While most players rested following a sweaty day of practice under the Wisconsin sun, Paris Lenon spent each night of 2002's training camp looking at tape of every linebacker position with linebackers coach Bo Pelini.
"It helped me gain a better understanding of the defense," Lenon said.
Lenon's early NFL indoctrination to the three linebacker positions has paid off this year. Lenon began the season at strongside linebacker. Since Week 10, however, he has started for Robert Thomas on the weakside. The coaching staff also said that if Nick Barnett would miss time due to injury, Lenon would replace him at middle linebacker.
The two outside positions require a totally different way of thinking. The strongside or SAM linebacker lines up against a tight end, making for an extra read. The tight end does not always run block for rushing plays; he can fake a block and then peel off for a downfield reception. The offense also can release a tight end on run plays to make the strongside backer think it's a pass.
"It's hard," Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "The ability to play both of those with equal efficiency to his ability is admirable."
Lenon's versatility has helped compensate for several injuries to the Packers' linebackers. Na'il Diggs posted more than 100 tackles the last three years, but injuries to both knees have limited him to six games this year. The Packers traded for Thomas before the season, but he has missed three games with a quadriceps injury. Rookie Brady Poppinga showed potential but suffered a season-ending tear to his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last week against the Detroit Lions.
Faced with a depleted linebacker corps, the team has had to count on Lenon more than ever this year. He has responded with a career-high 58 tackles, and Sherman deemed him one of the most indispensable players on the team.
"He has become that. He has become somebody that I could rely on," Sherman said. "He has really absorbed what we're teaching him and taken it to the field. He has a good football mind."
Lenon has not only honed the mental part of his game but also the physical part. Through an intense offseason running program and reducing his supplement intake, he dropped from 245 to 234 pounds. The lighter weight made him a better fit in the new Packers' defensive scheme, which calls for linebackers to pursue ballcarriers from sideline to sideline.
"We cover a lot of ground," Lenon said. "It's more beneficial to be more fluid rather than a heavier dude."
Lenon now must cover that ground while playing with a bulky cast to protect his broken right index finger. He smashed his finger between two helmets while making a tackle during the Chicago Bears game in Week 13.
But the injury did not prevent him from starting at weakside linebacker the next week and making three tackles. Lenon declined to call it a hindrance.
"It's not that bad," he said. "It's a little difficult at times because I have to put my hand in funny positions. But I didn't have any real issues with it."
It's a good thing the injury does not prevent him from playing against the Baltimore Ravens. He will start in front of a national television audience on Monday Night Football and in person before his immediate family. His sister, Nicole, lives in Baltimore and will attend the game along with Lenon's parents. His folks will make the 4 1/2 hour-trip from Lynchburg, Va.
That journey pales to the long and circuitous route Lenon took to land a spot in the NFL. After the Carolina Panthers cut the undrafted free agent in 2000, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. In 2001 Lenon played for the Memphis Maniax of the now-defunct XFL. The Packers signed him after that stint but released him during training camp. The Seattle Seahawks did the same one month later. The Packers signed him to the practice squad during the last few weeks of the 2001 season and allocated him to NFL Europe in the offseason where Lenon led the Amsterdam Admirals in tackles.
In 2002 Lenon entered Packers training camp listed last on the Packers depth chart, but with the help of his late-night study sessions with Pelini, he beat out his veteran competition to make the opening day roster.
"Nothing came easy. So it made me early on work constantly," Lenon said. "Some people take things for granted. You should never do that. It definitely makes me more appreciative."