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In Super Bowl This Sunday, Don't Forget The Guys Behind The Superstars

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you plan to watch the Super Bowl tomorrow - and I mean the football, not just the commercials - chances are your eyes will lock on to a few players. Obviously, the quarterbacks - Tom Brady of the Patriots and the Seahawk's Russell Wilson will get a lot of attention, especially that Russell Wilson. He's so dreamy. But less glamorous players who are less photogenic often have a huge impact on the game. Tomorrow, one of them could decide a championship. From Phoenix, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: You'd think New England center Bryan Stork - a 6'4, 310 pound mountain of a man - would want to come out of the shadows, tell the world his job. Squatting in front of the quarterback is a lot more fascinating and significant than it looks, you'd think.

BRYAN STORK: I'm snapping the ball.

GOLDMAN: You're doing more than that, though, aren't you?

STORK: I'm snapping the ball and blocking.

GOLDMAN: Bryan Stork seemed a little cranky that morning. Maybe it was his knee injury that could keep him out of tomorrow's game. Whatever the reason, I knew he knows an NFL center is a critical part of the offense, calling out signals to make sure his fellow offensive linemen are working as one, scanning the defense before the snap as if he's using "Terminator" vision. Listen to Seattle center Max Unger.

MAX UNGER: Yeah, you know, you come up, see what the front is - under, over - you know, where - am I covered, uncovered. And then check the linebackers out and then see where the safeties are. You know, if it's too high, you know, what are the two slots doing? If it's a 3 by 1, where's the safety, you know, middle of the field, close, stuff like that. And then just kind of make your calls.

GOLDMAN: Sure sounds involved, doesn't it? Indeed, if Unger gets that stuff wrong, it could mean Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch doesn't pick up key yardage. If he gets it right, it could mean quarterback Russell Wilson throws the winning touchdown pass. The center position, while in the shadows, at least doesn't elicit many giggles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CHARLIE BROWN AND SNOOPY SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Lucy) Come on, Charlie Brown. I'll hold the ball and you kick it.

GOLDMAN: I won't stoop so low as to say Ryan Allen is the Lucy of the New England Patriots. I mean, he never pulls the ball away from Stephen Gostkowski, best place kicker in the NFL. What he does do in a little over a second is receive the ball from the long snapper and place it - he hopes - in the perfect position.

RYAN ALLEN: You kind of got to just be an athlete and react a little bit. The less you think, the better you're going to do and the smoother you're going to do it.

GOLDMAN: The thinking happens in countless hours of practice - catching the ball from eight yards away, spinning it so the laces are away from the kicker all in one motion. These three amigos - long snapper, holder and kicker are mostly separated from the violent, adrenaline-fueled mayhem of football by the precision of their task. And Allen says they embrace it.

ALLEN: We take that persona of being kind of the shadow-dwellers or the science nerds or - because we are. Our positions are a lot different than everybody else's on the team. We have to be very poised. It's got to be very technical.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARV ALBERT: Ball is placed down and the kick from 53 yards out is good.

GOLDMAN: Including this one against Buffalo. Gostkowski was good a league-leading 35 times during the regular season, meaning Ryan Allen was good, too, although he says making Gostkowski comfortable is more important than recognition. Besides, Allen gets to soak up some limelight come game day. As the Patriots' punter, he has the ability to make big plays - or big mistakes - on his own. Tomorrow's Super Bowl is expected to be a tight contest with two evenly-matched teams. Little things might make the difference - a block, a ball placed just so - and the shadow-dwellers are ready. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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