Lieutenant Junior Grade Joseph Cardona is excited about his upcoming assignment for the Navy, his first overseas deployment.
It is what he dreamed about growing up in El Cajon, the son of a man who served on the Kitty Hawk and Lincoln and Carl Vinson. This is what all the work was for throughout his time at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“There are those times I see my friends that are deploying, doing different things and being able to have these exciting opportunities in the Navy,” Cardona said this week. “And for me, it hits this button of jealousy because, my dad, he got to travel the world and he got to do such exciting things. There’s a little part of me that hasn’t been filled yet.”
At “some point” in the coming months that he will not specify, as part of his supply corps unit assigned to assist in the joint effort on the Korean peninsula, the 25-year-old Cardona will get that chance to take the next step in what he hopes will be a lengthy career full of travels in the service of his country.
First, however, he has to play in Super Bowl XLII.
“This is kind of my last hurrah for the football side until training camp picks up,” he said.
The accompanying abbreviated chuckle was as close as Cardona came to being in on the delight in his unique standing among those participating in Sunday’s game.
To be sure, the story of the New England Patriots long snapper who fulfills his Navy Reserve commitments during bye weeks and the offseason is amusing and even more impressive.
The problem with that description is Cardona, while an amiable sort, is neither amused nor impressed by much, least of all himself. And the aforementioned ordering of his vocations is jumbled. He is Navy first, football second.
“It’s a really cool aspect, and it something I take pride in being able to have something so meaningful outside of football,” Cardona said of his dual track. “We obviously put a lot into football. But for me to be able to put a lot of effort into my military career means a lot.”
Oh, he’s committed to the craft of long snapping and working toward his second Super Bowl ring in his three NFL seasons. One doesn’t play at this level — and certainly not for Bill Belichick — without being committed.
But even Belichick refers to being in the Navy as Cardona’s “real job.”
It’s actually more like a calling.
“Everything from my upbringing led me to that,” he said of his decision to work toward and accept an appointment from Annapolis after graduating from Granite Hills High. “My dad being in the Navy, him being stationed in San Diego, me growing up in San Diego. … There was always an interest in serving.”
Cardona is no flash, all focus.
But there are no platitudes in his plainness.
Nonsense simply isn’t for those who apply themselves to the rigors of the Naval Academy with the idea of being a career officer and then take on another demanding job en route to (not instead of) that goal.
After being drafted by the Patriots in the fifth round in 2015, Cardona took his post-graduation leave to attend minicamp, made the team that summer and then embarked on an arduous season in which he split his weeks between Naval Station Newport (R.I.) and Foxborough, Mass.
He would miss team activities Monday, forego the benefit of the NFL off-day on Tuesday and work a half-day Wednesday on base. Then he would drive the hour to the Patriots’ facility, attend practice and meetings for two days and return Thursday night to Newport. He would be back in Foxborough on Fridays for practice and/or travel, play Sundays and then start another week.
“I don’t think I realized his rookie year how demanding those split responsibilities were going to be,” Patriots special teams coach Joe Judge said. “About halfway through the season, Joe was wiped out. By the time we practiced on Wednesday, he was exhausted. And he wouldn’t tell you. He was fighting through, doing everything he could.”
For all Cardona knew, this extra gig might have only lasted that one season.
It wasn’t until after his rookie year, as he prepared for his assignment on the about-to-be commissioned USS Zumwalt destroyer, which is currently based in San Diego, that Cardona found out he was going to be able to continue his NFL career. The news came in a call from then-Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus, who informed Cardona he was being transferred to the Navy Reserve.
The past two years, the reserve status has allowed him to fulfill the equivalent of one weekend a month of training and a minimum of two weeks of duty per year. Most of this is accomplished in the offseason. But he did report to Newport the weekend after New England’s first game, which was on a Thursday night, and during its bye week. (This is the second straight year he has had to request a postponement of a drill weekend scheduled for the first weekend in February.)
On one hand, it is remarkable an NFL team has bent to accommodate the schedule of the league’s only active military member. But then, it’s not.
First, Cardona is good. He has not had a truly bad snap in the NFL. You either get the job done for Belichick, or you don’t work for Belichick. Also, there are few coaches with the unique appreciation Belichick possess of where Cardona has come from.
Belichick often refers to growing up at Annapolis, where his father spent decades as a coach and scout. Bill Belichick has been known to launch into military history lessons during meetings and appeal to his players to appreciate U.S. history.
“Joe represents everything that we want to stand for, and he’s a great person, and of course his real job, defending our freedom, is at the very top of the list,” Belichick said at last year’s Super Bowl. “We all have great respect for the training and the work that he has done to do that.”
It is easy to see how the coach would appreciate Cardona’s subtly spectacular nature.
Cardona is the perfect Navy officer, and he’s the perfect Patriot.
More than any other team in the league, New England’s players stick to the code of a virtually secret and highly successful culture. By the design and demand of their head coach, the Patriots’ public statements are mostly vanilla and pertaining to the common goal.
Among the supreme reasons Belichick’s Patriots are a victory away from their sixth Lombardi Trophy in 17 seasons are his ability to corral so many egos, to take players coming from different teams and backgrounds, where many were free spirits with no qualms about sharing their personalities with the world, and have them all learn to speak a certain way.
He got Cardona pre-packaged.
Learning how to speak to the media in a forthright but measured manner, in fact, is among the crossover lessons Cardona said he has taken from playing in the NFL.
“A football player has plenty of things that go into their job, and there is not always an incentive to give away that information,” he said. “The two tend to, you can learn a lot. … There is a lot of natural transition. Obviously, football is a game. Games are played. As far as the military goes, they fight wars, and wars have a greater consequence. At the same time, there is correlation and there are things you can learn from each other.
“Being part of a performance-driven organization, there is a clear goal and everybody is focused and is myopic on it. (Football) teaches you a lot of lessons. You’re pouring yourself into one thing at a time, but it’s always for the good of the team, and you’re putting team ahead of yourself. There are a lot of things that are easy to say but are hard to implement. Being around this organization has really helped me get a grasp on the implementation and how I can take that to my unit now or whatever unit I am eventually in down the road.”
His reservist commitment, required after graduation from the Naval Academy, is eight years. A long snapper’s career can last well into a second decade. Cardona doesn’t know how long he’ll play in the NFL.
“As long as they’ll have me,” Cardona said. “And as long as the Navy is willing to work with me.”
Honestly, it is difficult to see him playing football into his 30s. There is too much for him to accomplish.
“It will be something I do beyond the NFL,” he said of his Navy career. “Being outside the military — even in the reserve capacity, where I’m still an officer of the Navy — it has given me that overall perspective of how important the mission is and how important serving is and how important it is to me. It is definitely something I will be maintaining my readiness and maintaining the ability and the call to serve.”
He said he has “the two best jobs in the world.” He considers it an honor to do both, but there is one he clearly considers his duty.