Winters won't bow to Flanagan without a fight

Summer, 1996. It was his rookie season and Mike Flanagan was ready. Really pumped. Amidst the roar of the Lambeau Field crowd, Flanagan and his special teams mates raced downfield on the opening kickoff of an exhibition game. But before the whistle blew to end the play, Flanagan found himself lying on the turf, writhing in pain. He'd broken both bones in his lower right leg and, as television replays showed the devastating hit over and over again, his future in the National

It took Flanagan two years of grueling rehab to get back on the field and then another full season before he'd get a chance to play.

Now, after two more years of laboring in the shadow of veteran center Frank Winters, Flanagan, in his seventh season, is finally ready again. Ready to make his mark and take over the starting center position.

Not so fast. Flanagan may be ready for the job but the 37-year-old Winters is clearly not ready to give it up.

 "My nature is to just go out there and compete and it just brings out the best in everybody," Winters said matter-of-factly to a group of reporters hovering around his locker. "I'm going to go out there, just like I'm sure he will, and give it everything I've got. My goal is like always. I come in and I've been told before that, 'Your career is over' and stuff like that. That's a motivation to me. It's a challenge to me and I thrive on challenges. "I told 'em (Packer coaches) that I'm going to come in here and I'm competing.

I talked to (offensive line coach) Larry (Beightol) and Sherm (head coach Mike Sherman) and I told them that I'm not going to just come in here and lay down. That's not my nature. My nature is to come in here and get after people's asses and that's the way it's going to be. This business is a physical business. That's the way this game is played, especially in the trenches." If it sounds like Winters has a chip on his shoulder, there's a reason. The Packers' brain trust figures there may not be very much gas left in his aging tank.

Winters, who has been the club's starting center since 1992 and helped Green Bay win the Super Bowl in 1996, missed a pair of games last year due to biceps and ankle injuries. Prior to that, he had started every game in five of his nine seasons with Green Bay, playing in 136 of a possible 144 games and making the Pro Bowl squad in 1996 and 1999.

That kind of resume had many observers comparing Winters to Brett Favre in the durability department. But nothing lasts forever. The team has let it be known that if both players are close in performance this training camp, the nod goes to Flanagan.

 During the off-season, Winters took a pay cut from $1.89 million to $500,000 so the Packers wouldn't release him because of the salary cap. He also was given a $250,000 guaranteed roster bonus. Winters will enter training camp competing just like he always has. But this time around, he's in the unfamiliar role of underdog, lining up with the second team offense while Flanagan centers the ball with the first team.

 Flanagan, 27, is taking all this talk of a duel between he and Winters in stride and in good humor. "None of this is going to come to a head until August or September. It's interesting I'm sure and I'd read it if I was a fan. I can't blame you but this is a very early stage in all of this." Asked what he has to do to secure the top spot on the depth chart this season, Flanagan says with a chuckle, "Play better than Frank, I guess. Both of us, I mean him and myself, it's just 'You go do what you have to do' and then kind of by jury and decision the best man wins, I guess. Every year is always special when you come back because you know you've got a job. This is an opportunity and I hope I can make the most of it." Ask Flanagan where he wants to improve his game in 2001 and his answer is predictable. "I guess everywhere," he says. "You're never the complete player and, hopefully, little by little I can find out, as camp goes on, the little things I really need to concentrate on and just go from there. So that's a question I have to answer a little later on." Before his demoralizing injury, Flanagan displayed the size and skills to be a solid NFL center for many years. A three-year starter and letterman at UCLA, he was named to two Pac-10 first teams and played in a Rose Bowl. The Packers drafted him in the third round, figuring that one day he'd eventually replace Winters.

 "We think Mike has got all the tools it takes to be an outstanding center in the National Football League," said Beightol. "He's a guy who has great quickness and plays with tremendous leverage." Like Winters, Flanagan's a guy with fierce determination and a tremendous work ethic.

When the Packers signed him to a two-year contract extension following the '99 season, Flanagan said he appreciated the team's loyalty. "They stuck with me during some tough times," he said at the time. "I think I'd probably be out in the real world looking for work if I was on any other team.

" Flanagan and Winters seem to get along pretty well off the field. Will it be hard to separate their friendship from the competition? "I'm sure sometimes there would be situations," Flanagan concedes. "But when I was on the other side of it I never harbored any strange feelings or resentment so I hope it's the same way on his side."

Winters agreed. "I have no hard feelings toward Mike. Mike has nothing to do with it. Competition brings out the best in everybody. I want to go out there just like I'm sure he will. I know if I was at a point where I was beat up and I was falling apart and I couldn't walk or stuff like that, then maybe I'd look in a different direction. But, you know, I'm coming here with a mindset to go out there and do the best I can." May the better man win.


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