Photo Cred: Indianapolis Colts
By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
Based on how Jeff Saturday’s NFL career began, Las Vegas could have found itself looking for ways to make ends meet if many would have bet he’d play 14 seasons, much less be one of the 11 first-year eligible nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.
But he is.
Undrafted coming out of the University of North Carolina in 1998, the center signed with the Baltimore Ravens as a rookie free agent only to be released before breaking a sweat in training camp. Later that year, his college roommate, Nate Hobgood Chittick, then a defensive lineman who was trying to make the Indianapolis Colts, became an impromptu scout and pitched Saturday’s ability to then-team president Bill Polian.
“I had no idea. He did that on his own,” said Saturday, who had returned to his native Georgia and was selling electrical supplies. “Nate is a passionate guy and he’s going to fight for anybody he believes in and loves and he’s going to put forth what he can. He didn’t promise me anything. He just said, ‘I went in to talk to him and this is how it went down.’ But, no, I had no idea how it would all shake out. It was a selfless act by Nate, for sure.”
After signing as a rookie free agent and appearing in 11 games on special teams, and with two starts at guard in 1999, Saturday wasn’t sure he wouldn’t be back selling circuit breakers when the following season rolled around.
“I went to my (offensive line) coach, Howard Mudd, and said, ‘Hey, my lease is coming up and I don’t want to renew it if you’re going to cut me’ because I had no idea how the NFL works,” Saturday said. “I didn’t have an agent at the time. So, I really didn’t know anything.
“He had this huge belly laugh, leaning back and laughing at me, ‘You have no idea’ with some expletives around it. ‘Yeah, you’re going to be here. Just keep playing like you’re playing and you’ll be just fine.’ He thought it was hysterical that even after my first year I had no idea if I was going to stick around.”
Yeah, Saturday would stick around. Moving to center in 2000, he would be Indianapolis’ starter there for the next 12 seasons with the exception of the 2003 AFC Wild Card playoff game against Denver when he surprisingly returned to guard to successfully combat Broncos defensive end Trevor Price, and help the Colts win, 41-10.
During 13 seasons with Indianapolis and one with the Green Bay Packers, Saturday was a two-time first-team All-Pro and selected to play in six Pro Bowls. He also helped the Colts win Super Bowl XLI.
“I’m really proud of my performance from beginning to end,” said Saturday, a 2015 Colts Ring of Honor inductee. ” Probably the longevity of it and the quality to the length of it. I felt like I always worked to get better. And the guys around me, I pushed them to get better and I felt like they pushed me to get better. And I so respect as an offensive lineman, the guys that you line up and play beside. Those relationships formed are probably what’s most important.
“When you look back, I don’t think about games. I think about times in the game when me and the guard were laughing about some mistake we had made or some great play. I don’t even remember the play, I just remember us talking about it. It’s those relationships that you form throughout your career.
“Being undrafted and coming in, you’re not given anything. You’ve got to earn it all. I felt like those two things together – the relationships and that – are probably the things I’m most proud of.”
Another thing Saturday is rightfully proud of in addition to his wife, Karen, and three kids, Jeffrey, Savannah and Joshua, is to be nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“I was fired up, man. I was shocked and excited,” Saturday said. “You look at the list of guys and it’s the who’s who. It is a bunch of great players. To be considered with those guys, whether it’s this time or whenever it is, however it all plays out, my career is better than I deserved. So, I’ll take it all as it comes and enjoy the heck out of it as I’m riding through it.”
When the moment on the field was big, Saturday matched the moment. He studied the game and played as hard as he could. Those are factors that he now tries to convey to his football team as the first-year head coach at the Hebron Christian Academy in Dacula, Georgia.
“I equate football and wrestling, two sports that I did in high school, it takes a different breed to want to play it,” Saturday said. “It’s not always fun. It’s hot, it doesn’t feel good, you’re wearing pads, you’ve got to put this thing on your head and cover your face. It requires all 11 guys doing their particular job. That’s probably the part that I love the most about the game. It does require a true team. It’s just a special game.
“To be able to teach someone something and then watch them take it as their own and then even improve it. Howard Mudd used to tell me all the time, ‘You’ve got to play better than I can coach ya.’ And that’s what I tell my kids.
“It’s such an awesome experience to watch them have success and how it awakens them. I’m sure a teacher has a similar feeling when they’re teaching our kids everyday. That’s really the feeling that you get when you see the light bulb turn on for them.”