David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Last X-Man Standing

Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon, the last active NFL player from the XFL (!), has followed a tortuous route from nowhere to the middle of it all

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·

How do you play 13 years of pro football in three leagues, bouncing among a dozen cities and two countries, with a family to feed, and maintain your sanity? You forget. A lot. You hold on to concepts, but not plays. You recall faces, but the names and places become difficult. There’s only so much emotional capital you can invest.

Here’s what Broncos middle linebacker Paris Lenon, the last XFL player remaining in the NFL, remembers about Vince McMahon’s ill-fated, off-the-wall football league: “There was no coin toss in the XFL. I think they put the ball on the 40-yard line. They had a player from each team race to the ball from the goal line. Whoever recovered the ball won the toss. At first everybody thought, We’ll just put the fastest guy on the team out there. Then somebody got blown up. Somebody figured out that if you put a bigger guy in there, he would get there late, but he would take it from the little guy. He’d crush him,” says Lenon, who was undrafted out of Richmond in 2000 and failed to make the Panthers roster after being signed by Carolina that year. “Somebody separated their shoulder … before the kickoff. You’d never see anything like that in the NFL.”

Lenon wouldn’t see much more of it in the XFL. His 2001 season with the Memphis Maniax (yes, with an x) was shortened, and that would be pro wrestling’s first and last attempt at pro football. After the league folded that spring, Lenon—who spent several months as a late-night mail sorter for the postal service in his hometown Lynchburg, Va., while waiting for his NFL break—got a shot with the Packers, was cut, then had a two-week look in Seattle, and again was released. Toward the end of the 2001 NFL season he was picked up again by Green Bay and stuck on the practice squad. The Packers sent him to the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe in the spring of ’02 for a little more seasoning, and that summer he won a full-time roster spot with the Pack. Thus began a career that would take him on a tour of the NFL’s landlocked locales: Green Bay 2002-05, Detroit 2006-08, St. Louis 2009, Arizona 2010-12, Denver 2013.

The mad scramble for the ball that replaced to coin toss in the XFL; the memorable Maniax helmet. (Bill Kostroun/AP :: A.J.Wolfe/XFL/AP)
Lenon’s XFL featured a mad scramble for the ball rather than an opening coin toss—remember?—and Memphis’s axiomatic helmet. (Bill Kostroun/AP :: A.J.Wolfe/XFL/AP)

What he doesn’t remember, his former coaches can fill in.

Here’s Ed Donatell, who was the Packers’ defensive coordinator from 2000 to 2003: “I love Paris. We cut him and then we ended up bringing him back. There was a discussion: Is it this guy or this guy or another guy? Small-college guy, undersized, didn’t know the game. You look up and he’s played 13 years.” 

Phil Snow, Lions linebackers coach, 2006-08: “Paris is a true pro. He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He became a free agent out of Green Bay, and I kind of found him. He’s not real flashy, so you’re thinking, is this guy any good? And then you see the knowledge of the game and how well he kept himself in condition; that made him a good player.”

Paul Ferraro, Rams linebackers coach, 2009-11: “One of my favorite players I’ve ever coached, and I only had him for one year. I couldn’t believe when I watched the Lions’ tape that this guy wasn’t with anybody. My biggest disappointment is that we didn’t keep him. The way he studied the game—I had to be on my toes.”

Matt Raich, Cardinals linebackers coach, 2009-2012: “We had a big void when Karlos Dansby left. We signed Paris, and it ended up being one of the greatest signs we had. He was the smartest linebacker I’ve ever coached. All the younger players called him Uncle Paris. He’s just a blue-collar football player. In his second season the team voted him captain.”

Thirteen years, countless coaches, teammates and apartments, and a trail of undying respect. As Lenon reflects on a career that brought him from the Maniax to the AFC champion Broncos, for whom he’s suddenly a key piece in a Super Bowl run, he recalls two transformative experiences in Green Bay.

