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.
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.”
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 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.”