Lineman Caught In Numbers Game

Defensive lineman Matt Mitrione has flashed some impressive athleticism during the preseason, but on a defensive line loaded with high draft picks Mitrione might be auditioning for other NFL teams if he can't secure a backup spot with the Vikings. Either way, his story is one of overcoming much, taking advantage of opportunities and having confidence in his abilities.

Matt Mitrione isn't scheduled to make a million dollars, but he has a foot that has racked up that much in medical bills, he says.

Mitrione, a high-energy defensive lineman looking to find an NFL home in his second NFL season – he was placed on injured reserve for another season – had a bum foot that has sidelined his pro career. He now finds himself with the Vikings and searching for a coveted roster spot at a position loaded with young talent.

"I think I'm a good player, so as long as I play to my responsibilities that I know, I should be fine. I don't ever expect to get cut. I can get cut because of numbers," he said, assessing his chances to make the Vikings.

In order to stick with the team, he likely will have to beat out a player like Spencer Johnson, an undrafted rookie last year that ended up starting seven games at defensive tackle. Now Johnson is being used as a left end and a swingman along the line. That's also Mitrione's role this preseason, but he will have to convince coaches of his reliability and his health in order for him to survive the final cuts.

After playing in nine games with the New York Giants in 2002, Mitrione had his foot reconstructed. Doctors cut off part of his heel off and reattached it. The signs of that surgery still show clearly, with the hole where the screw was inserted still visible. It took six months for that hole to close, he said, but Mitrione doesn't feel the affects of it anymore.

"College is a meat market. They lied to me and told me it was just a sprain," he said of his days at Purdue. "I told them it wasn't right, so I finally went to a doctor. He didn't even look at it, he just read my report and told me I had a broken navicular bone. They did a CAT scan on it and he played with the pain during his senior year.

Between all the medical fees, specialists, tests and surgeries, "this is the million dollar foot," Mitrione said. "Probably about $1.2- or $1.1 million."

When he went to the New York Giants, he passed their physical. He played on the foot his rookie season, then found out he had broken it again. In 2003, he had six surgeries – all on his foot. Eventually, he caught a staph infection in his foot, which meant he had to give himself intravenous fluids every 12 hours for five weeks.

"After all that, I was done. I didn't want to play again," he said.

But he eventually changed his mind. After thinking about his future and talking it over with his wife, he allowed his agent to put his name in for NFL Europe this spring. He started out with Rhein, then was traded to Amsterdam, where he said he played about 12 plays in three games. After being traded to Frankfurt, his statistics blew up. He led the league in sacks up until Week 8, he said. He eventually finished the season with four sacks, three behind the league leader.

Because he was a free agent and not allocated by a specific NFL team, NFL Europe rules stipulated that his playing time be limited.

"It was actually good because it let me get back into my body and I didn't get ran through the ringer," he said. "It was a great warmup. So now I'm back in body, at least I feel like I am."

When he returned from Europe, the Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, Vikings and San Francisco 49ers were among the teams interested in him. He got a good offer from the Lions, he said, and he knew he wasn't going to go back to the 49ers, calling it a "poorly run organization."

"Dr. York has no clue what he's doing over there," Mitrione said of the 49ers owner. "I was in the training room because of my foot. They were having salary cap issues and he was in there and asked, ‘Why can't they just play both ways?' He asked it with a totally serious face."

New England also entered the Mitrione bidding process late, interested in Mitrione as an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. It was tempting going to the world champions, but he said he didn't want to learn a new position in the NFL. When all the offers were in, he decided to turn down bonus money from Detroit and Baltimore to come to Minnesota and work as a right end and nickel defensive tackle.

"Looking at numbers and what they could use and the style of front that Coach (Ted) Cottrell runs, I think that it would help me out. (Cottrell's scheme) is aggressive. It's real aggressive. You get upfield, hardly any two-gapping. If you're an athlete, you can play here, and that's my claim to fame," he said.

He'd like to be part of the turnaround for the Vikings on offense and sees a lot of talent.

"On paper, this team is just obscene. It's very, very good," Mitrione said. "You haven't seen (Fred) Smoot out there yet … but line-wise and linebacker-wise, everything flows very, very well."

Now, he said, his foot is back to feeling normal, even if it does have the distinctive marks on his heel, reminding him of a painful era in his life only two years ago.

"I don't ever think about it," he said. "Sometimes my feet get sore, but it's just my muscles. … Pain-wise, it's not there at all."

His challenge with the Vikings over the next week or two, besides playing the roster numbers game, will be settling into a position where he is most comfortable. He knows that position for him is right defensive tackle, but he can play all four positions. Problem is, the Vikings already have several swingmen.

"It's tricky, man. I don't know. It's complicated, but I don't get paid to figure that out," he said of the Vikings' numbers game. "This is going to sound rude, but I'm being honest: I'm playing for 32 teams. … If it doesn't work out (with the Vikings), someone is going to want a hard-working kid who can play something."

In two preseason games, he has accumulated four tackles, but he missed an opportunity for a sack in the preseason opener when he was juked by a Kansas City quarterback.

"I'm pissed that I missed that sack," Mitrione said. "It was close, but they don't pay you to be close."

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