*As part of the Green Bay Packers' celebration of the 10th anniversary season of the Super Bowl XXXI Championship, Packers.com is running a series of stories about the people responsible for bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy back home to Titletown.
In 1996, Mike Flanagan was perhaps as close as he possibly could be to never making it in the NFL.
And if the offensive lineman's career had been over before it started, it wouldn't have been because of talent, work ethic or desire.
No, Flanagan was well-qualified in all those areas. Instead, it was because the 6-foot-5, 290-pound center suffered an unfortunate and career-threatening injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Packers' second preseason game.
Drafted out of UCLA in the third round, Flanagan was a promising rookie who was being counted on to provide depth along the offensive line. However, that plan never materialized when he fractured both bones in his lower right leg while blocking on the opening kickoff. He was immediately placed on injured reserve and underwent surgery the next day to place a stabilizing rod in the larger bone of his lower leg.
The bad news obviously was that Flanagan had to sit on the sidelines and watch as his teammates won Super Bowl XXXI. Yet, if there was a bright side to all of this, Flanagan had an opportunity to learn the playbook, as well as a chance to learn from players such as fellow center Frank Winters, among others.
"I learned a lot of things behind guys like Frank," Flanagan said. "How you practice, how you carry yourself. Watching Reggie White carry himself in the locker room, watching Brett, who was so emotional on the field. Watching Mark Chmura in the weight room every day working his tail off.
"I came in as a young guy not knowing what you're getting yourself into. Those kind of guys -- Keith Jackson, Gilbert Brown, Doug Evans -- these guys that earned their bones and continued to earn their bones in the NFL. So I just watched them and learned from them as much as I could. I was a sponge."
Flanagan earned a Super Bowl ring and looked forward to the following season, but another stretch of bad luck occurred as the muscle and nerve damage suffered from the previous season's injury wouldn't allow him to get on the field. Flanagan went on the reserve/physically unable to perform list (PUP) and though he practiced for a short time, team doctors concluded that it was too big a risk to clear him for game action.
It turned out to be another lost season for Flanagan and at that point, one might have started to question whether he was ever going to make it in the NFL. Even Flanagan wondered whether it was meant to be.
"There's always doubts that creep in and out," Flanagan said. "I just took the attitude that whatever happened, whether it worked out or didn't work out, I was never going to look back and say 'Would've, could've, should've. If I would have worked harder, if I would have gotten this surgery, if I would have rehabbed differently.'
"I didn't want to have that ever come into the back of my mind, so I just had to go forward with the idea that I would be there and it would happen. But at the same time, if I had a bad day, or if I was told that I had to go in for another surgery, doubts definitely would creep into my mind."
Despite these challenges, Flanagan maintained his goal of playing in the NFL and worked hard to get back to where he needed to in order to become a productive starting center. For the first time in what seemed like forever (in reality it was two seasons), Flanagan was healthy and it appeared as if his Packers career was finally getting untracked.
But then the unexpected happened. Flanagan learned he had been traded to the Carolina Panthers. Again, it was another challenge that Flanagan had to overcome. As if he hadn't been twisting in the wind enough, the trade was rescinded when Flanagan flunked his physical.
"I was scared," he admitted. "I didn't know what the hell was going on. I just finally made the roster for the first time where there was no injury tag on me and I may not have been on the 45, but I was on the 53. But the next day they said I had been traded.
"So I didn't know what was happening. It's just part of the business. I remembered talking to Ron (Wolf) after it happened and he said, 'Hey, I didn't want to trade you, but they offered me more than what you're worth. So have a nice ride.'"
He laughs now when he tells the story because Flanagan knew Wolf wasn't pulling any punches with him.
"That was Ron," he said. "He wasn't meaning to be mean or rude. It was just Ron's that type of guy. If you don't want to know the truth, don't ask."
Though he didn't play much in '98 or '99, he was slowly working his way back into the swing of things and it became clear in 2000 that Flanagan had what it took to play at a high level.
In 2001, Flanagan held off longtime mentor Winters for the starting job and didn't receive a holding penalty the whole season. He wouldn't look back in his Packers career, as he played in 98 regular season games while starting 64 of them over the course of 10 seasons.
Sure, the path Flanagan took may have been unconventional, but it certainly showed a lot about his character and persistence. The fact that's he had a successful NFL career is something he appreciates more and more, but at the same time, he knows he's still got some football left in him.
"I'm proud of the fact that I was able to overcome that injury," Flanagan explained. "I'm not positive that a lot of guys could have. I think just like anything else, the farther away you get from it the more nostalgic you become. I'm kind of in the middle of what I'm doing on the football field so I don't want to start looking back on what I've done. You've got to keep looking forward or else it'll smack you right in the mouth."
And just because Flanagan didn't participate in the Super Bowl game itself, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a couple of fond memories from that season.
"The first one (memory) was walking out onto Lambeau Field for the first time," he said. "It was the ultimate even though it was just a preseason game, to put on the jersey and step out there and see the all the green. I just realized I had a chance to be a part of the history of Nitschke, Lombardi, Bart Starr and the names that are all over the place. I can say that I put my hat in that ring.
"And I can remember being at the Super Bowl standing on the sidelines at New Orleans directly on Marco Rivera's right shoulder and we were afraid to move. We were standing there and we had a great series, and went down the field and scored. So we stood in the exact same place for the rest of the game."
Flanagan turned out to be the consummate professional that the Packers believed they were getting when they drafted with the 90th overall pick in '96. As offensive line coach Tom Lovat said at the time, "What we liked when we drafted him was that he showed us when he got here that he had good athletic ability."
Lovat was right; Flanagan was a remarkably versatile player in his time in Green Bay, as he played everywhere along the offensive line except right tackle.
In 2004, Flanagan earned a much-deserved trip to the Pro Bowl, the first Packers center to do so since Winters in '96. And as if he had anything to prove in the toughness and desire department, Flanagan, 32, played much of last season on sheer guts and will power when he battled through a hernia injury.
Flanagan, who is married to Jen, spends his offseasons in Las Vegas and this season will be his first in an opposing uniform as he signed with the Houston Texans on March 24.
Though he is no longer part of the Packers' organization, it's safe to say that his toughness and desire to come back from what would have ended many players' careers made Flanagan a perfect fit in '96 and beyond with the Green and Gold.