m doing extra points, I’m doing punt,” he said. “As far as when we go to meetings, I’m with the quarterbacks, and I’m still learning all that. I’m still throwing. In the spring I was doing some wide receiver stuff. So I’ve always kind of just bounced around.”
Along the way, he’s earned his coaches’ confidence.
“Joe’s improved in everything,” Mendenhall said, “and he’ll do anything that he’s asked to do, and a lot of times he’s doing things before he’s asked. So it’s pretty cool. Really, he improves every day, and his intent is to improve every day in whatever he’s done.”
Mendenhall’s first game as BYU’s head coach, coincidentally, was against a Boston College team whose defensive coordinator was Frank Spaziani. That game was played on Sept. 3, 2005, in Provo, Utah, where the Eagles won 20-3.
The teams met again the next season, this time in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where BC, with Joe Spaziani watching from the home sideline, prevailed 30-23 in double overtime.
The elder Spaziani visited Charlottesville this spring, Mendenhall said, “and we talked some defense, and it was my privilege to meet him.”
When Joe Spaziani was looking at his college options, he said, his father was “adamant that this is a great spot.” Frank Spaziani’s opinion didn’t change when Mendenhall replaced London as Virginia’s head coach after the 2015 season.
“My dad had heard all good things about [Mendenhall], so there wasn’t any real trepidation when he got announced,” Joe said. “He knew this would be a good deal.”
For much of his childhood, he shadowed his father at practices and games, and Spaziani has wanted to be a football coach since he was in middle school. His coaches believe he’ll be a good one.
“He’s got the exact right upbringing, mindset, pedigree for all that,” Mendenhall said.
“He loves football,” Hunter said.