The Falcons’ McClure is making his 129th consecutive start

When he first bends over the ball and moons Matt Ryan, Falcons center Todd McClure will rewrite a footnote in team history. He’ll be making his 129th consecutive start, breaking a club record for constancy in a bone-rending business. He’ll pass linebacker Keith Brooking, who made 128 straight starts for Atlanta before moving on to Dallas.

Must be something about being in the geographical center of the all that mayhem — the heart of football’s smelter — that creates iron men.

Look at Falcons Ring of Honor player Jeff Van Note. For the better part of 18 seasons, he amassed 225 starts at center — not consecutively — playing from 1969 to 1986, beyond his 40th birthday.

On the verge of another Falcons season, these two time-tested players – who have manned that thankless station for a combined 28 of the franchise’s 44 seasons — sat down together for a little chat.

Here are some of their thoughts, on topics ranging from survival to comparative Falcons history to which quarterback’s hands felt the strangest.

AJC: So, who grows up wanting to be a great center?

Todd McClure: When I was in high school [in Louisiana], I played tight end and defensive tackle, and they wanted to move me inside. My dad was actually a high school coach then ,and I did not want to do that. I wanted to be out there catching passes and getting my name in the paper. But it worked out for me.

Jeff Van Note: I came here as a linebacker [drafted in the 11th round in 1969 out of Kentucky]. I was a defensive end in college. They moved me to center after the first mini-camp. I couldn’t cover the back coming out of the backfield. Marion Campbell was the defensive coordinator then and when I got to camp that summer. He said, ‘I need you to go over and get one of those red [offensive] playbooks.’ I called my wife and told her I’d probably be home in a couple days. I had never played offensive line. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me, obviously.

AJC: Some of the most famous hands in franchise history have been on your butt — from (Steve) Bartkowski to (Michael) Vick to (Matt) Ryan. You got that going for you, which is nice.

JVN: June Jones [a former Falcons quarterback and head coach, now at Southern Methodist] had these long, bony fingers. I remember that.

(Much laughter ensued, punctuating that line of inquiry)

AJC: So, Todd, you set the consecutive start record Sunday ...

JVN: Congratulations, well deserved.

AJC: Jeff, you obviously have followed Todd through all of it (he is part of the Falcons pre- and post-game broadcasts). How do you judge such a career?

JVN: He has been a fine player. He’s steady. Rarely penalized. You never hear him for holding. I’ve always enjoyed watching him, largely because he’s not just a straight ahead blocker.

AJC: Conversely, Todd, you weren’t born when Van Note began with the Falcons. What do you know about the scope of his career?

TM: It’s amazing. To play that long. ... I’m going into my 12th year [he’s 33] and to think about playing 18, there’s no way. Every now and then, to be mentioned as the second best center to play here, it’s an honor. I only hope when I’m done people will look back and have half the good things to say about me as they do with Jeff.

When I got here, I knew about him. They used to have his picture out in our locker room at the Dome — the gray beard and the gray hair. Just to play at that level for that long is amazing to me.

AJC: The average NFL career is just over three-and-a-half years. On the current NFC South rosters, only 7 percent of the players have been in the league 10 years or more. You are the rarities. What are the secrets to football longevity?

JVN: You have to be lucky. You do a lot of your work in a short area, it helps. You got to know when to fall, to feel when you have to go down, for [the sake of] your knees and legs.

It is a game of attrition. It’s remarkable to have eight straight years without missing a game [as with McClure].

TM: I agree, there’s a lot of luck that goes into it. That and knowing what is going on around you. And, obviously, playing through some things. You’re never going to be 100 percent. You just fight through it, knowing your body and knowing how to take care of it.

AJC: Jeff, how will Todd know when it’s time to get out?

JVN: We were playing the Saints here in Atlanta, the last time I played in Atlanta [1986, a season in which he had lost the starting position]. Jack Del Rio [linebacker] wasn’t a very good player with the Saints; he became a better player with Dallas. On one play, he just ran me over. As I was coming off the field, they were all laughing at me. In the film room [the next day], they were laughing. That play right there really showed me I had lost it.”

AJC: Seeing how well Van Note (at 64) seems to be doing physically, does that give you some peace of mind that you may come out of this career OK physically?

TM: He’s moving around pretty good. I’ve asked him before what’s giving him trouble, and he has been pretty healthy for the most part.

JVN: I’ve been pretty fortunate with my injuries. I try to stay active. I feel lucky.

The biggest one worry is about Alzheimer’s, dementia. There is a very high incidence because of the style of blocking and the evolution of the face mask [when he first started, he had but a single bar across his face]. We did a lot with our face. Now players are beneficiaries of the rules that allow them to use their hands and arms more.

AJC: How many concussions have you had?

JVN: I can’t remember [chuckle].

TM: I really can’t recall one.

AJC: In Van Note’s era, the Falcons enjoyed only three winning seasons, and won a grand total of one playoff game. McClure has been on four winning teams, including being part of the first back-to-back winning seasons in Falcons’ history. He is 2-3 in the postseason. Is hope easier to come by now for a Falcons center?

JVN: We always had hope. That’s the great thing about football — you can get better, get stronger, what happened last year is only experience. That’s one of the real beauties of the game.

TM: He’s right. If you went to every team in the NFL, before that first game, everybody thinks he has a shot to make it to the Super Bowl. There are years you felt you had a better chance, and for me this year is the best I’ve felt about a team going into a season. We’ve added some guys on defense. For me, working with the same guys [on the O line] for three straight years is big. I think it will pay dividends down the road. I’m really excited about this season.

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