The NFL feel-good story you need to know about

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In the second quarter of Tampa-Carolina on Thursday, Panthers punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud burst through the Bucs coverage team, and by the time he passed midfield, it looked like he might go all the way. One blocker in front of him, two flat-footed Buccaneers left to beat. From behind, Bucs long-snapper Zach Triner sprinted into the picture, diving at McCloud, desperation-tackling him at the Bucs’ 42. Not bad for Triner, who until this summer hadn’t played in a real football game since 2014, with tiny NCAA Division II Assumption (Mass.) College. As Triner (pronounced Trinner) told me Friday: “For my first tackle in the NFL, it was pretty awesome.”

Same for Triner’s trip to an NFL roster. He dreamed of being a pro football player since fifth grade, gave up football after high school in Massachusetts because he needed scholarship money lacrosse could provide, meandered from Sacred Heart to Siena in the northeast playing it, then, re-smitten with football, transferred again to play defensive end for three years (2012-14) at Assumption—long-snapping for the 2014 season only. Then, 13 times in the next four years, he had NFL tryouts, workouts or attended camp with New England (2015); the Jets, Jacksonville and Houston (2016); the Jets and Green Bay (2017); and, in an arduous and soul-crushing 2018, with Green Bay, Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Carolina, Green Bay again, Detroit and Tampa Bay. Eight trials. Six months. No contract for an active roster.

He kept practicing, four days a week, 40 to 60 snaps a day. Last season, he found high school and college long-snappers in eastern Massachusetts and offered to tutor them in exchange for them catching his snaps. He quit his job as an investment consultant for Fidelity because he was so determined to give snapping his full-time attention. His coach at Assumption, Bob Chesney, preached if you want to be great at something, pursue it without reservation. “Burn the boats,” Triner said. “There’s no going back.”

Competing in Green Bay in 2018 with a drafted snapper, Hunter Bradley, “I knew I could do it at the NFL level then, and I knew there would be opportunities. I kept thinking, ‘Keep pushing. You’re gonna get a spot.’ “ This offseason, signed by Tampa, the Bucs didn’t bring another snapper to camp. It was Triner’s job unless he screwed it up. On cutdown weekend, he still didn’t know. Rosters had to be set at 4 p.m. Tampa time on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Triner and high-school-sweetheart wife Carissa went grocery-shopping that afternoon in Tampa instead of just waiting for the phone to ring. Would he make it? Would he not?

“Carissa and I held our breath all day,” he said.

The phone never rang. No one from the Bucs called and said, The GM wants to see you, and bring your playbook. No one from the Bucs called and said, Congrats. You made it. Zach Triner, after 13 times hearing no, never heard yes. But silence was golden. When it was a little after 4 and he hadn’t heard, he turned to Carissa and said, “I think we made it.”

On opening day, at Tampa Bay, Triner, a big country music fan, jogged out for pregame warmups. Tim McGraw was playing a concert behind the end zone. McGraw played “Live Like You Were Dying.“ Triner was stunned; it’s one of his favorite songs, and a personal anthem. A man’s father learns he has a life-threatening illness, and advises his son to live life like tomorrow’s not guaranteed. McGraw’s words—I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying, like tomorrow was a gift—hit Triner, warming up. That’s how Triner had been living. Hearing it just before he played his first NFL game … kismet.

And then, four days later, the tackle from behind of the runaway return man, and Joe Buck saying he saved a touchdown on national TV. Quite a week.

“What I’ve learned,” Triner said, “is it’s so easy to do the right thing when things are going your way. My mom lived life like, Life’s not always gonna go your way. How hard will you work when it’s not going good? How hard will you work when people aren’t watching? My mom never complained. She just worked harder. For these three or four years, that’s what I did. I cut ties with all the doubt. My wife trusted. I trusted.”

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