Flowery Branch, Ga.-- Centers are rarely the members of a football team to set records.
In fact, it's long been said that if anyone's talking about a member of the offensive line, he's likely not doing his job well.
However, Todd McClure is a center worth talking about, and the talk should be about how long and how well he's done his job.
If McClure, 33, can maintain a streak of good health through this year's training camp, when the Falcons' 1999 seventh-round draft choice snaps the ball to quarterback Matt Ryan in Pittsburgh to begin the 2010 campaign, he'll set the franchise record for consecutive starts with 129, breaking former linebacker Keith Brooking's mark.
McClure, entering his 12th season with the Falcons, believes he's blessed to have even been given the opportunity to come close to such an achievement. The reign as Atlanta's full-time center for nine consecutive seasons meant his family could place roots in the city that provided him his first NFL opportunity.
A man of faith, he doesn't hesitate to recognize a higher authority's hand in his longevity either. He knows when September 12 comes, it won't be an accomplishment he carries strictly on his shoulders.
"The good Lord has blessed me with my health and being able to stay healthy," McClure said recently. "I'm just looking forward to getting that point, to that first game, as the whole team is. We want to get through training camp, that's the worst part of what we do. It'll be an exciting day and I couldn't have done it without the Lord being on my side."
But during McClure's rookie season, none of this seemed possible. A career as one of the more solid centers of the past decade felt well out of reach for McClure, over before it hardly began.
Fresh off the 1998 Super Bowl run, the Falcons newest center prospect tore his ACL on the second day of training camp. But in a move that speaks to McClure's toughness, he got off the ground and finished practice on a mangled knee. Once the news came that he would miss the remainder of the season, however, he thought his football career may face a cruel and sudden ending.
"That day when I tore my ACL I thought my career was over with before it even got started," said McClure. "If you'd asked me that day if I thought I'd be playing this long I probably would have told you no. I never would have thought it. I've just worked hard and I enjoy what I do, playing football, a child's game, for a living and getting paid pretty well. I've made a good career of it and hopefully I've got a few more good years in me."
Now as the most tenured Falcon on the roster, McClure recognizes everything that has gone into getting him to this stage in his career makes him a leader on the team, specifically the offensive line. He's seen centers come to Atlanta to win his job, but thus far he's always emerged as the last man standing. The sage veteran is realistic, however - he knows his life after football is in sight.
In 2010 the Falcons have once again added a young center to the mix in fourth-round pick Joe Hawley from UNLV. McClure understands he's expected to mentor a player that could eventually replace him. But he views it as just another opportunity to help the team while teaching a young player who he'll be watching from his recliner at home during his post-playing days.
"There are been several centers that have been drafted before that were expected to replace me," McClure said. "When those guys come in, when Joe came in, I told them all the same thing. 'Any questions you've got, I'll be there to help you.' That's the only way to go about it. That's the only way you're going to be a good team because if something happened to me during the season and I go down, we expect him to be able to step right in and play. I know I can't play forever, so I'd like to play a part in helping somebody along and know I had a part in it when my career is done."
As McClure ponders a life without football as every player eventually must, the camaraderie of his position group is what he'll miss the most. He considers himself the stoic manager of a young, hungry group of players that are as much characters, bullies, and court jesters as they are football players.
But at the end of the day, or the start of the game, he knows he can look to his left and right and see a player that is committed to their common goal, whether it's keeping Ryan upright or giving running back Michael Turner a lane twice the size of what he needs.
"We've got a great group," McClure said of his fellow offensive linemen. "It's probably one of the best groups we've had since I've been here as far as the personalities and how everybody gets along. We have a lot of fun doing this. When we're in our meetings, we take care of business, but we have a fun time. Out on the field there's a lot of hollering and screaming and we kind of motivate each other. If you're not feeling so good it helps to get through it. It's a great group of guys and I really enjoy playing with them."
At 6'1", 301 pounds, McClure was never blessed with awe-inspiring size or a first-round reputation. The 2008 USA Today All-Joe Team member believes the mental aspect of his game has aided in his permanence in an Atlanta Falcons uniform.
"I've seen guys come through over the years that had all the talent in the world but if they're jumping offsides because they don't know the snap count or they're having a lot of mental errors, they can't play the game no matter how strong, fast, or quick they are," said McClure. "The majority of it is mental. Once you get this game down and you know what defenses are doing, it all slows down for you. Then you can use your physical abilities to go out and perform well."
Since taking over the center position in Week 9 of 2000, McClure's seen every snap of every Atlanta game with the exception of the season finale in 2001, which he missed with a foot injury. When his name is etched into the team's record books in September his longevity will affirm his unique faith-based, mental and physical approach to the game.