“One of the coolest things for me was when I first got to Green Bay on the practice squad, they used to have barbers that came in on Fridays,” says Lenon, now bald a decade later. “I used to have cool haircuts, but I don’t have that anymore. I didn’t have any cash on me, but Gilbert Brown said ‘I got you, don’t worry about it.’ This was Gilbert Brown—he could have big-timed me, but he’s not that kind of dude. That stood out for me. I said, you know what, I want to be like him; treat everyone with respect.”

(Chris Humphreys/USA Today Sports)
Lenon’s the second-oldest Bronco, after Peyton Manning.  (Chris Humphreys/USA Today Sports)

If Brown taught him to be a teammate, linebackers coach Bo Pelini, now Nebraska’s head coach, taught him to be a player.

“I was having a tough time figuring out the playbook, so I met with Bo every night,” Lenon says. “Bo made me learn all three positions in the 4-3. I started taking notes on all three positions. Then it just got to the point where I was able to know what everyone was doing. It helped me start a habit that helped me understand defenses.”

He would need it. In 2006 he became a free agent, moving on to the sunny pastures of Detroit at age 28. He’d been to the playoffs with Green Bay, and missed them more than once, but he’d never been through disappointment like he did in Detroit. At the time the Maniax might have seemed preferable to the 0-16 Lions of 2008, arguably the worst team in the history of the league.

Snow: “What ends up happening when you lose all those games is nobody wants to play anymore. We had 19 guys on IR, and really a lot of those guys could be playing but they don’t want to. The linebacker group I had played every game. Paris was one of the major reasons for that. He went about his business every week. He kept that group together.”

From the middle of 2007 through the end of 2009, when he spent a season with the 1-15 Rams, Lenon went through a personal stretch of 2 wins and 38 losses.

“It’s difficult to not have success,” Lenon says now. “A lot of people look at a team that’s not winning and feel like we’re not putting in the time and the effort and preparation, which isn’t the case. To have that cloud over you is difficult.”

But that wasn’t even the hardest point of his career. As Lenon floated around the league, from Detroit to St. Louis and then to Arizona, his family came with him. Heather, his wife since 2006, settled their three children in the Phoenix area during his three seasons with the Cardinals. And when he moved onto Denver this year, they stayed behind.

“That’s what hurts,” he says, “That I don’t get to see them every day. But we didn’t want to uproot them again.”

Lenon took over in the middle for the Broncos late in the season and earned his first Super Bowl trip with a win over the Pats. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Lenon (51) took over in the middle for the Broncos late in the season and earned his first Super Bowl trip with a win against the Pats. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Lenon replaced starting middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard in Week 14 and will remain there for his first Super Bowl. There will be ample reminders of his meandering career on hand at the New Meadowlands. Two members of those 0-16 Lions are Super Bowl starters five years later: Denver center Manny Ramirez and Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril. His coach with the Maniax, Kippy Brown, is the Seahawks’ wide receivers coach. His family will rejoin him after seven months apart. You might think seeing all those old faces would make a man think about his future; about retirement. But Paris can’t. If he could, he wouldn’t be here.

“I haven’t even thought about what comes after that game,” Lenon says. “I’m not a planner. I’m just unable to do it. As I always say, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

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23 comments
momosgarage
momosgarage

All this shows is that getting selected to be a professional athelete is completely arbitrary.  I have always believed that there are MANY people who have what it takes to be a pro-athlete, but arent't selected simply because of the sheer volume of capable people available.  Basically they've got tens of thousands of similarly skilled people to choose from.  The guys that "make it" aren't doing anything spectacular that someone else with the right training and opportunities couldn't replicate. 

UnishowponyWherebeef
UnishowponyWherebeef

"How do you play 13 years of pro football in three leagues, bouncing among a dozen cities and two countries, with a family to feed..."


Stop it, alright! Enough!


These sports figures are paid MILLIONS of dollars to perform. Even the XFL players had salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year range. On top of that, they get free travel, room and board.


