Cameron Kaye and Luke Masterson are finishing up what they hope is a portion of their football careers together Saturday.
The two were youth football teammates — and friends — growing up, and then played football together all four years at Gulf Coast High School before Kaye, a long snapper, went to Troy, and Masterson, a linebacker, went to Wake Forest.
Saturday, they'll be together as their college careers close in the Hula Bowl all-star game in Orlando. Riverdale grad and UCF offensive lineman Cole Schneider also is playing in the game, which was moved from its usual Hawaii location due to renovations at the stadium there.
"He's one of my great friends and it's awesome to spend this week with him and kind of finish our college careers," Masterson said of Kaye.
The two first met through Riley Mitchell, who was a mutual friend.
"We basically all grew up together through youth football and high school football," Kaye said of Mitchell and Masterson. "All three of us are really great friends."
In college, Kaye and Masterson saw each other briefly when they'd both come home for breaks during the season, but this week has been a time to really catch up outside the rigors of college football.
"You're so engulfed in college football, there's minimal contact with the outside world," Kaye said. "We both understood we had pretty strenuous schedules."
Snapping into it
Kaye was a defensive end and tight end in high school, but the long snapper duties got added to his responsibilities.
"How everybody gets into long snapping is their team needs one," he said.
Teammate Mike Scott showed Kaye the ropes on snapping. And then it turned into something else. Kaye's mother started looking up camps online, and they started going to some of those during the summer.
"The first one was in Dallas," Kaye said. "It was cold and it was early but it was a lot of fun. The first camp is really what got me hooked to it. I kind of found that passion."
Kaye was passionate, and he was good. Good enough that he got what most long snappers get for Division I football — preferred walk-on offers. He ended up picking Troy, a Sun Belt Conference school in Alabama. He redshirted as a freshman, then played his second year. After that, he received a surprise at practice one day. Kaye was put on scholarship.
Counting the redshirt year, this was Kaye's sixth in college football, and fourth on scholarship. He already had an undergraduate degree in exercise science and added a master's in kinesiology in December.
Being a long snapper is one of the most unsung positions in the game. As long as he doesn't make a mistake.
"It's definitely a position that lives in the shadows of football," Kaye said.
That doesn't mean it's not one of the most important. A bad snap on a punt can set up a touchdown or directly result in one. A bad one on a field goal or extra-point attempt can mean no points.
Kaye's done it well enough that most fans probably haven't noticed during a game, but he's reaped the rewards off the field.
He was nominated for the Wuerffel Trophy for community service in 2020, led the Sun Belt and was ranked third in the Group of Five conferences and 14th nationally among long snappers by Pro Football Focus in 2019.
This season, Kaye was named a Special Teams U Third-Team All-American in November and was a semifinalist for the Patrick Mannelly Award, which goes to the nation's top long snapper. He entered this season with 500 snaps in his college career with a 99.8% success rate.
After playing in the Hula Bowl, Kaye will go to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 29.
"It's definitely rewarding when you do get nominated for an award, or make one of those all-conference or All-America team lists," he said. "People kind of see what you do, and how well you do it. That's kind of like the cherry on top.
"But you're not going to have your poster on the side of the stadium."
Kaye was in the spotlight briefly this season -- and again for something good. At South Carolina, he recovered a muffed punt at the Gamecocks 19 in a game the Trojans eventually lost 23-14. His mom, dad, fianceé, and stepmother happened to be there.
"That was awesome," Kaye said. "That was really cool to have my senior year, kind of going out with a bang.
"The returner misjudged the ball. It came off his fingertips. I just stuck my foot in the ground and turned around as fast as I could. I grabbed it, tucked it, and I held on to that ball for dear life."
Kaye's family is in the unique position many times of being glad the offense can't get a first down.
"They're the only ones cheering when we're giving the ball away," he said with a chuckle.
But there are the parts of Kaye doing his job that everyone is cheering for. Two seasons ago, Kaye snapped the ball on a game-winning field goal as time expired, and he's had a couple of other late-game field goals that turned out to be game-winning ones.
"It's just another rep," Kaye said. "The snap's the same distance. The kick's from where it's from. It's not like it's different from any other field goal. The uprights are in the same spot. It's just the time on the clock and the score that's just a little different."
Making the most of an extra chance
Masterson's career at Wake Forest has been a "little different" in many aspects.
Injuries dampened portions of his three seasons before this one.
He saw increased playing time as a redshirt freshman, playing in 10 games, but then missed three games due to a preseason injury as a sophomore, then played only 12 games combined in 2019 and 2020.
But Masterson decided to come back and use his "COVID year" of eligibility this season, and it was different in a good way.
He shifted from a safety or rover position to linebacker, played in all 14 games, and had a team-high 85 tackles, 57 solo tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks.
"I think I've had a little time to reflect over the past month or two," Masterson said. "It's hard when you're in it, but I'm grateful for all of the experiences that I had. I had a couple of injuries that were frustrating, but I think coming back for my last year was one of the best decisions I've made.
"I had faith in the guys that we had coming back. I knew that we could special. And I kind of believed in myself playing a new position."
The Demon Deacons won their first eight games and were ranked as high as No. 13 before losing 58-55 at North Carolina. Still, Wake Forest won its division, then lost in the ACC Championship to Pittsburgh.
"It was incredible," Masterson said. "It was probably the most fun I had playing football. I really enjoyed my time with all of my teammates. We all genuinely cared for each other."
The Deacons made the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against Texas A&M. Then the Aggies had to withdraw due to COVID-19 and other issues.
Masterson couldn't help but recall the 2020 season, beset by the unknowns nearly every week of whether a game would actually be played.
"That was kind of an eerie feeling -- frustration, disappointment," he said.
But the Gator Bowl had enough time to find a replacement, and Rutgers from the Big Ten agreed to play. Masterson tied for the team-high with seven tackles in a 38-10 victory on Dec. 31.
"It definitely gave myself and some of the other seniors some closure to a great year," he said. "I'm glad that we finished the season the right way."
Like Kaye, Masterson already has an undergraduate degree with a double major in economics and communication and a minor in entrepreneurship and social enterprise and graduated in December with a master's in sustainability.
While Kaye and Masterson didn't get to play in college as teammates, they got the bonus of having younger brothers do so. Kaye's younger brother Griffin was at Troy for one year, and Luke's brother Christian was a walk-on at Wake Forest this season.
"I never got to play with him because he was always so much younger than me," said Masterson, whose brother Adam played at Stetson. "It was awesome, especially him being able to be there for such a special year, and sharing those memories with him."
Kaye and Masterson are moving on to the next stage of their lives -- personally and, they hope, professionally.
Kaye and his fianceé Kate, a former soccer player at Troy, are planning to get married in July in her hometown of Normal, Illinois. Masterson has a lot less time to take that step. He and his fianceé Sara are getting married a week from Saturday.
But first, there's a football game. And then maybe more after that.
"I'm really just taking every day like a job interview," Masterson said.
Masterson's move to linebacker turned out to be a good one, and he hopes pro scouts see that development come draft time.
"I switched full-time to linebacker and put on a little bit of a weight," he said. "I think the position requires a lot of what I'm good at. It allows me to play instinctual."
Kaye already has more of a track record when it comes to his position, albeit not one that's as much of a priority during the draft.
"I just want to get in front of many eyes as I can, as many scouts as I can, and prove to them that I'm worth it," he said.
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at email@example.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Gulf Coast grads Cameron Kaye, Luke Masterson playing in Hula Bowl