Joe Cardona is a patriot in more ways than one. The long snapper became one of the highest drafted at his position in NFL history when the New England Patriots selected him in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but Cardona also serves in the military. The Naval Academy graduate is a current lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserves, and stays ready for action off the field.
"I never expected to get an opportunity to play in the NFL," Cardona told CBS Sports this week. "I grew up in San Diego, I grew up around the Navy and the Marine corps, so for me, having the opportunity when I got recruited to play football at the Naval Academy was a dream come true."
Cardona's willingness to stay prepared has greatly benefitted him throughout his life. The California native put his mind to service, but also hoped for a professional football career even though it would take the stars aligning for him to live his NFL dream.
"Throughout my last couple years of college football, I started to realize I had the talent to play in the NFL," said Cardona. "It was just whether I would get the opportunity at that point. I decided to position myself to get myself physically prepared and if the opportunity arose, I would be ready. Ultimately, a lot of it was timing, being given the opportunity to play at the NFL level and now years later I'm actually getting to live both dreams."
Cardona is quietly one of the most fascinating players in the NFL. Not only has he represented the military well, but also has found success in the NFL. He has played in 96 career games and also helped the Pats win Super Bowl LI and LIII, making him just the second Navy player -- behind legendary quarterback Roger Staubach -- to win the big game. It has been a journey built on hard work, as Cardona even had to pull off 24-hour shifts at the Naval Academy Preparatory School during his rookie season.
"My rookie year was a lot busier," Cardona laughed. "The NFL week starts on Wednesdays, so usually coach would give me a pass on Monday for film days as long as I got the film work in myself and my workout in. But yeah, I used to do 24-hour shifts on Tuesdays. A lot of it was definitely different than any of my other teammates' (schedules) -- a lot busier in a lot of ways -- but I didn't know any different. I just graduated from the Naval Academy where things are busy all the time, and for me, it's just put one foot in front of the other and take care of business on both ends. Fortunately, I survived it, luckily. Looking back, seven years down the road, it's like wow. That was pretty difficult to say the least. But I'm grateful I did it."
The Patriots were the perfect landing spot, as head coach Bill Belichick has fostered an environment of success built on discipline. It's too much for some players, as former Patriots have described their time in Foxborough as "militaristic." We asked Cardona if playing football in New England is like being in the military.
"Well, you can take it from the guy who has experience with both that it is a disciplined environment, but in no way is it close to a military environment," Cardona said. "Ultimately we have a goal, we have a singular mission -- so there are parallels. But when you diminish the job that is required of those in the military that put on the uniform every single day and the difficulty and the enormity of what it means to serve and compare it to having a job in the NFL ... as regimented as it may seem, we can't escape that we play a boy's game at the end of the day."
Cardona admits there are similarities, but it's not fair to the men and women who serve our country to compare their sacrifices to those of professional athletes. Belichick's seemingly strict way of leading certainly has something to do with his father, Steve, who served in World War II and coached at Navy for over three decades. Because of this, Cardona and coach Belichick have somewhat of a connection.
"Yeah, I would say that we were both really raised and developed in that Navy mindset," said Cardona. "For me, having gone to the Naval Academy I see parallels every single day in our building that remind me of Annapolis, remind me of the Naval Academy in just the way that we train and we prepare, and that's always been a comforting thing for me for sure."
For those like Belichick and Cardona, this long weekend and Memorial Day holds a different kind of importance, which is why the latter teamed up with USAA, official NFL Salute to Service Partner, to promote a special Memorial Day campaign. In remembrance of the more than 645,000 military service members who have given their lives in military conflict in service to our country since World War I, Cardona is encouraging all Americans to offer a digital tribute to our fallen military heroes by visiting PoppyInMemory.com.
"It highlights the service and sacrifice of those that have done so much to ensure our freedom," Cardona said. "They have the stories of the individuals that have fallen in combat. They also give you the opportunity to dedicate a digital poppy to a family, friend, loved one, anybody that has made that sacrifice for our freedom.
"Memorial Day can be treated as the summer -- take off (the day.) But for a lot of people it's a somber day. An opportunity to remember those that have fallen and given us this opportunity to have a summer to take off. It's a good reminder, and something to bear in mind."
So while you're out by the pool or lake enjoying this long weekend, take a second to appreciate your freedom and also remember that it comes with a price. Some heroes like Lt. Cardona work hard off the field to stay ready for whenever they are needed, but there are many other heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.
"Memorial Day is a lot more poignant because it's honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom," said Cardona. "It is a day that you can't take lightly because for so many families, for so many people that served where they had a friend killed in action -- it's a somber day. It's a hard day. Because you're confronted with the service and the sacrifice that those around you have made. For those that are reading this, hopefully they really reflect upon and remember those that have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can have a good weekend and we can live the lives that we do as free as we want to."