After eight years in the National Football League, Mike Flanagan knows a thing or two about playing football. And just as importantly to him, he knows a thing or two about enjoying life.
His comedic nature was no more evident than when, on a sunny afternoon in early August, he and fellow Green Bay lineman Mike Wahle highjacked two of the Packers equipment vehicles and proceeded to chase each other around the practice field. Their attempts to "tag" one another with footballs as they haphazardly circled the practice field delighted the fans that had gathered at Clark Hinkle field to watch the team practice. But no one had a bigger smile on his or her face than Flanagan.
In fact, a person would be hard pressed to find Flanagan without a smile on his face. After suffering a career-threatening injury in the preseason of his rookie year, the California native learned how to keep things in perspective.
"After the injury, I just realized how important this game meant to me, both as a job and as a career, and obviously as an enjoyment factor," said Flanagan. "I wasn't ready to go into the real world - I wasn't ready to do any of that stuff. It became very evident to me how important this game was. When you realize something is that important, you just do the best you can to make it fun."
The injury happened during a 1996 preseason game, when Flanagan was a third-round draft pick out of UCLA. As he was running upfield on the opening kickoff of the second exhibition game, a defender attempting to make the tackle struck Flanagan in the lower right leg, breaking both bones in half.
The severe injury brought numerous complications and his football future was seriously threatened. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve and was again sidelined the following season when muscle and nerve damage associated with the injury were slow to respond. It wasn't until December of his third season that Flanagan finally saw action in a regular season game. Despite the ordeal, Flanagan says he doesn't think about the injury much.
"It is eight years removed," he said. "It made me realize how important this game is, but you can't play this game thinking about getting hurt. If you do that, you are playing scared and you may not be going full speed. And that's when someone gets hurt."
Oddly enough, after having missed the better part of those first three seasons, Flanagan has now played in 63 consecutive games (66 including the playoffs), the sixth-longest streak on the team. But while NFL opponents have steadily come to know Flanagan as a durable lineman, his teammates have come to know him as a practical joker.
"I'm sure my name would be in there," he said in reference to the team's list of comedians. "It especially comes from being an offensive lineman. We're together so much and we rely on each other that we bust and joke on one another. Pretty much anything you can think of, we do."
From playful games of football tag on the practice field to good natured ribbing, Flanagan says the linemen know how to have a good time. Part of their bond comes from spending time together off the football field.
"We do some structured stuff where we go to dinner during the season once a week as a group," he said of his fellow linemen. "I've been here with Marco (Rivera) for eight years, (Mike) Wahle for six years, with Frank (Winters) for eight years (Winters was waived Aug. 31). When you work with someone that long it's hard not to have a close bond. I consider those guys my close friends."
As close friends, the unit takes pride in team accomplishments, often sacrificing individual accolades for overall success. Last year, with injuries to tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, Flanagan was forced to move to left tackle for the first time since his high school days. It was a move that helped the team, and Flanagan said that is what it is all about.
"The joy of being a lineman is seeing the success of everyone else," he said. "You may not get as much success, but you may not get as much blame either. I enjoy seeing Ahman (Green) get a 15-yard run as much as he does because I know I've done my job."
Though he's having a blast on the field simply doing his job, Flanagan wouldn't be satisfied unless he was having just as much fun off it. That's why he's hoping to travel to Australia in the near future and expand his experience in one of his favorite hobbies - scuba diving.
"I want to dive the (Great Barrier) Reef," Flanagan said. "I really enjoy scuba diving and that's like the Holy Grail of scuba diving. I would like to get out there and find a way to dive with the sharks."
Flanagan first dove during a vacation he took to Mexico with his parents while he was still in college. After taking a course at a resort in scuba diving, he was hooked.
"It was incredible to be underwater," said Flanagan, who has dove in such places as the Cayman Islands.
"Being in California I've always been sort of a water kid and it was just a new twist, a new aspect that I really enjoyed. They say if you go to a jungle looking for wildlife you have to wait and see. But if you are in the ocean, it's right there. The animals and sea creatures are not running from you and they're not scared."
Though the animals may not necessarily be scared, they do on occasion scare the divers. And Flanagan can attest firsthand to that. During a trip to the Bahamas, he decided to do a shark dive. After a few minutes in the water, he found himself encircled by as many as 60 sharks.
"There's six- to eight-footers and it's a little freaky," he said. "But after a while, it's really cool. They're scavengers by nature, but when you have an eight-foot shark swim by you, it's a rush. I had a shark swim by and its dorsal fin hit me in the head and almost knocked my mask off. I didn't see it, because it came from behind."
Although Flanagan enjoys the time he spends scuba diving, his true love is undoubtedly football. Even after his playing days are done, the eight-year veteran has no plans to leave the game he loves.
"I don't think there is any other industry or career that could replace football," he said. "I have a hard time believing I could walk away from this game. In what capacity I'd like to stay involved, I don't know. It's been such a huge part of my life for so long. I love the locker room, being around guys and joking around. The camaraderie, the hard times, the good times, all that stuff is what makes this game really fun."
And having fun, after all, is what Flanagan enjoys most.