The average American family has an income of less than $50,000 per year - typically with two working parents. If the average American family can get by on less than $50k, I don't think we need to sympathize with someone* who theoretically might have problems feeding his family with a six or seven figure salary.




* excluding Antonio Cromartie who has several thousand children to feed.

wlewisiii
wlewisiii

I am reminded of all the people who played back in the day when the NFL was something on the side, a northern blue collar game of the autumn and then you went back to the factory for the rest of the year. I'm glad the Packers gave him a place to learn that kind of football.

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

Have to root for this Lenon guy and the deaf kid on the Hawks Derrick Thomas for making it.


Last year we had dozens of worthy vets on each side to be happy for. Not as many this year.  

gyffesme
gyffesme

Awesome. For all that I love watching Manning et al joust, it's these trench dudes for whom I hold the fondest joy and admiration.

WbfHaddock
WbfHaddock

Please don't start an article about a guy who has played 13 years with "you forget a lot." Hopefully, he'll be one of the lucky ones and won't have to worry about brain damage.

jcbelford
jcbelford

"Thus began a career that would take him on a tour of the NFL’s landlocked locales: Green Bay 2002-05, Detroit 2006-08, St. Louis 2009, Arizona 2010-12, Denver 2013."


You can get to the Atlantic Ocean from both Green Bay and Detroit. You can take a ride down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico from St. Louis. Not exactly landlocked.

lionoah
lionoah

I'm just wondering about with all the 'respect' and 'he's a great guy' why no one wanted to keep him? He was the smartest guy, physical conditioning whatever. These coaches just blow smoke until you can't see your hand in front of your face anymore.


You'll rarely if ever hear 'Great player and we just didn't see it. We need to reevaluate our talent evaluation'.

HerschelAnderton
HerschelAnderton

he is the best linebacker on the team.  don't ever say anything about him.  don't ever open your mouth about the best or he'll shut it for you real quick.

AustinRoth
AustinRoth

While I admire his perseverance and resiliency, and am happy he will get a shot at playing in and maybe winning a Super Bowl, he also sounds like one of those players you have to be concerned about what happens to him after his last game.

His comment <i>“I haven’t even thought about what comes after that game. I’m not a planner. I’m just unable to do it. As I always say, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”</i> does not sound healthy.

After 13 years in football, you have to start having a post-football plan. Too many players that do prepare themselves for life after football turn into cautionary tales.

For the sake of his wife and kids, and himself, I hope that does not turn out to be the case.

DWJ08
DWJ08

@UnishowponyWherebeef Ranting about anyone who makes more than the national median is the fashionable thing to do these days...

DougCannon
DougCannon

@UnishowponyWherebeef Curious, where in the article did someone ask for sympathy. 
I know that this will probably fall on deaf ears, but WTH, sometimes miracles happen: The point of the article is that someone studied, trained and worked extremely hard to get to the Superbowl. It's a nice story, that's all. 
Also, nowhere, except in your mind, did anyone mention problems feeding his family. It's just a nice story. 

MadDoser
MadDoser

@UnishowponyWherebeef XFL/Nfl europe/practice squad salaries are pretty low especially when you consider that the average career is less then 3 years.  

MadDoser
MadDoser

@lionoah It sounds like he had a lot of heart and work ethic but not the most natural talent on the team.   A coach can admire a guy's work ethic but still replace him with the young hot-shot with more up-side.

gyffesme
gyffesme

@AustinRothMy guess is it's not phrased as he intended; more likely it was, "man, if I even thought about 'after football', I'd never have been able to stay in it.."

UnishowponyWherebeef
UnishowponyWherebeef

@KristianColasacco


What you've written is true but...



1. "Landlocked" is a term used to describe countries, not cities, and


2. It's completely moronic to include in a list of "land locked cities", a municipality that is called Green Bay. The bay part of the name has to mean something and that generally means water.

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