Front and center

Editor's note: This story appeared in the Sept. 8, 2001 issue of Packer Report.<p>

Mike Flanagan has finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel – literally and figuratively. On Sept. 9, he charged out onto Lambeau Field for the season opener as the Green Bay Packers' starting center. Not starting temporarily, as he did for two games last season. But starting until further notice.

At age 27, Flanagan has been installed as Green Bay's new man in the middle, replacing Frank Winters, 37, a grizzled warrior of the trenches who's spent the majority of the last nine years manning that position. Winters held off Flanagan the last two seasons, but the coaching staff decided it was Flanagan's job to lose heading into 2001 training camp, opting for youth and athleticism over veteran savvy and experience.

Through the dog days of August, Flanagan's grip remained vice-tight, even as Winters continued to plug away with the second-string unit.

"I'm just taking it day by day right now," Flanagan said. "Frank and I, whatever the situation we have right now ... nothing's sealed in stone. I'm just trying to prove that it's my job and worry about the other stuff later."

For Flanagan to have even made it to the starting lineup is an odyssey in itself. He was drafted in the third round in 1996 to be the heir apparent to Winters. At 6-foot-3 and 297 pounds, he was a bit smaller physically, but had the quickness and athletic ability teams crave. A three-year starter for the Bruins, he was an All-Pac 10 selection as a junior while current Packer general Manager and head coach Mike Sherman served as his position coach. Flanagan repeated the honor as a senior.

After several mini-camps and a solid training camp in Green Bay, it looked like Flanagan was everything he was advertised to be. He played well in the 1996 preseason opener, but on Aug. 11 against the Steelers, Flanagan was involved in the kind of snapping no center ever wants to experience.

Running down as part of the return team on the game's opening kickoff, the Steelers Jon Whitman struck Flanagan just above the right ankle with his helmet while trying to make a tackle. Both bones in Flanagan's lower leg were broken and thus began a journey to reclaim an NFL career that seemed taken from him before he even got started.

A stabilizing rod was placed in the larger bone of Flanagan's leg and he spent the rest of his rookie season on injured reserve. Things went from bad to worse when muscle and never damage in the leg sidelined him for most of his second season on the physically unable to perform list.

"You keep working and there's such little progress," Flanagan said. "It's tough to do. It's maybe not as strenuous physically as going out there and playing, but mentally, it's definitely hard on you. You keep working everyday and some days, less is more and some days more is less.

"You've just got to be able to find a way and the guys here, the medical staff did a great job of getting me back."

Just when it looked like Flanagan had worked his way back onto the Packers' active roster in 1998, he was traded late in training camp to the Carolina Panthers for a fourth round pick, then promptly failed the physical when team doctors deemed his leg too big of a risk.

"There were a couple of points where in the back of my mind I thought I was done," Flanagan said. "I had all my ducks in a row if things weren't going to work out. I was hoping it wasn't going to happen, but I was prepared for it."

But just as quickly as former Packer general manager Ron Wolf pulled the trigger on the trade, he welcomed Flanagan back. Two years and six surgeries after arriving in Green Bay, Flanagan finally got his first taste of action, seeing limited playing time throughout the season, primarily on special teams.

Now, two years later, Flanagan can no longer be kept off the field.

Though age became a factor in the decision, it would've been a non-issue had Flanagan not battled his way back through his career-threatening injury and demonstrated the ability to be an effective, if not excellent starting center.

"Oh, he's a good football player, gosh," offensive line coach Larry Beightol said. "And he's not very well known. And he shouldn't be, he's been backing up Frank Winters. Frank is well known and still the ultimate pro, but Flanny is going to be a great football player for us. People are going to sit up and take notice. He's so athletic, he's so quick. He's just an ideal guy in my opinion for the things we want to get done and I'm so excited about having him. He'll be a great, great player for us."

If he's as just as good or better than his predecessor, then the Packer's patience – and Flanagan's perseverance – will truly have paid off.

"They were definitely patient with me and I've been patient playing behind Frank for a long time now," Flanagan said. "They think it's my turn to play and hopefully, I can prove them right."

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