Former Packers LB Lenon will start in Super Bowl
JERSEY CITY, N.J.—Paris Lenon will be the starting middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.
It's startling even to type that sentence. Astronomical doesn't begin to describe the odds against it happening.
Lenon, in his slow, sweet Virginia accent, acknowledges his impossible journey but doesn't dwell on it.
After beating his way through pro football's bush leagues and outlasting every single one of his contemporaries, Lenon finds himself in the same position that Hall of Famers Ray Nitschke and Willie Lanier were when the Super Bowl began 48 years ago.
“I got some game, man,” Lenon said on Wednesday. “I've always had faith in my ability, and I've always been a late bloomer. I'm cut from a different cloth, I guess.”
Fans of the Green Bay Packers might remember Lenon. Then again, they might not.
In 2005, the last of his four seasons playing under coach Mike Sherman, Lenon started 12 games and probably was the club's second best linebacker behind Nick Barnett.
But the Packers went 4-12 and Lenon, an unrestricted free agent, said he never had a conversation with GM Ted Thompson or his new coach, Mike McCarthy.
“I did talk to the linebacker coach, Winston Moss,” recalled Lenon. “I saw him in the movie theater (in Green Bay). He pulled me to the side and we talked for a little while. He said he'd love to work with me. What they offered me wasn't a minimum deal, but I got something better.”
Rod Marinelli, the new coach of the Detroit Lions, signed Lenon to a three-year, $4.6 million contract that included a $1.8 million signing bonus. Just about everyone in Green Bay was blown away.
A two-year starter for the University of Richmond Spiders, Lenon didn't even make it to the padded practices at his first two NFL stops.
Carolina coach George Seifert cut him June 19, 2000, but wrestling impresario Vince McMahon was starting a new league that spring called the XFL. Lenon played for the Memphis Maniax under former Green Bay assistant Kippy Brown, then signed with the Packers April 25 shortly after the last game.
Lenon, 36, is the only remaining XFL refugee in the NFL. Other than Oakland's Charles Woodson, he was the NFL's oldest defensive player this season.
Sherman, however, released Lenon on the eve of training camp. Seattle's Mike Holmgren gave Lenon a 12-day look in August before he was waived for a third time.
The Packers added Lenon to their practice late in the 2001 season before re-signing him in January and allocating him to Amsterdam of NFL Europe League. Upon returning to Green Bay, he made the team backing up Hardy Nickerson, Na'il Diggs and Nate Wayne.
“There was another guy we were talking about keeping over Paris,” said Ed Donatell, the Packers' defensive coordinator from 2000-'03. “I clearly remember that (John) Dorsey said, 'We're going to keep Lenon.' Give him credit.”
Eleven years ago, after Lenon barely played from scrimmage for a second straight season, I graded him thusly: “Reliable, willing and a good listener. Won't ever be a starter but he's versatile and has a burning desire to succeed. D.”
I confessed this to Lenon Wednesday.
“I've had my moments along the way where I proved to people I deserve to be here,” he said. “That's why I'm still here.”
Mark Duffner, who followed Bo Pelini as Lenon's second linebacker coach in Green Bay, said his pupil made phenomenal gains in speed and strength and “desperately wants to be in the starting lineup.”
Said Donatell: “You could see the speed and explosion. The guy was just untrained, and he wasn't a big guy.”
Lenon played about 90 percent of the snaps for the Lions at middle linebacker over the next three seasons. After going 0-16 in 2008, one of their personnel people said Lenon had been the team's most consistent player on defense.
Jim Schwartz, the new coach in Detroit, let Lenon walk when his contract expired. In May 2009, New England's Bill Belichick gave Lenon a $50,000 signing bonus as part of a one-year contract but let him go on the last cut.
Steve Spagnuolo, early in a 1-15 first season coaching the St. Louis Rams, added Lenon a week later and started him 10 times in the middle.
Unrestricted once again, Lenon found a home in Arizona (three years, $5.75 million, $750,000 in guarantees) under coach Ken Whisenhunt. His play-time percentages were 95.4, 95 and 93.9. Twice he was elected team captain.
A.J. Hawk and Lenon basically played the same position and a comparable number of snaps, frequently calling signals, over the last eight regular seasons. It's interesting that Lenon has 20 turnover plays (interceptions, fumbles forced, fumbles recovered) for his three teams whereas Hawk has 17 for Green Bay.
When it was suggested to Lenon that he must have moments in his career when he played great and was proud, he brightened and then replied, “Not yet.”
In March, Lenon was cast aside in free agency amidst a coaching change for the third time. With his age becoming a distinct disadvantage, it wasn't until Aug. 20 that the call came from the injury-riddled Broncos.
“I understand that,” Lenon said. “That's cool. But at some point you're going to need somebody to come in and go to war.”
For the last two years, Lenon became a devotee of a performance center in Scottsdale, Ariz., that he claims has enabled him to have a better body at 36 than he had at 25. His weight (236) remains the same, but his body fat stands at 6 percent, not 12 percent.
“Before I found that place (Performance Enhancement Professionals) I still put a lot of time in,” he said. “A lot more than everybody else.”
Amazingly enough, Lenon also grew. Measured at 6-foot-1¼ by NFL scouts 15 years ago, he is 6-2 now.
In Denver, Lenon basically played special teams until Game 13, when the coaches decided to relieve undersized Wesley Woodyard of his duties in the base defense and let him concentrate in nickel packages.
With Lenon averaging 28.3 snaps over the last six games, the Broncos have allowed rushing yields of 92.2 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. With Lenon playing merely eight snaps in the previous five games, those yields were 132.4 and 4.6.
“Paris really understands football and he does have outstanding speed,” linebackers coach Richard Smith said. “We don't time him in the 40 but let me tell you, he plays quick. We've got to try to slow him down. He's done a remarkable job.”
Check out the AFC Championship Game. On the Patriots' second play, Lenon beat center Ryan Wendell to the spot and halted LeGarrette Blount for no gain.
Later, Lenon took on pulling guard Logan Mankins, shed him and tackled Blount after a gain of 2 yards.
“He consistently puts himself in the right spots and does the right things,” said Pat Ruel, the Packers' assistant offensive line coach early in Lenon's career who now holds the same post in Seattle. “Maybe he has learned this over time.
“Remember. One man's trash is another man's treasure.”
In my annual rankings of unrestricted and “street” free agents, Lenon was one of 43 players listed in March 2006. He's the only one still playing.
“High football IQ and a deep passion for the game,” said Dorsey, now general manager in Kansas City. “Those are the intangibles personnel guys sometimes can't see. The will to win is within his soul. I think that's a big deal.”
Each time Lenon's teams have played Dorsey's and Donatell's, there are man hugs all around.
“It's awesome to see what he's continuing to do,” said Darrell Bevell, the Seahawks' offensive coordinator and another ex-Packers assistant who was with Lenon way back when.
If this is it for Lenon, his next move will be a natural one. A fitness fanatic, he should transition seamlessly into the high-tech training world as an instructor.
He also wants more time to spend with his wife, the former Heather Vanden Heuvel of Green Bay, and their three children.
From 2006-'12, Lenon and the teams for which he played endured a composite record of 29-83. When Lenon was reminded that he hasn't won much, he said simply, “I've got a chance now.”