FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When Todd McClure was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, they had just made it to the Super Bowl for the first time.
"You think it's going to be easy," he remembered.
It's not, of course.
Fourteen years later, McClure is still waiting for his first trip to the big game.
"I tell the young guys on this team that we have to take advantage of this opportunity," he said, "because it's not a given that you'll be in this position again next year."
When the Falcons (14-3) host the San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) on Sunday for the NFC championship and a spot in the Super Bowl, McClure will be in the middle of things, though chances are he'll barely be noticed.
He may be the center, but he's hardly the center of attention. McClure snaps the ball to get the play started, then fades into the background while players such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez grab all the headlines for the Falcons' high-octane offense.
But ask around the locker room, and everyone will say that McClure is the glue that holds the unit together.
"Todd has been huge for my career here in Atlanta," Ryan said. "He's a guy who doesn't get enough recognition. In all honesty, my first two years here, in terms of pass protection, Todd carried me. He really did. He set every protection, he got us on the right page, and he kept me clean."
A seventh-round pick out of LSU in 1999, McClure sustained a season-ending injury during training camp of his rookie year, raising doubts about whether he'd ever play in the NFL. He won a starting job the very next season and went on to set a franchise record with 148 consecutive starts.
McClure has gotten this close to the Super Bowl only other time. During the 2004 season, when he was snapping the ball to Michael Vick, the Falcons came up one win short, losing at frigid Philadelphia in the conference championship game.
Now, as the lone holdover from that team, McClure is back for another shot.
"This is why we play the game," McClure said. "That's why I'm still playing this game."
Local ties to NFC championship game
Today's NFC Championship Game between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers has three local player ties.
ALEX SMITH, 49ers quarterback: Former starter (nine games) is now backing up Colin Kaepernick. Smith played in 10 games this season — completing 153-of-218 passes for 1,737 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. Smith, pictured above at left with Frank Gore, also has 132 yards rushing on 31 carries.
TIM TOONE, Falcons wide receiver: The Weber State product is on Atlanta's roster. Toone, who was waived/injured with a hamstring pull in early September and re-signed in November, has yet to see any action. He did, however, make three catches in the preseason — including a 39-yard touchdown reception against Miami.
WILL TUKUAFU, 49ers defensive tackle: East High School graduate, who played his college ball at Oregon, has played in 14 games for San Francisco this season. He's made seven tackles, including five solo stops.
— Dirk Facer