Pitmaster

Shannon Snell used to make pancakes on the gridiron, but now, he does a different kind of cooking: barbecuing.

When the state of Florida went on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Snell saw the opportunity to make a difference,and help those in need with his barbecuing.

Before he made his transition to cooking, Snell played offensive guard at Florida from 2000 to 2003.

He was a three-year starter for the Gators, earning first-team All-American his senior year. Then, he played in the NFL for two years with Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars.

After his football career was over, Snell went to school to become a certified pitmaster, and he eventually wound up at Sonny’s BBQ.

He said he developed this passion at a young age from his grandfather who would cook ribs at holiday gatherings. He also added that those times reminded him of a conversation he had with his mother when he was in high school.

“My mom asked me what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to cook.” he said. “And she didn't know what that meant and neither did I at the time, but I just always revert back to that time of my grandpa cooking those ribs, and he would be smoking stuff on a smoker. I was like, ‘One day I want to become good at that.’”

Snell said that his wife told him that football wasn’t going to last forever and that he needed to find something to do after his playing career was over.

So, he went to school to learn how to become a certified pitmaster.

“It was actually years of long classes that I had to take and it was different kinds of tests,” Snell said. “A lot of times people say, ‘how do you become a certified pitmaster?' because you could cook them in your backyard.

"Sonny's is really an intensive, long period, that you have to do this kind of stuff, to become a certified pitmaster, not just a title that is given, it is something that people have done.”

He added that the position of a certified pitmaster shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“A pitmaster is somebody that is looking to perfect their craft in barbecue, and a certified pitmaster is somebody who has done the right things to take those steps,” Snell said. “Not all barbecue is the same.

“It is a learning process every single day because not every person is going to cook the same way. So we have good briskets and bad briskets, have great ribs and bad ribs, so it's just trying to perfect every single day to have that perfect bite, that perfect brisket, that perfect piece of pork, that that you cook and somebody will say, ‘Man this is amazing.’”

After becoming a certified pitmaster, Snell has worked at Sonny’s BBQ for the last 13 years.

Since mid-April, Snell has used his talent and platform as a former Florida football player to give back to frontline workers. He has traveled around Florida to deliver barbecue to nurses, doctors, police officers, Gators fans and people in need.

He said the movie “Pay It Forward” inspired him to perform these random acts of kindness.

“I was watching a movie, “Pay It Forward”, watching the kids do random acts of kindness,” Snell said. “Everyone seemed kind of gloom and doom, and I wanted to kind of spread some positivity and kindness around. Hopefully, that gets the message across to everybody that a small act of kindness can really change a person’s day, a person’s life, and I want everyone to try to pay it forward.”

Snell said his barbecue drive-by deliveries make people have to worry about one less thing.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and people are nervous about life,” he said. “The last thing I want is someone to be nervous about grabbing some food.”

Snell said he visited Gainesville Police Department and UF Health Shands during National Nurses Week in the second week of May.

“I was out at GPD where I visited them this past week, and we just did national nurse week, where we delivered 450 meals to the Shands nurse unit out there,” he said. “So, we want to make sure that we target people that are in need or people that need their spirits lifted a little bit.”

He added that it was important to make a stop to visit frontline workers who are sacrificing their family and personal health for strangers.

“It was one of those things where really I think it’s a thankless job where everybody is worried about their own health and the health of the family,” Snell said. “You’re talking about people that find a way to go in and really put their lives on the line when it’s not really asked of them either when they sign up for the job.”

Ahmad Black, a former safety at UF from 2007 to 2010, never played a down with Snell but has gotten to know him because they are both former Gators.

“Ever since I’ve met him, he’s been an A1, stand-up guy, always being extremely nice,” Black said. “I think if a person didn’t know Shannon and just happened to see him, they would be like, ‘Wow, this is a huge human being, but one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.’”

He said that with the pandemic going on, this is the perfect time for people to show what kind of heart they really have.

“Everyone’s up in an uproar because they don’t understand what’s going on, they have questions, or they are fearing the unknown,” he said. “Shannon is taking advantage of this opportunity to change lives. And some people aren’t eating right now because they lost their money and jobs, and he’s just making sure that people who are needy have food on the table.”

Black says Snell is doing these deliveries out of the goodness of his heart and not for recognition.

Snell brought Black lasagna made with brisket a couple days after his son was born on March 4. Black was upstairs in his room when he saw Snell drop off some food for him without knocking on his door. Snell just took a picture and left the food on his doorstep.

Ben Troupe played tight end for the Gators and was part of the same 2000 recruiting class with Snell.

Troupe said he never expected Snell to become a pitmaster at Sonny’s. Instead, he thought Snell would become a commentator at ESPN after football.

He said most former football players and athletes are only remembered for the things they did on the field. Troupe added that he admires Snell because of the passion he has outside of football and how he has developed a new identity for himself.

“I think he's showing people that it really doesn't matter the fact that he's like a pitmaster, but I think he's showing who he really is as a person,” he said. “And that's the one thing about being an athlete that people don't see us as people. They see us as public figures, and he's utilizing that platform in the right way, and I'm super duper proud of Shannon.”

He said he thinks his mentality as an offensive lineman contributed to him developing a strong character.

“Shannon was an offensive lineman, so his talent was about making the people around him better,” Troupe said. “He also believed the man next to him was far more important, which he grew up doing his whole life, and what he is doing now is an extension of that. You can't be yourself as an individual playing the position that he played and you can't be a selfish individual being as successful as he was.”

Finally, Snell said he doesn’t think the barbecue drive-bys are going to end anytime soon.

“Everyone is like when is this going to stop,” he said. “It’s not really going to stop. Obviously, we started something and my Dad always told me that if you start something, to finish it. The goal of mine is to have people pass it forward. I hope others create their own barbecue drive-by whatever that may mean to them because it’s about kindness and passing it forward.”

Follow Zachary on Twitter @zacharyahuber and contact him at [email protected].

Zachary Huber covers men's tennis for the Alligator. This is his first semester working for The Alligator. He's a junior studying journalism at UF.