In the NFL, there is a shelf life on everything – from owners to general managers to coaches to players. Every one of them has an expiration date and, with the exception of ownership, lasting a decade or more is a rarity.
With the announced retirement of Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Phil Loadholt, the last remnant of the Vikings draft class of 2009, which also included electric wide receiver Percy Harvin, is gone.
Loadholt wasn’t ready to walk away from the game he loved. But, as players are wont to say, it is what it is. His body didn’t give him that choice.
Anyone’s first meeting with Loadholt was memorable. At 6-foot-8, 365 pounds, he casts an impressive shadow that, at the right time of day, could extend half a practice field. The best thing about Loadholt was that his heart was proportionally sized to his gigantic frame.
Few players could look more imposing to small children, from whose perspective he would appear to be about 25-feet tall. But few could immediately melt their hearts like Loadholt.
There are players who yell and scream, full of hyper adrenaline, to show how much they love the game. Loadholt was never one of those guys. He is soft-spoken. More times than not, if it wasn’t immediately following a loss, there would be a smile on his face – either the one that was there when you showed up or one you could coax out of him.
For both Loadholt and Harvin, their careers started at what any NFL rookie would call the “God spot.” They were rookie starters who were going to play with arguably the greatest quarterback of all time – the Ol’ Gunslinger Brett Favre.
They were both were caught in between a coaching staff that was hard-nosed and by the book (Brad Childress) and a grumpy old man in NFL terminology (Brett Favre) who was most sincerely pissed and wanted to exact a little revenge.
Loadholt got a freshman initiation into the NFL with one of the most impressive NFL rocket rides in recent history. What was said behind closed doors by Favre to his younger teammates – including “I’m the only guy on the team born in the ‘70s” – became the rallying point of that team.
How Harvin and Loadholt reacted to that early taste of success was very different. Harvin used it as a springboard to demand to be a bigger part of the Vikings offense – and then Seattle and the Jets and the Bills. Loadholt quietly went about his business and put his name in the history books of the Vikings as one of the better right tackles the team has produced.
Loadholt survived two coaching changes and remained a starter whose name was written in pen when the team created depth charts year after year. He was as big a lynch pin at his position as Adrian Peterson and Chad Greenway were at theirs. The Vikings would endure tough times and enjoy success in the intervening years, but Loadholt was a solidifying influence up until the point his body quit cooperating.
In the 33 games the Vikings played under current head coach Mike Zimmer, Loadholt missed the 22 of them due to injury – a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2014 season 11 games in and he missed all of 2015 with a torn Achilles tendon.
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While there could be the sentiment to feel sorry for Loadholt and how his career came to an end at the age of 30, he isn’t looking for sympathy. He has already said he will be a Viking for life and the closing of this chapter of his life is merely the beginning of the next chapter.
History may not remember Loadholt as one of the all-time great Vikings, but when he was on the field he quietly went about his business and taught teammates leadership by example. He wasn’t a divisive influence, he was a consummate teammate – something that will never be a lost art in the NFL, but something that is missed once you no longer have it.
The show will go on in 2016 without Loadholt as it did last year and the last month of the 2014 season, but when it comes to the contribution a player made to his coaches, teammates and his community, Loadholt will remain one of the all-time Vikings – a player who gave of himself in a quiet, positive way to make those around him better, whether they were teammates or not.