Colts' Saturday was integral in preserving NFL Sundays

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I can't help but think no matter what the veteran Colts center accomplishes in this 2011 season, his 13th in the NFL, Saturday likely has already done his best and most important work of the year. On this Thursday, of all days, with the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement finally slated to be buttoned up and put to bed for the next 10 years (praise be!), Saturday's pivotal role in ensuring football labor peace is a story that's well-timed and needs telling.

Simply put, Saturday, the Colts' well-respected player rep, was consistently viewed as one of the foremost voices of reason in the long and often contentious labor negotiations. While fiercely and passionately representing the cause and concerns of the players, he also earned and held the respect of the owners and league executives on the other side of the table, who often reached out to him to help steady things when the talks reached one of its many various boiling points or impasses. He was that rare actor in this fight who could speak to both sides and help calm the situation and bridge their differences, rather than divide and inflame.

"During the whole process, [NFL commissioner] Roger [Goodell] told me several times, he said if it wasn't for Jeff, sometimes I don't know where we'd be,'' Colts owner Jim Irsay said Wednesday night, following his team's first padded practice of the preseason. "Roger had a great relationship with Jeff, and he really did play a huge role in getting this thing done.''

League sources in the NFL office told me Thursday that Saturday was instrumental in finding common ground between two sides that often couldn't agree on the most basic of realities. "The universal impression of Jeff was that he was the glue who helped keep things together, and he really brought people together throughout the course of the negotiations,'' one league source said. "Roger [Goodell] trusts him implicitly, and while he was a very strong advocate for the players, his personality and nature is to help people come together.''

As one of the two team player reps who stuck with the long and arduous negotiations from acrimonious start to frantic finish -- Ravens cornerback Dominique Foxworth was the other -- Saturday gained credibility and respect for his commitment level and his grasp of the nitty-gritty details of the complicated deal. We've all seen so much TV footage in recent months of Saturday filing out of another labor negotiation session that I almost didn't recognize him Wednesday when I saw him in a football setting once again, sporting his familiar No. 63 jersey.

I had to ask him if he really knew what he was signing up for when he first agreed to take part in the negotiations, an open-ended commitment that wound up stretching into weeks and months?

"Oh, absolutely not. No chance,'' Saturday said, with a laugh. "Fox [Foxworth] made fun of me all the time, because I was sporting the same jacket time and time again. I was down in Florida with my wife and kids, and I don't have any jackets or suits in Florida. So I got that jacket, a couple of button-up shirts and some jeans, and that was my wardrobe the whole time. People made fun of me, but that's all I had. I wasn't going back to Indy to get clothes. I went with what I had. Fox told me I should retire that jacket when an agreement got signed, so it's put up in the closet for good.''

Sartorial limitations aside, Saturday grew into such a role of leadership within the negotiations that he virtually couldn't have excused himself from the talks, even if he wanted to at times. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones grew to trust Saturday so much that he not once, but twice let Saturday use his corporate jet to fly home to Amelia Island, Fla., during breaks from negotiations. Jones and Saturday actually rode together on the plane coming from a negotiation session in Minnesota in June, with Jones headed for a vacation home in Destin, Fla. And during the final stage of the CBA talks in July, Jones insisted that Saturday use his jet to fly alone from New York City to Amelia Island to spend the weekend with his family.

"I truly felt so sensitive to the fact that he was taking so much of his offseason time away from home, with hours and hours and weeks and weeks invested in the negotiation process,'' Jones told me Thursday morning on the phone. "It's one thing when you've done these types of meetings for years, but something else when you've got young children and you're away for that long.

"On that first trip, he got to listen to me tell those old war stories for two or three hours, and just as his temperament was throughout the negotiations, he listened and was very interested the whole time. But it was just a great chance to get to know him better, and to talk about the issues. And then later, there we were standing in Times Square, and I just couldn't stand it that he was miles and miles away from that family of his, so I had to do it. He took the plane and got home for the weekend.''

As generous as he has been known to be, Jones quickly added that he's not in the habit of lending out his plane. But Saturday came to be seen as the key individual among the players' leadership, and he was one of the few people in the negotiations, maybe the only one, that everyone on both sides seemed to trust. At the risk of overstatement, his calming and uniting presence was nearly indispensable.

On the day before talks broke down between the players and owners back in early March, resulting in the beginning of the lockout, it was Saturday who Goodell called in an effort to make some progress, meeting with him privately for about an hour in the lobby of Saturday's Washington D.C. hotel. And a year ago this month, when Goodell visited Colts training camp here in Anderson to address the players and talk about the looming labor stand off, it was Saturday who had to quickly diffuse a tense and heated situation between the commissioner and several players who were growing angrier by the second at Goodell's talking points.

