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An Old Bird You Beard At Your Peril
Ralph Wiley
October 06, 1986
Atlanta's Jeff Van Note, 40, is the NFL's oldest player, and after 18 seasons he still has some claws
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October 06, 1986

An Old Bird You Beard At Your Peril

Atlanta's Jeff Van Note, 40, is the NFL's oldest player, and after 18 seasons he still has some claws

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The 1980 Falcons went 12-4. They led the Dallas Cowboys by 10 points with 6:37 left in the NFC semifinal game. They could have gone to the Super Bowl. This was the high-water mark in Van Note's career. For years before and after 1980, the best that could be said about the Falcons was that they had the most fearsome helmet decals in the league. Van Note is the historian of a time long—some would say best—forgotten. Names like Ken Reaves, Jim Mitchell. Charmin' Harmon Wages, Dave Hampton, Dick Shiner, Bob Berry and General Bob Lee may not mean anything in the context of today's youth, but to Van Note they are football history.

"We had a great team in '80, and the coaches blew it," he says. "I'll never get over that." Van Note anchored a strong offensive line that protected quarterback Steve Bartkowski, gave lanes to running back William Andrews and was flanked by receivers Alfred Jenkins and Wallace Francis. "I had always played against the best," Van Note says. "For once, I was part of the best. We had a great offense. No way Dallas can stop us. But we sat on the ball and they scored twice." Dallas won 30-27. "That was the closest I've come to the Super Bowl."

Van Note had rammed into Fearsome Foursomes, Purple People Eaters, Steel Curtains and Doomsday Defenses. He had blocked Huff and Butkus. He had tried to block Mr. Lanier. He had blocked noseguards and defensive tackles with names like Curley and Mean Joe—and lots of others who didn't have the nicknames but who had plenty of talent. Ten years ago Van Note said, "Man, I'm getting old." In 1979, the Falcons' line coach, a fellow named Bill Walsh, said Van Note could play four more years.

Good centers play a long time, longer than anyone else. They don't run anywhere. Their work is done in a small circle of turf. It used to be that Van Note handled the middle linebacker. But the game changed. Now it's 3-4 defenses and names like the Refrigerator. But the snap will always be essential. The center first covers the ball, then gives it away. He's the father of the bride. "You've still got to be committed to play," says Pittsburgh's Webster, himself a 13-year veteran. "Jeff has that commitment. These kids coming in today are phenomenal physical specimens. The 3-4 is more wear and tear on you. Unless you want it very badly, you're done."

During camp this year, Van Note told his wife, "I think they're trying to get rid of me."

The Falcons had tried guard Joe Pellegrini and Jeff Kiewel at the center spot. Kiewel tore up a knee in the exhibition season. Van Note was one of Kiewel's first visitors after surgery. "I like the kid," says Van Note, "even though the speculation is that the only reason I'm still here is because he got hurt." Early on, Van Note had some pretty good luck with injuries; he didn't miss a game because of injury until 1976, when he sprained a knee and sat out the last four games. He didn't need surgery. Then in 1984 he played in spite of a broken ring finger. Now the finger protrudes at an odd angle.

The Falcons' starting center these days is Wayne Radloff, who came to the team in 1985 from the Michigan Panthers (later the Oakland Invaders) of the USFL. Of Van Note, Radloff says, "I have to fight like crazy to keep the job because Jeff just won't back off."

"At $300,000 per year," says Van Note, "I'm an awfully expensive insurance policy for the Falcons. Nobody knows that better than me."

It's the fall of 1986. Curt Flood is concentrating on his oil and acrylic paintings. Ronald Reagan has been President forever. David Archer is the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, who are off to an unexpectedly fine start, 4-0. Jeff Van Note is lifting weights.

"I feel amazement," says second-year guard Bill Fralic, whose destiny is All-Pro. "How can somebody 40 years old bring himself out there and play? It's funny to look next to you and see this s.o.b., who looks as old as my father, executing a block. I ask myself, Why does he do it?" Fralic pauses to place 225 pounds on the bar so Van Note can press it. Jeff does so 10 times without puffing once. "How?" asks Fralic. "Why?"

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