Joe Cardona spent the most heart-stopping moments of Sunday's Super Bowl on the New England Patriots sideline preparing to take the field … and hoping he'd stay put.
A second-year long snapper out of the Naval Academy, and an ensign in the Navy Reserve, Cardona knew overcoming a 16-point deficit with less than nine minutes to play did not, ideally, involve punts or field goals.
"There were times where you could've punted there late," Cardona said Thursday. "Luckily, the offense was able to move the ball."
That made the aspiring supply officer a spectator as the Patriots' 34-28 comeback win made him a champion.
Cardona called the whole process – from the hype-filled pregame preparation to the postgame parade through the streets of Boston – a "very surreal experience … especially the way the game went."
Some personal highlights for the El Cajon, California, native:
- Inviting a dozen friends and family members to Houston for what would become a crowning professional achievement, and scoring all of them a ticket to the game.
- Playing his part in "Super Bowl Opening Night," a spectacle six days before the game where media and fans crowd around each team’s stars, reserves and everyone in between. Cardona said he was happy to speak with his hometown TV station and do an interview for a crew from American Forces Network – "It’s neat seeing those guys in uniform."
- Sharing a brief greeting with fellow service academy grad Ben Garland, a reserve for the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line and for the Air Force. "Right before the second half started, we popped each other a little salute there – nobody would’ve saw it, it was just a cool moment."
Garland was far from the only fellow service member Cardona connected with – he said he received countless good-luck wishes from former classmates and others in uniform, with congratulations flowing just as fast in the hours after the victory.
"I have some buddies that are in, like Diego Garcia, different places around the world," Cardona said. "That they were able to tune in was pretty special."
How does it stack up to other special showdowns?
"The Army-Navy game, you can't really find much to compare to that," he said. "The amount of pride service members take in that game, the amount of support we get from service members overseas, as well as just what that game means in the moment, it's hard to beat. It's really tough to compare the two. I will always cherish every Army-Navy game I ever got a chance to play in."
Cardona, right, and Patriots kicker Steven Gostkowski run onto the field prior to Super Bowl LI in Houston.
Photo Credit: Elise Amendola/AP
STAYING IN UNIFORM(S)
Cardona is based out of Navy Operational Support Center Newport, Rhode Island, near where he had served on active duty at the Naval Academy Preparatory School during his first season with New England. He moved to the Reserve just before the 2016 NFL season and is working on his supply officer qualifications.
Both the Navy and the Patriots have been accommodating dealing with his schedule requests, he said – including for the Super Bowl, when his request to reschedule his first-of-the-month drill weekend was granted.
While his academy service commitment was modified to allow an NFL career, it didn't vanish: He'll spend at least eight years in uniform. He said he hopes his time as a naval officer will outlast his time in the NFL.
So far, that NHL career has included five playoff games, two AFC title-game appearances and one wild night in Houston … one where the dome was going crazy even before the confetti dropped.
"Once overtime started, it was a madhouse on the sideline," said Cardona, who could've been called on to snap for a game-extending or -winning field goal in the extra frame. "Even just getting room to warm up was difficult. … Obviously, it was incredible to watch."
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.