GREEN BAY – Paris Lenon was ready to quit. His mom wouldn’t let him.
It was August 2001, and Lenon had come home to Lynchburg, Va., after being released by the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn't the first time he'd been cut -- the Carolina Panthers released him in June 2000 after signing him as an undrafted free agent, and the Green Bay Packers had dumped him in July 2001 right before training camp, after he'd been with them for only three months -- but he thought it might be the last.
His stay in Seattle had lasted just 11 days. Going undrafted after being a three-year starter and two-time all-Atlantic 10 Conference selection at the University of Richmond, was one thing. But when you have three teams in a 13-month span tell you you’re not good enough, well, you start to think they might be right.
“I'm back home, and of course I went through a period of depression,” Lenon confessed in an interview years ago. “It's a difficult thing when you go from being a starter and all-conference and then all of a sudden (the NFL) is saying, ‘We don't want you.’”
Twelve years, three football leagues and five NFL teams later, the NFL not only still wants Lenon, but he’s in the biggest game imaginable: Starting at linebacker for the Denver Broncos Sunday against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
“I don’t think it sunk in to the point where I’m in awe of it,” Lenon told reporters Monday at the Broncos’ media availability session at the Cornucopia Majesty ship, docked at the Hyatt Jersey City. “I won’t allow myself to get to that point. Maybe after it’s all over, but right now, it’s business. It is a big challenge ahead of us and we’re looking forward to it.”
But it’s no bigger challenge than anything else Lenon has faced during his career. On that night in 2001, when he was ready to quit, he asked his mother, Audrey, what he should do. She asked him if he was going to be able to look at himself in the mirror if he gave up. As moms often do, she knew the answer. So did he.
He knew he couldn't. So even after being cut three times, even after spending a year playing for the Memphis Maniax of the XFL – he’s the only active NFL player to have played in the World Wrestling Federation's renegade football league – and even after spending a year substitute teaching and working at the post office, Lenon decided to keep chasing his NFL dream.
On Dec. 27, 2001, the Packers re-signed him – to their practice squad – for the rest of the season and playoffs. They then sent him to NFL Europe the following spring, where he played for the Amsterdam Admirals.
He wound up making the Packers’ roster that summer and spending four seasons in Green Bay, where he never missed a game and spent most of his time on special teams. His final year with the Packers, in 2005, he started 12 of 16 games and registered 79 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and five pass breakups. After re-signing each year as an exclusive-rights (2003, 2004) or restricted (2005) free agent, he hit the unrestricted free agent market and landed his first multi-year deal, a three-year, $4.6 million contract with the Detroit Lions that included a signing bonus of $1.8 million
He went on to start every game over the next three years for the Lions, registering 71 tackles in 2006, 118 in 2007 and 121 in 2008. He endured an 0-16 season with the Lions that final year in Detroit, then played for the 1-15 St. Louis Rams.
From there, he spent three years with the Arizona Cardinals, starting all 48 games the Cardinals played from 2010 through 2012, before catching on with the Broncos this season. Now 36 – the second-oldest player in Super Bowl XLVIII, behind teammate Peyton Manning – he was signed to be a veteran fill-in while star linebacker Von Miller was serving a six-game suspension to start the season. Now, he’s back in the starting lineup after Miller’s season-ending knee injury suffered Dec. 23, playing in the base defense while Wesley Woodyard comes in in sub packages in passing situations. Lenon started the final four regular-season games and both the Broncos’ playoff games at middle linebacker, having played 281 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s a great player. It’s a tough loss for us, but guys step up and it’s a team. It’s a team defense,” Lenon said of losing Miller. “You can’t replace what he was – his ability to create havoc, especially rushing the passer, he’s one of a kind. But once again, guys had the opportunity to step up and that’s what guys have done.”
On Monday, many of the questions Lenon faced were focused on his distinction of being the only remaining ex-XFL player in the NFL. But his story is so much more compelling than just being a curiosity.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of that,” he said. “I think it’s a cool story, but other than that, I don’t really think about it that much. The league was different as far as (how) the days would go (and were) structured, but I enjoyed my time there. I learned a lot and I’m happy to be where I am right now.”
“I’m very appreciative to be here. Any time you go through tough situations, it just makes you tougher as a person. I think that’s what it’s done.
“I think you have to appreciate every year you’re in this league and not to make light of this situation at all, but first of all, you appreciate the position that you are in being a professional athlete. This is an added bonus to be in the biggest game.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.