Lions' Hanson remains effective kicker after 20 seasons

By Pete Bigelow

New York Times News Service

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 23 2011 7:00 p.m. MST

Detroit Lions kicker Jason Hanson (4) kicks off against the Denver Broncos in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011, in Denver.

Joe Mahoney, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The biggest shock for Jason Hanson during his first NFL training camp was not the size or the speed of his new teammates. It was their age.

"They were so old," he said. "They were like fifth- or sixth-year guys. I was like, How do you play that long?"

Two decades later, teammates are asking Hanson the same question.

Now in his 20th season, every minute of it spent with the Detroit Lions, Hanson is the self-described "oldest, baldest, softest" player in the NFL. Earlier this season, he set the league record for most games with a single franchise — 305 and counting heading into Thursday's game against the Green Bay Packers.

"That's pretty crazy if you think about it," said center Dominic Raiola, himself an 11-year Lions veteran.

All the more remarkable because Hanson is a placekicker, one of the most itinerant positions in professional sports. Yet contract extensions have long been a mere formality for Hanson and the Lions.

Hanson is tied with the former offensive lineman Jackie Slater (Rams) and the former cornerback Darrell Green (Redskins) for the most years with one franchise. Yet some new teammates still mistake him for an assistant coach or a trainer.

Indeed, Hanson almost pursued being a doctor — medical school beckoned if pro football did not pan out — but that has only cemented his status as a local legend.

"Aside from Barry Sanders, he's been the most steady, go-to player this organization has had in a while, and his name rings throughout the state," said tight end Tony Scheffler, who grew up rooting for the Lions in the farming community of Chelsea, Mich., 60 miles west of Detroit.

"I can remember watching him as a kid," Scheffler said. "I'm 28 now, and it's still pretty cool to see him. It's a pretty surreal experience. I find myself just staring at the guy once in a while."

Some measures of his longevity: At 41, Hanson is easily the oldest player on the team. Punter Ben Graham, the second oldest, is 38. Hanson can recall playing in the franchise's former home, the Silverdome, which was sold in late 2009 for $583,000 and is now used for monster-truck events. He is the only current Lion who played with Sanders, who retired after the 1998 season.

During his tenure, Hanson has witnessed some of the most dreadful football in NFL history, including a winless season in 2008. But he is quick to say that he is so old, he can remember when the Lions were good. Before Detroit compiled a 33-101 record between 2001 and 2009 — the league's worst mark in that stretch — it reached the playoffs in five of the previous seven seasons.

Hanson has been around long enough to play for a contender again. The Lions (7-3) are one of the NFL's success stories, thanks to an offense averaging 30.1 points a game, third best in the league, and a revamped front seven on defense. Although Hanson is cautious about sounding too exuberant with a significant amount of the season left, he is clearly having fun again.

That did not seem to be the case before the season. Hanson has not been to the Pro Bowl since 1999, and injuries limited his productivity the past two seasons. Then the team brought in Dave Rayner to compete with him for the kicking job in training camp.

Hanson has responded with one of the best seasons of his long career.

"I've heard a few times this year, 'Wow, he's old, but he can still kick far,'" he said. "I've been waiting for a few years to show that, but never really had the chance because I'd been hurt. So it feels good to contribute to us winning and do it in front of people coming to see us play."

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