Sunday, December 05, 2010

After 19 Years, Hanson Still Has a Leg Up on His Teammates

If you ever met Jason Hanson, you might be tempted to ask him about the 1953 NFL Championship Game, and what it was like on the sidelines as Bobby Layne jogged onto the field, whiskey on his breath and a game-winning drive in his back pocket.

You’d like to ask about Doak Walker and what it was like to play for Buddy Parker. You’d want the juicy gossip about the gambling scandal involving Alex Karras and how sweet it was to beat the stuffing out of the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, 1962.

You might want to know how the locker rooms were at Tiger Stadium, and what it was like watching a counterpart kick a 63-yard field goal to beat your team at the final gun.

Hanson, the Lions kicker, hasn’t been with the team since the glory days of the 1950s. It just seems like he has.

Hanson is in his 19th season of kicking footballs for the Lions—19 seasons of suffering mostly abject failure, when it comes to the team’s dismal showing.

Hanson’s 2010 season is done with. Nearly two decades of swinging his leg into pigskins is taking its toll. In training camp there was arthroscopic surgery to his left knee. He has tendinitis in his right Achilles tendon. Now another injury, this one to his right knee, suffered in the game against the Jets last month.

The Lions put Hanson, 40, on injured reserve on Thursday, meaning he can’t play anymore this season.

You’d think that might be it for Hanson’s career. George Blanda, the kicker/quarterback who played until he was damn near 50 years old, died a few months ago but his kind truly died when he retired 35 years ago. The football player past the age of 40 is only a football player in name, like how we address former presidents of this country as “Mr. President” for life.

Hanson is 40 years old and has 19 seasons under his belt. But in kicker years, he’s 30 with 10 seasons played.

Guys who just kick can last amazingly long in the NFL anymore. For kickers, 40 is the new 30.

Hanson’s Lions career doesn’t go back to Buddy Parker, but it does go back to Wayne Fontes, and those years are further and further in the rearview mirror, ain’t they?

The Lions had just bid adieu to longtime kicker Eddie Murray, who booted footballs for them for 12 seasons (1980-91), when they drafted Hanson from Washington State University in 1992.

It’s deliciously fitting that the Lions should have great consistency at the position of kicker more than at any other on the roster. It’s so them.

The Lions have had two kickers, basically, since 1980. That’s 31 seasons of pro football. Some teams have had 10, 12, even more guys employed as kickers in that time frame.

In 1992, Hanson was The Guy Who’s Replacing Eddie Murray. Now he’s The Guy Who’s Still Kicking for the Lions, Can You Believe It?

But for how much longer? Hanson’s latest injury, easily the most severe he’s ever endured as a Lion, has folks wondering—can he make it back next year, when he’ll be 41 years old?

“It’s a bummer to already be thinking about next year,” Hanson said the other day.

But he’s not only thinking about next year; he’s planning on suiting up in his No. 4 uniform and being the Lions’ kicker, right on schedule.

“I feel like I can still kick," Hanson said. "You don't get to pick to your ending, but I don't feel satisfied finishing like this. So I'll do whatever it takes to make an effort to be at my best form next year and try it again."

Hanson joined the Lions when they were coached by Fontes, a playful buffoon whose tenure was vilified toward the end of it, but is now looked at as the salad days.

The Lions under Fontes went 9-7 and 10-6 a lot. They even managed to go 12-4, in 1991. Sometimes they’d win the division; other times, they snuck into the playoffs as the NFC Wild Card.

A Lions coach could be elected mayor of Detroit with such accomplishments nowadays.

Hanson has seen it all with the Lions, and that’s not a throwaway remark.

He’s played for Fontes, the self-anointed “Big Buck.” He’s played for Bobby “I Don’t Coach That Stuff!” Ross. He played for Gary “I Call My Veterans Upper Classmen” Moeller.

Then it was Marty “The Bar is High” Mornhinweg, followed by Steve “I Love Jeff Garcia” Mariucci.

Dick “I Used to Play for the Lions” Jauron was in there for a few games, followed by Rod “Pound the Rock” Marinelli. Now it’s Jim “I Treat Injuries Like Pentagon Secrets” Schwartz.

Hanson has played in the Silverdome and in Ford Field. He’s worn black alternate jerseys, blue throwbacks, and a few other incarnations in between. He played with Barry Sanders and Erik Kramer; Herman Moore and Scott Mitchell.

That’s eight coaches, probably 700-900 different teammates, two stadiums, a closet full of jerseys, and—this is the worst part—no playoff victories.

It’s a great trivia question: who was the Lions’ kicker the last time the team tasted a post-season win?

Not Hanson, who was drafted three months after the Lions beat the Dallas Cowboys on January 5, 1992.

It was Murray, who was let go because the Lions thought he was losing leg strength. And Eddie was just 35 years old when the Lions cut him loose. Just a baby.

Hanson is 0-5 in the playoffs as a Lion, but at least he can talk about what the playoffs are like. With the Lions, the playoffs are something spoken of around a campfire, or scrawled in hieroglyphics.

Hanson was actually present during playoff games, which makes him the team’s Yoda.

Now he’s hurt, with a bum knee on his kicking leg. Next year he’ll be 41. The end must be on the horizon, no?

“I hope and I think I'll be in top form again next year," Hanson said.

Why not? He’ll really only be 31, entering his 11th season.

Never trust a kicker’s birth certificate. They use some funny math.

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