"That was a rather intense meeting,'' Saturday recalled. "You're talking about men's livelihoods, and men who are very protective of their families and the careers they have laid before them. So it did get heated. I just jumped up and said, 'Hey, we're not going to get anywhere doing this. He's heard what our opinion is, he knows where you guys stand. There's no reason to keep going. We're not gaining anything by doing this. Just stop.' ''

Saturday admits there were many fruitless negotiation sessions during which he thought an answer to the league's labor stalemate would never come. He likened the process to endlessly turning the sides of a Rubik's Cube, waiting for the puzzle to finally solve itself.

"There were days when I didn't think we were going to get it done,'' he said. "I'd walk away and it seemed like the gap between us was too wide, and there was no way we were going to get there. But it really is about spending time and seeing how you can solve problems, and watching how many different owners or players stepped up on a specific issue to say, 'Let's look at it this way, or what if we did this instead of that?' ''

Saturday also provided what I think many considered a signature moment of closure for the messy labor battle between the players and owners. Ten years from now, one of the few things we'll all remember about the NFL lockout of 2011 is the sight of the 6-2, 295-pound Saturday wrapping New England owner Robert Kraft in a hug -- a Colt and a Patriot, no less! He did so to salute Kraft's sacrifice and commitment throughout the process at the joint player-league news conference in Manhattan that announced the agreement. Kraft had three days earlier attended the funeral of his beloved wife, Myra, who had died of cancer the previous week, and Saturday's act of humanity struck just the right conciliatory tone between the rival sides that were now once again business partners.

"So many people gave so much of their time and energy, players and owners alike,'' Saturday said. "It was important to all of us. But the thing that separated Mr. Kraft for me in that moment was what he was going through with the loss of Myra. And that she had encouraged him to go to these meetings, that was the most impressive part to me.

"Here's this lady who knows where she is, and she's fighting a good fight. But the reality is, she was fighting an uphill battle. Despite that, she would still encourage him to come work this deal, because she knew it was for the betterment of our game and our country. It was super impressive to me, and I know if I was in his place, I would have appreciated the gesture. It was heartfelt, and I meant it.''

Saturday's role in the CBA negotiations was largely a selfless one in many respects as well. As a 36-year-old veteran in the final year of his contract with the Colts, the only team he has ever played for, he wasn't likely to benefit much from a new labor deal. He was working on behalf of the NFL players to come, and the NFL players who had come before him. He could have easily said, as many league veterans in essence did, "Call me when this thing's over, I've already got my money. I'm set.'' But talk to anyone who knows Saturday, and they'll tell you that's not who he is, or what he's about.

"I told my team when we started this thing, this really has no effect on me,'' Saturday said. "I'll play a year or two under this thing, but my contracts were well before it. I'm doing this to leave the game better than I found it. That was always a goal I had. I really felt strongly that the position of leadership I was in, and the career I had gave me some credibility. Not only to the players, but to the owners as well. And when you get in that position, I feel like you should be able to use it to help.

"Going into the process, I realized really quickly how important this thing is, not only to players and owners, but to people outside of our game. My city in particular, with the Super Bowl coming up, there would have been consequences if we hadn't gotten a deal. When you just look at everything around our game and how good it is, and the impact people in the NFL make on their communities, to stop it, unless it absolutely had to be stopped, made no sense. I never saw a reason why we couldn't get something done that was fair for both players and owners.''

Peyton Manning's name might have been one of the most prominent on the lawsuit filed against the NFL by its players, but the reality is, it was Saturday, Manning's longtime friend and dependable center, whose fingers were all over this new labor deal. Not to mention the sweat equity and attention to detail he's known for. For a guy who owns a Super Bowl ring, has played in that game twice and been to more than his share of Pro Bowls, Saturday's most lasting contribution and legacy in the game might wind up being how he spent his long 2011 offseason.

"I'm obviously very proud of where we are, and for the majority of men in this game, getting this deal done is even more impactful to players that I'll never meet compared to me winning a Super Bowl,'' Saturday said. "Don't ever underestimate the Super Bowl. That's why you play the game.

"But I'm very proud of the deal that we put in place and I really do feel like our players will be better in the future for it, health wise, which is most important to me, and financially. These guys are going to make lots of money and be good football players for a lot longer than they have in the past because of the rules we have now. The game is going to be better because of this.''