John DePalma thought he had donned football pads for the last time after his sophomore season at Pinecrest Academy. Basketball was the 6-foot-6 power forward’s first love, and he stayed away from the gridiron his junior season to hone his skills on the court.
The success story of a teammate changed all of that.
DePalma began to envision a new opportunity for himself when fellow Paladin Bryce Haynes earned a full scholarship to play long snapper at Ohio State in 2011.
After returning to football his senior year and focusing on long snapping, DePalma received a late scholarship offer from the University of West Virginia, where he’s now spending the summer working to be the team’s starting long snapper as a freshman this fall.
"Bryce was pretty much the reason I came into long snapping," DePalma said, "he encouraged me to do it.
"I never was really competitive at it [early in high school], I was just kind of the fill in. I got really dedicated towards it [my senior year and had confidence] that I could do it."
Both players boast the lanky frame suited for long snapping, though, at 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 242 pounds, DePalma is nearly two inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than his former teammate.
And, like Haynes, DePalma enjoyed rapid development at the position once he began attending long snapping camps run by former UCLA long snapper Chris Rubio.
"I was a mess," DePalma said. "Before [working with] Rubio, I really had no idea what I was doing, I was just chucking [the ball] through my legs. I didn’t even know that I could look [at the punter] while I was snapping at the same time."
"He was like a deer on ice, just very awkward," Rubio said of the first time he worked with DePalma.
"But he came back any time I was [holding a camp] in Georgia and he just kept getting better and better, and by the end his form was perfect."
DePalma practiced his technique seven days a week with his father, Paul DePalma, and teammate Jacob Carr during his senior year, executing 40 snaps per day during the week and 100 each day on weekends. He progressively climbed up Rubio’s national rankings before jumping all the way to sixth place earlier this year.
But as National Signing Day came and went, DePalma still hadn’t received strong interest from a major college football program. His best offer was a partial scholarship from Samford University.
Finally, shortly after signing day, the suitors began lining up until he finally got the offer he was looking for.
Tennessee, Purdue and South Carolina all offered DePalma preferred walk-on status within days of one another, and on the final day of the week, West Virginia delivered a full scholarship offer.
"I didn’t know if there were really any scholarships left," DePalma said. "I guess it was a surprise. It was more of a relief."
The Mountaineers lost their starting long snapper to graduation in the spring, leaving DePalma in an open competition with one other player for the starting job this year.
DePalma plans to major in industrial engineering at West Virginia, but for the moment he’s still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that two long snappers from Pinecrest — a private Catholic school with a football roster of fewer than 30 players — have received full scholarships from major college football programs in consecutive years.
Not too long ago DePalma would have put the odds of that happening at "slim to none."
Prior to Haynes’ and DePalma’s scholarship agreements, no Pinecrest athlete had ever played college football at anything bigger than a Division III school.
Being part of history didn’t make leaving basketball behind any less difficult for DePalma, who was named to the 2012 all-county team after averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds and scoring his 1,000th career point.
DePalma said he realizes that tough choices are part of life, and he’s now looking forward to his future in college football, where hopes to one day see Haynes and Ohio State on the opposing sideline — ideally on the biggest stage of them all.
"Hopefully [we’ll meet] in the national championship," DePalma said. "That would be awesome."