Wisniewski's NFL road coming to an end

Lost amid the talk about Darrell Russell's latest suspension, Sebastian Janikowski's latest foot infection and Oakland's latest problems trying to win a game has been the coming to an end of truly one of the greatest eras in team history.

For when the Raiders trot onto the field at Networks Associates Coliseum to open the playoffs Saturday evening against the New York Jets, it will be in all likelihood the final home game of Steve Wisniewski's NFL career. For the last 13 seasons Wisniewski has been Al Davis' starting left tackle for all but one Sunday afternoon in 1991. He has started the last 161 games, a team record, and looks in as good a shape as he did when he stepped into the league as a rookie out of Penn State in 1989. Along the way Wisniewski has earned himself a reputation as one of the game's best offensive linemen, garnering eight trips to the Pro Bowl while carving a reputation in Raiders lore that leaves him mentioned in the same breath as Hall-of-Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. Wisniewski will undoubtedly soon join Shell and Upshaw in the Canton fraternity, donning one of the fabled yellow jackets that serve to distinguish the very best players in NFL history from the very good. When that day comes, and it will, Wisniewski probably won't speak from written notes. He'll say all the right things, straight from the heart, and speak in the well-mannered and educated tone he has always had. But when he steps down from the podium and rejoins his family, Wisniewski might never talk about the honor again. He has no mementos or any signs of his football career in his home in Northern California and draws a very distinct line in the dirt between his personal and professional lives. Wisniewski had expected to retire after last season and it wasn't until head coach Jon Gruden and several teammates and team executives phoned Wisniewski repeatedly and essentially begged him to come back did the 34-year-old decide to suit up for one final year. He also made it perfectly clear that there would be no repeat performance next year. This, the 2001 season, was his farewell tour, his final good-bye to the game that helped shape him but in no way defined him. The time for Steve Wisniewski the football player has now been replaced by the need for Steve Wisniewski the father, soccer coach, budding pastor and devout Christian. Like former teammate Napoleon Kaufman, who walked away from the NFL and a multi-million dollar contract at the height of his career to pursue his faith and a future in ministry, so too has Wisniewski felt the pull to step down. No more sets, formations and playbooks. Now it's hymns, sermons and the Bible. It's fitting that, when that last home game comes, Wisniewski will be the first face the crowd sees on the scoreboard when the Raiders players start making their way down the tunnel. It's been that way since the team returned from Los Angeles in 1995. And though Wisniewski played the first six seasons of his NFL career in Southern California, he has always been one of the most popular players with the faithful in Oakland. Jim Otto, the legendary center who epitomized the franchise's grit and toughness in its early days, was often referred to as Mr. Raider. But in the last half-decade or so, it's become clear that Otto would at least have to share that crown with Wisniewski. It was Kaufman, in fact, who remarked one day that he believed the man behind the patch on the Raiders' logo was Steve Wisniewski. Yet there is so much more to Wisniewski than football and he has decided that the time is now to fully explore those other aspects of his life. That's why when the Raiders open training camp in Napa next July Wisniewski will be enrolled in a seminary strengthening his faith and pursuing a path set forth by God. Rather than discussing gameplans with teammates, Wisniewski hopes one day to discuss the Gospel with a congregation. In a recent interview with Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole, Wisniewski said that he won't make public appearances to talk football in exchange for money but that he'd go anywhere for free to speak about Jesus Christ and share his faith. It's ironic that at one time Wisniewski was considered one of the game's dirtiest players and was fined heavily at one point for what NFL suits deemed was foul tactics. But in truth, Wiz was just being Wiz and doing what he was taught, to play till the whistle blows, to finish what you start. That's why it's not surprising that with his team now considered a steady playoff contender for the first time in a decade, Wisniewski has no problem walking away. Phillipians 3:13-14 reads, Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. For Steve Wisniewski, the prize has always remained the same. It's not about football or the glory of a Super Bowl championship. And now it's his time to press on.

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