Hard Work Pays Off for Karney

Some say that the fullback position is a dying breed in the NFL. Luckily for ex-Sun Devil Mike Karney the New Orleans Saints don't prescribe to that theory. A few days ago, Karney signed a four-year contract extension through the 2010 season. Devils Digest talked to an excited Karney, who is also looking forward to blocking for ex-USC star and now Saints Rookie Reggie Bush.

The 5-11 258 Mike Karney is the New Orleans Saints lead blocker, who was the drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 draft, and ironically replaced ex-Arizona State product Terrelle Smith. Karney has appeared in all 32 games, starting in 22 of them, and has been the only fullback on the regular season roster. The combination of his punishing blocking attributes and solid pass receiving skills; have him poised to be an integral part of new Saints' skipper Sean Peyton and his run-first offensive scheme.

"Unbelievable," said Karney about his contract extension. "I had no idea it was coming. They pulled me aside the last week of mini-camp and told me that they want to give me an extension. I was like ‘really'? My whole mindset was that I'll be a restricted free agent after this year, and that they would tender me one more year after my contract ends. So my game plan was to come into this year, play hard, and let the rest talk for itself. They decided they wanted to keep me beyond this year, so that's OK by me (laughs)." He added that contract talks went on for about a month, and appropriately enough the fullback verbally agreed to the terms (which were undisclosed) on his 25th birthday.

The new contract extension naturally carries many individual benefits, but it also helps a bigger cause that may seem trivial to some, but one that Karney doesn't take lightly. "I knew that my position has been a dying position for a while," admitted the fullback. "Lorenzo Neal who's a personal friend of mine is a guy that has been playing 14 years as a fullback. He told me when he first met me three years ago ‘we have to keep this thing (fullback position) alive.' We knew that if they weren't more young guys in the future that can play that position well; teams will get rid of it. I take great pride in keeping this alive and this is a great stepping stone for me doing that."

The last nine or so months have been extremely challenging times for Karney and his teammates. Hurricane Katrina uprooted the Saints from the Big Easy, and forced them to be the league's nomads. The team played their home games in several different venues, and didn't have practice facility and administration offices like any other NFL club. However, there is now a sense of normalcy descending on the Black and Gold, as they have returned to their facility in Metairie, Louisiana. The natural apprehension of returning there, has slowly given way to the promising reality.

"I went back in March for the beginning of our off-season program," stated Karney. "I'm not gonna lie – I was real hesitant about going back. Like everyone else, I saw everything unravel on TV. We didn't know how feasible it would be for us to go back to the city. But when I went back, it wasn't as bad as I anticipated. They are definitely some parts of downtown that are still devastated, some businesses that are open just for a few hours because of lack of workers and customers...it will probably take a couple of years for the city to be up and running like it used to be. You just have to roll with the punches and over time things will get better, and so far it has. My attitude is that the city will just get stronger."

Karney mentioned that fortunately his residence, as well as the team's training facility was spared the hurricane's devastation. The fullback, who's a tireless worker on the field, rolled up his sleeves and helped those in the community who were still feeling the effects of one of the nation's worst ever natural disasters. "We went out the community and cleaned out a Boys and Girls club that was totally under water," he recalled, "we handed out necessities to some people…just doing things that we couldn't do during the season. It was very rewarding helping all those people out."

The team's front office didn't waste time once the squad returned home, and has been busy upgrading the team's personnel – especially on offense. Drew Brees will be the Saints' starting signal caller, and will be caked up by Jamie Martin. The drafting of Reggie Bush has created considerable buzz among the fans, and his teammates such as Mike Karney witnessed the euphoria first hand.

"I'll tell you what, I got more phone calls the day he drafted than the day I got drafted," said Karney while laughing. "My phone was blowing up. People that didn't call me on my draft day were trying to get in touch with me. People weren't just ecstatic for me and my team, but also because Reggie is probably one the best things that football has seen in a long time. He may be the Michael Jordan of our sport with the things he did in college. It's obviously real exciting for me to block for such a great back as Deuce McAllister and now Reggie Bush. Those guys have to be the best tandem of running backs in the NFL, and they're very versatile. I just have to make sure I give them the seams every time so they can run and do their thing."

The drafting of Bush, the presence of a big running back in Deuce McAllister, and the aforementioned talks about the dying breed of fullbacks, could have naturally put quite a damper on Karney's spirits last April. Nonetheless, those concerns were actually dismissed months before Karney signed his extension. "We'll have a lot schemes with just both of them in the backfield," explained Karney. "So, some of the calls were from people that were concerned about my position being reduced or eliminated. Right after the draft, Coach Peyton pulled me aside and told me that they still have a lot of work cut out for me. I believed him and the contract extension obviously showed that the team wants me as part of their offense. This is a very exciting situation having so many different running back formations and giving teams a lot of headaches."

The fullback has been in the valley on and off for the last month, training in Tempe's Athlete's Performance institute and just a stone throw away from his old stomping grounds at ASU. "I saw (ASU' strength and conditioning) coach Joe Kenn and he told me how hard the players are working this summer," said Karney. "I'm real curious to see how well the players will do, because all the players that I played with have now moved on."

Karney pointed out that the brand new coaching staff and the addition of players such as Brees and Bush, has brought to the city of New Orleans much needed hope and excitement. "It was awesome to see so many people come watch us at mini-camp," he commented." I was real excited about that. We have a real challenge ahead of us and it will be exciting to try and be successful and get this thing going again."

The contract extension is obviously enough of a reward for his hard work. However, Karney would love to see the team strongly rebound from a season that has dealt them a very tough set of circumstances. "As an athlete, other than facing a serious injury, I don't think any player could go through something worse than we went through," explained Karney. "We really had to grind it out, and come Sunday we were definitely at a disadvantage. We were flown everywhere, we didn't have a proper practice facility, weight room…things that a professional team needs to be successful. We still went out and performed as well as we could, and we were in a lot of games."

"I have a chip on my shoulder," continued Karney, "wanting to prove a lot of things after what we went through and the team is too. We took a lot from that experience professionally and personally, and we're definitely using it as motivation. We're all excited and anxious to for this season, and give our fans something they missed out on last year which is a winning season and hopefully a playoff team."

Cynics will say that professionalism is the NFL isn't always appreciated, and those who stray from that path usually don't suffer the consequences they should. If that is true, you can call Mike Karney a shining exception. "What I have done the last two years is just keep my mouth shut and work hard, stuff I've always done," he said. "This is a high risk - high reward business, and if you do your job well, with class and respect, you will be rewarded. That's what happened to me."

Indeed, nice guys don't always finish last.

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