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September 8, 2012
As the NFL's regular season gets under way this weekend, one player is adding another year to an already record-setting career. At 42, Detroit Lions place kicker Jason Hanson is the oldest active player in the NFL.
And despite playing a notoriously tenuous position, Hanson has also been with one team longer than anyone in the history of the league — no small feat in an industry where players often switch teams in search of a bigger paycheck or where a missed kick can cost you your career.
A High-Pressure Position
On a spacious practice field near Detroit, Hanson tugs a cap down over his balding head and surveys a Lions squad filled mostly with players about half his age.
"It's a crack-up. They call me 'Pops' and all kinds of hilarious things," Hanson says. "And I don't let my beard grow out much cause there's too much gray in it.
"As long as I don't look in the mirror on the way to the shower, I still feel like a player."
Hanson is entering his 21st consecutive season with the Lions — and he knows he could be one bad kick away from the unemployment line. When Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a short field goal last season, it cost the team a trip to the Super Bowl and Cundiff his job; he was cut from the team before the season began.
"Pressure-wise, it's as scary as anything in sports," Hanson says. In the NFL, "there's no forgiveness if you miss. And it's a lot of money at stake and a lot of jobs."
The stakes rise dramatically when a kick needs to be made from the magic midway point of the gridiron. Splitting the goal posts from 50 or more yards away is a measure of a kicker's worth — and scoring that goal is never a certainty, even for a veteran player.
In fact, Hanson did miss a 51-yard field goal attempt earlier this month in a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills. But he calls that particular kick an anomaly — not a sign that age is robbing his leg of its strength.
"I think over the last three or four years, I have as many 50-yarders as anyone in the NFL," Hanson says. "I feel like I need my team to know that I can still do that, for me to have a job. Otherwise, they'll go get a young guy who can."
No Lucky Charms
The Lions have auditioned other kickers over the years, as the team repeatedly changed coaches and general managers in search of a winning formula.
Peter King, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, says Detroit finally returned to the playoffs last year because the team's current regime infused the roster with talented youth — and committed to its seasoned kicker.
"These guys are not married to Jason Hanson. They're married to the guy who's going to help them win games," King says. "And year after year, training camp after training camp, he beats out the best and brightest from the guys in college football. And that's why it's so admirable a story to me."
That longevity has earned Hanson admiration both on the field and in the Lions' locker room.
"Kickers are kickers and specialists are specialists, in a locker room full of big guys and tough football players and everywhere," says Lions long snapper Don Muhlbach, who's spent the last nine seasons hiking the ball for Hanson to kick. "But he has a lot of respect. Twenty-one years in — that earns enough respect from everybody in here."
Muhlback says kickers from other teams who watch Hanson in pregames "just are in awe that he can still kick just as far — or farther — than them, and they're fresh out of college ... They're wondering how this guy can do it."
Kickers are often stereotyped as quirky, but Hanson says he has no lucky charms he touches before hitting the field. Instead, he strives to maintain a routine — to the point where he says his own kids find him a bit boring ... even while poking fun at him while playing a football video game.
"They'd go into the player profile [and] pull me up, make me like, 300 pounds," Hanson says. "Give me a neck roll, tattoos and stick me in the backfield. And just crack up as I was getting wiped out. ... It was horrible."
But back in the real world of the NFL, the Detroit Lions coaches appear confident that when the game is on the line, the oldest player in the league can still deliver the winning kick.