Joe Cardona keeps his message to students at the Naval Academy Preparatory School simple: "Be willing to do the work, because it's going to be tough."

The future officers have reason to listen. Not only did Cardona begin his path to a commission at NAPS, the ensign returned to the Newport, Rhode Island, school this year as a staff officer as part of an arrangement that allows him to hold down a second full-time job: long snapper for the New England Patriots.

He works four days a week at the school, shuffling his schedule around Patriots workouts and meetings in Foxborough, Massachusetts, about an hour north of Newport. The setup allows Cardona to serve as the only active-duty service member in the NFL, though it doesn't leave much room for anything outside of a football or a Navy uniform.

"Days are long and it's hard work, but ultimately it's very worth it," he told Military Times in an interview the day before Thanksgiving. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity to play football, but really grateful for the opportunity to serve my country."

U.S. Navy Ensign Joe Cardona, a long snapper with the New England Patriots, speaks with reporters in the locker room at Gillette Stadium following an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots are to play the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
U.S. Navy Ensign Joe Cardona, a long snapper with the New England Patriots, speaks with reporters in the locker room at Gillette Stadium following an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots are to play the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Joe Cardona discusses his naval and NFL duties with reporters in the New England Patriots locker room on Veterans Day.

Photo Credit: Steven Senne/The Associated Press

The son of a sailor, Cardona's post-academy career path became a bit complicated when the Patriots chose him in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, thanks in part to his four years as a starting snapper at Navy and strong performances at the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine. if hecticAnd what does a proud Annapolis grad do when the Patriots get a bye week? Head back to the alma mater, of course, to take in what would be a 33-11 rout of Air Force in early October.

Cardona spoke about the Mids before their 52-31 loss at Houston on Nov. 27, when Navy was threatening to crash the New Year's bowl party for the first time in a half-century.

"I definitely saw the potential for this season," he said. "This team has great leadership, with Keenan [Reynolds] and all the seniors, really. It wasn't really a surprise to me. It's coming as a surprise to a lot of people around the country, but to those that were around the program for the past couple of years, we saw this coming."

n Cardona's estimation, Reynolds, the Navy quarterback who holds the all-time NCAA record for rushing touchdowns and sat in first place as of Dec. 1 in an ESPN-backed Heisman Trophy fan vote, is "one of the all-time greats." That's high praise from a teammate of Tom Brady, and one who has realized early in his NFL career that he's got a lot of football left to learn.

New England Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona on the sideline in the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
New England Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona on the sideline in the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Joe Cardona stands ready on the sideline during the second half of his first regular-season NFL game Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson/The Associated Press

"You definitely get humbled pretty fast, whether it be trying to make a block in protection or getting downfield, being one-on-one with a return man, you realize very fast that this is a whole other level of competition," Cardona, 23, said.

As for Army-Navy, the snapper said it was "impossible to verbalize the atmosphere" of the game but did offer oft-heard words that might give a glimmer of hope to fans of Army West Point, loser of 13 straight rivalry contests.

"The records for that year," Cardona said, "go out the window."