GUY RAZ, HOST:
With the NFL regular season hitting full steam tomorrow, one player will add another year to an already record-setting career. The Detroit Lions' Jason Hanson, the team's placekicker, is the oldest active player in the NFL, and he's been with the same team longer than anyone in the history of the league. WDET's Quinn Klinefelter has this profile.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: On a spacious practice field, 42-year-old Jason Hanson tugs a cap down over his balding head and surveys a Detroit Lions squad filled mostly with players about half his age.
JASON HANSON: It's a crack up. They call me pops and all kinds of hilarious things. And I don't let my beard grow out much because there's too much gray in it. And, you know, as long as I don't look in the mirror on the way to the shower or something, I still feel like a player.
KLINEFELTER: At a time when NFL players often switch teams in search of a bigger paycheck, Hanson's entering his 21st consecutive season with the Lions. And he knows he could be one bad kick away from the unemployment line. The Baltimore Ravens cut steady kicker Billy Cundiff before the season began. He had missed a short field goal last season that cost the team a trip to the Super Bowl.
HANSON: Pressure-wise, it's as scary as anything in sports, I think, any more in the NFL. There's no forgiveness if you miss. And it's a lot of money at stake and a lot of jobs.
KLINEFELTER: The stakes rise dramatically when a kick needs to be made from the magic midway point of the gridiron. Splitting the goal posts from 50 or more yards away is a measure of a kicker's worth and never a certainty.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Jason Hanson on now to attempt a 51-yard field goal.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the field goal attempt is no good.
KLINEFELTER: Yet Hanson calls that particular kick an anomaly, not a sign that age is robbing his leg of its strength.
HANSON: I think over the last three or four years, I have as many 50-yarders as anyone in the NFL. I feel like I need my team to know that I can still do that for me to have a job. Otherwise, they'll go get a young guy who can.
KLINEFELTER: The Lions have auditioned other kickers as the team repeatedly changed coaches and general managers in search of a winning formula. Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King says Detroit finally returned to the playoffs last year because the team's current regime infused the roster with talented youth and committed to its 42-year-old kicker.
PETER KING: These guys are not married to Jason Hanson. They're married to the guy who's going to help them win games. And year after year, training camp after training camp, he beats out the best and the brightest from the guys in college football. And that's why it's so admirable a story to me.
KLINEFELTER: That longevity earns Hanson admiration on the field and in the locker room. Long snapper Don Muhlbach has spent the past nine seasons hiking the ball for Hanson to kick.
DON MUHLBACH: Twenty-one years in. That's - that earns enough respect from everybody in here. The biggest compliment I get is when we play other teams and the other kickers come out in their pregame and watch him and just are in awe that he can still kick just as far or further than them and they're fresh out of college. And they're wondering how this guy can do it.
KLINEFELTER: Though kickers are often stereotyped as quirky, Jason Hanson says he has no lucky charms he touches before hitting the field. Instead, he strives to maintain a routine, to the point where he says even his own kids find him a bit boring when they pretend to be him in a football video game.
HANSON: They go into the player profile, pull me up, make me like 300 pounds, give me a neck roll, tattoos and stick me in the backfield and just crack up as I was getting wiped out and, you know, couldn't even get around the line. It was horrible. But they had more fun doing that than having me kick.
KLINEFELTER: But in the real world of the NFL, the Detroit Lions coaches appear confident that when the game is on the line, the oldest player in the league can still deliver the winning kick. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.