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Old man and the knee: Runyan eyes return despite injury issues

Stop me if you have heard this before. NFL veteran with an unbelievable streak of consecutive starts finishes the 2008 season on the field, even though he's injured. This player appears determined to play in 2009, even though some people, including me, think it would be better if he called it a career.

Brett Favre, right?

Nope. I'm talking about one of the few men I truly look up to based purely upon what he has accomplished in the NFL. It's funny, because as a former player I get asked all the time about who my favorite players are, and my answer is never the names they are expecting. They are looking to hear Manning or Brady or L.T., insteadof Faneca, Kreutz and Fletcher. You see, my heroes are any player who plays in the trenches and lines up pretty much every Sunday for more than 10 years. Think Jackie Slater and Ray Brown. Or perhaps the durability brothers, Bruce and Clay Matthews.

As a journeyman lineman who started 24 games over seven years before calling it a career as a result of herniated discs in both my back and neck, I am awed by the combination of mental and physical toughness. It's a trait that has been embodied in recent years by current free-agent offensive lineman Jon Runyan, a guy who has started 190 straight regular-season games at right tackle. Add in his 18 straight postseason games, and you get a grand total of 208 consecutive starts. That's crazy.

But Runyan's longevity is not the story here. His desire to continue playing, even after microfracture surgery at age 35, is. I caught up with him recently and asked why he still wants to punish a body that has already given him and his family so much.

"It becomes a thing where I have done it for so long, it is just what I do," said Runyan, who saw every penny of three substantial NFL contracts, beginning with four seasons with the Oilers/Titans, then for nine more with the Eagles. "I have been conditioned to do this at this point, and it is like I am in that rut. I am more than prepared to step away from the game, which really makes it easier to continue to play. I love the competition, I love the game and know I could move on but don't want to."

Runyan said his rehab from the Jan. 28 microfracture surgery, a somewhat controversial procedure that attempts to replicate cartilage in the knee that no longer exists, is going well and that he has not suffered any setbacks. But that doesn't mean he is ready to play football anytime soon either. He admitted he is still not able to even play basketball with his children. In fact, he sits in a chair with a lacrosse stick in tow to participate with his kids when they are throwing the ball around. Isn't that a deterrent to continuing his career? Isn't there a point when continuing to play reaps some very diminishing returns?

"I think about it when I can't go out in the driveway to play hoops or move at all when they are playing lacrosse," he said. "I think, Do I really want to jeopardize the next 15 years and maybe not be able to play with my kids?"

He has accepted he is going to have future orthopedic issues and has prepared for that reality to some extent by installing an elevator in the home he built in South Jersey. Runyan's logic appears to be that he has already resigned himself to getting a knee replacement (or two) down the line anyway, so he might as well keep playing, even though doing so will likely cause more damage. Whether that thought process makes sense is for others to judge. For Runyan, it is simple.

"Dr. [James] Andrews [the noted orthopedic surgeon who performed the surgery] thinks if I rest it the right way I will be fine and able to play, but he did say I will be back later in life," Runyan said. "I realize that when I turn 40 I am going to feel like I am in my late 50s/early 60s, and I just kind of accept that."

Part of Runyan's motivation stems from a desire to show he can still play at a high level and there's also the additional financial security he can provide by continuing to milk his body for every last drop. But he is not willing to do it on the cheap, in case some teams are thinking in that direction.

"There is a huge monetary value to it," he said. "I put myself out there and put myself at risk last year. I wasn't worried about the excitement of the season [during the Eagles late-season playoff run], I was more worried about just trying to play every week. I probably did a lot of damage to my knee by playing that last month or two. I am pushing myself to get back, but there is definitely a huge monetary component to it."

The Eagles have appeared to move on, acquiring former Buffalo lineman Jason Peters and former Bengal lineman Stacy Andrews in the offseason. Runyan doesn't begrudge them, saying, "If you hold onto people too long, the window will shut." But in the next breath he acknowledges he is up for the challenge of competing for the right tackle spot, his spot, should coach Andy Reid give him the opportunity.

"No matter what they did in free agency or moving guys around, [players] are going to get the opportunity to compete for the starting job," he said. "I know me, and I will win that competition."

The news that the NFL is going to look into tampering on the Redskins' part in their dealings with Albert Haynesworth would be funny if it weren't so sad. This is the type of selective enforcement that really doesn't make sense and hurts the league's credibility in the end. Instead of taking the time and expense to come up with a system that really makes sense, the league will attempt to prove something that everyone already assumes is true.

Free-agent tampering runs rampant every year and is generally accepted and expected. That is until some team, in this case the Titans, decides to make an issue of it. The league's investigation will be difficult because Haynesworth's agent, Chad Speck, also represents Redskins wide receiver Malcolm Kelly, thus there is no way of knowing exactly the basis of the conversations between Speck and Redskins personnel. In addition, one would have to assume the Redskins are smart enough to discreetly remove any evidence that could potentially be damning, if indeed a violation occurred.

And even if Washington were found guilty, what would be the repercussions? The 'Skins could possibly lose a draft pick and get fined, but if they were willing to pay $41 million guaranteed to get Haynesworth, would those sanctions really be all that disconcerting? I doubt it.

More important, will making an example of owner Daniel Snyder serve as a strong enough warning to prevent it from happening with other teams? No. So why the league is wasting its time with this in the first place? Hopefully it is just a dog and pony show to appease a Titans organization still bitter about losing its best player.

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