Mike Flanagan has become the Packers starting center in 2001
Few question Ron Wolf's ability to judge talent or character, so when the former Packers general manager offers words of praise about one of his draft picks, it's worth making a mental note.
"He's one of the great stories in all of football," Wolf said in September 1998, "and will continue to be as long as he can play because of the perseverance he's shown."
When Wolf said these words, he was not talking about Brett Favre or Darren Sharper. He was referring to Mike Flanagan, who was then the team's back-up center.
Flanagan heard Wolf's words on television.
"I saw it and froze up," he recalled. "Ron doesn't really say a lot. He's a man of few words, but when he does, his words carry a lot of weight. I greatly appreciate that, and I hope it's true."
Wolf's predictions just might be coming true for the 6-foot-5, 297-pound lineman from UCLA, now in his sixth NFL season. The Packers' first of two third-round selections in the '96 draft (90th overall), he was expected to back up 10-year veteran Frank Winters. Green Bay's offensive line coach at the time, Tom Lovat, thought he was a sound acquisition and a future starter. Flanagan had just come off a solid performance in the Packers' first preseason game, and eagerly anticipated the second half of the next contest, when his story took a tragic turn.
It was Aug. 11, 1996. Flanagan was running up the sideline on the opening kickoff when Pittsburgh's Jon Witman dove in front of him, trying to tackle the Packers return man. Witman's helmet hit Flanagan just above his right ankle when all his weight was on that foot. The hit resulted in a compound break of both bones in Flanagan's lower right leg.
"I knew my leg was broken," Flanagan said. "Pepper Burruss, our trainer, said I'm the first one to properly diagnose his own injury."
Flanagan spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve after surgery that placed a stabling rod in the larger bone of his leg. Then, he spent most of the '97 season on the physically unable to perform list, with muscle and nerve problems in the leg.
"Rehab is the worst thing," he said, "because you're working so hard and seeing so little progress. I'd never been injured before. I'd never really missed a practice, and here I am sitting out two full years."
Flanagan is very grateful to the Packers medical staff. He credits the group with keeping him motivated through trying times.
"They're just unbelievable," Flanagan said. "I should probably be out of football, but with their physical rehab, psychological rehab and everything they did, I owe them a lot."
Since the injury, Flanagan has a new perspective on football. He realizes he's one play away from the end of his career so he tries to enjoy every moment of playing time.
After two long years of rehabilitation and six surgeries, Flanagan looked forward to playing for the Packers in the 1998 season. The day he thought he had made the final roster, the team traded him to Carolina for a fourth-round draft pick. Flanagan never sported Panthers colors, though. Instead, Carolina's doctors thought his injury made him too large of a risk and the trade did not go through.
"Now I'm all of a sudden back to step one," Flanagan recalled. "I'm in a town where I don't know anybody. All of a sudden I've got a doctor telling me I'm not going to play football anymore, and I'm going to be screwed up when I'm older (due to physical problems associated with the injury). So, I'm just an absolute wreck."
Luckily for Flanagan, Wolf welcomed him back hours later and Flanagan saw his first regular-season playing time in 1998. He participated in two regular-season games and one postseason contest. In 1999, he was the backup to Winters but played mostly on special teams. He finally reached a milestone, starting two games in 2000 for an injured Winters.
"It was awesome," Flanagan affirmed. "It had been so long since I had played a full game. You hate to get your opportunity anytime anybody gets hurt. It's a good feeling to get back there and earn your paychecks."
In 2001, Flanagan is poised to assume the starting center role after his five-year apprenticeship behind Winters.
"I consider Frank to be a good friend," Flanagan said. "I've learned a lot of what I know from Frank. Frank was out there every day, never took days off, was the consummate pro. He leads by example."
The competition between Flanagan and Winters is tough, but they understand the situation and remain friends.
"The best guy is going to win," Flanagan acknowledges. "And if I win, great. If Frank wins, I won't be as happy, but good for Frank. There're no hard feelings."
Flanagan enjoys playing again for Mike Sherman, his UCLA offensive line coach in 1994. The center posted his best year of college ball that season. Starting every game, he was first-team All-Pac 10, his first of two such honors. Sherman isn't the only thing Flanagan likes about Green Bay.
"What we have here is special," Flanagan asserts. "It's very unique. The guys upstairs have definitely made this a player-friendly place. The locker room's tighter than it would be anywhere else."
Flanagan has been through a lot in the last five years of football. More than once he has felt that his football career was nearly over.
"A couple times there I felt like I've been real close and somehow I've managed to dodge the bullet. Now I feel like I'm here for a while."
Flanagan would be glad to be remembered in Packers history. He would be thrilled to be thought of as a competitor who played hard. But maybe Wolf's prediction will come true and he'll go down in NFL history as one of the great stories in all of football. Only time will tell. Stay tuned for the upcoming 2001 season and the next chapter of Flanagan's story.