Jason Hanson distinctly remembers his first Lions training camp.
It was July 1992, just a few months after he’d been picked by Detroit in the second round of the NFL draft, a versatile “kicking specialist” out of Washington State, who averaged more than 40 yards a punt in his final college season and also handled the kicking duties for the Cougars. His reputation as one of the best in the history of college football was sealed when he booted a 62-yarder against University of Nevada, Las Vegas, setting the record for the longest field goal without a tee in NCAA history.
“I was just trying to survive,” Hanson says. “When you first come in, you’re just kind of numb to the whole thing.”
Now he’s sitting on a stool in front of his spacious stall in the vast locker room at the Lions Allen Park training facility. Listed generously as 6 feet tall and 190 pounds in the team media guide, Hanson is dwarfed by his gargantuan teammates as they stroll past on their way to and from the showers.
At 41, Hanson is not only the elder statesman of the team — no one else on the roster is older than 34 — but he has also played more games with one franchise than anyone in NFL history. He broke the previous record of 296 — set by offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, who played his entire career for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans — in the 2011 Lions season-opening rout of the Kansas City Chiefs. That was the same game in which Hanson also became the seventh player in league history to pass the 1,900-point mark.
Now, a cynical observer might be quick to point out that piling up nearly 2,000 points with your foot is a far less daunting and damaging task than hurling your body into the perilous fray that is a reality for virtually every other player on the field whenever the ball is snapped. For that reason, kickers, and punters, too, have sometimes been perceived by pundits, fans, and even teammates as somehow being athletic inferiors to those who make their living in the NFL’s proverbial trenches. To that, Hanson replies, “What I’ve learned is that anybody who’s played in the NFL for a long time gets respect for just being there and doing it for as long as they have.”
But he readily admits that the love and respect isn’t unconditional.
“When you’re kicking well,” Hanson says, “the guys love you and everything’s great. But everyone knows that some of the love is because of what you’re doing for the guy next to you and to help the team. That’s professional sports.”
Even as the records and accolades keep piling up, Hanson — who has been chosen as one of the team’s captains for the last five seasons — still can’t quite believe that, in a league where contracts aren’t guaranteed, careers are brutally short, and even the greatest players ultimately move on to other teams, his run with the Lions has endured.
“Not in my wildest dreams,” says Hanson, whose salary this season was just shy of $3 million. “I never thought I’d be playing for 20 years and then on top of that with the same team. I’ve really been blessed to be able to do that.”
Blessed? With a wife and three kids who’ve never had to relocate from their home in metro Detroit even once during his career. What Hanson has accomplished is almost unheard of. Even the greatest kickers in the game’s history experienced inevitable cold streaks, slices, hooks, or general yips that led to misses at critical times, which in turn led to the perception that they had somehow lost whatever “it” is that is necessary to make kicks consistently and under pressure. So they were cut loose, signed by another team, and, thanks to the change of scenery, invariably found “it.” Until they lost it again.
Hanson has certainly had his share of shaky moments, but he attributes his ability to stick with the Lions — and avoid the familiar journey of so many of his kicking brethren — to experience, discipline, and routine. “When something’s gone wrong,” he says, “I know what’s worked in the past to fix it. I can stick to it and pull myself out.”
And there’s another factor, he adds, one that’s exquisitely unique in the ruthless and cutthroat here-today, gone-tomorrow business of the NFL.
“The Lions have wanted me to be around,” he says. “They know my track record. So when I’ve missed a few or something, I think I’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt to cover those times every kicker has when it’s like, ‘Man, do I know what I’m doing?’ So I think it’s kind of been a give and take between the organization and me, where I’ve wanted to be here and they’ve wanted to have me.”
He pauses for a moment and then his eyes light up as he breaks into a grin.
“Of course, if I was kicking bad,” he says, “it would be, ‘Hey, it’s been a great 20 but we’re getting someone else’. I mean that’s just how it works.”
If the Lions wanted to replace Hanson, they certainly could have done so anytime in the last few years. After missing just one game in 17 seasons, Hanson had knee surgery in each of the last two years and he missed the Lions’ final eight games in 2010 with knee and Achilles’ injuries. The Lions brought in Dave Rayner, a kicking vagabond with stints for three teams in as many seasons, and he performed well, making 13 of 16 field goals down the stretch. When training camp resumed last summer after the lockout, Rayner — who was barely 10 when Hanson joined the Lions — was back to compete for the job, a challenge Hanson welcomed.
“You’ve got to earn it every year, no matter what you’ve done,” he says. “Some days, you don’t feel like kicking? Well, guess what, the guy that’s trying to beat you does. Being pushed like that helps.”
Hanson won the job, yet again. And while on one hand he’ll claim that his relatively ancient leg is as strong as it ever was, he admits that he can’t just go out there every practice and, in his words, “kick like crazy” and not pay for it the next day.
“I’ve learned to be a little smarter about how many I kick each day,” he says. “Do I need a few extra reps? If so, I can take them. If not, I shut it down.”
On game days, there are no superstitions or idiosyncrasies involving special meals, routes from the hotel to the stadium, or a need to tug on a pair of lucky, unwashed underwear. Hanson goes out a few hours before every game to warm up his leg and “feel” the different parts of the field where a kick might occur. “Right hash, left hash,” he says. “Just trying to get to a place where it’s comfortable, so that it’s second nature when I take the field for real.”
Then, it’s just a matter of fidgeting on the sidelines, trying to stay loose and focused, kicking balls into the net, waiting for his moment to arrive. Hanson has made 18 game-winning, fourth-quarter or overtime kicks during his career.
“Those are scary,” he says. “People ask if you live for it.” He pauses here, lets out a soft chuckle, and adds: “I’d rather win by three touchdowns.”
When his time comes, it’s all a deafening blur: Fans screaming for or against him as he trots onto the field, trying to shut out the roar as he determines where the spot will be for the ball, assessing that imaginary line from there to the middle of the goalposts. Then the ball spins back from the center, the holder puts it down, and Hanson’s foot swings through. And he, along with everyone in the stadium, on the field, in the stands, and in front of TV screens at home and in bars all look — and hope — for a make or a miss.
For Hanson, the wish for this kick is the same as it was the first time he ran onto the field for the Lions on an autumn day in 1992, looking to score his first points as a pro.
“You’re just hoping the ball goes straight,” he says, “and that they invite me back next year.”