Illustrating Jeff Saturday's Journey from Undrafted Free Agent to All-Time Great

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Illustrating Jeff Saturday's Journey from Undrafted Free Agent to All-Time Great
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It's the best kind of story in the NFL. An undrafted player of whom very little was expected goes on to become a star, a Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion.

That's the story of Jeff Saturday, who was released by the Green Bay Packers on Tuesday according to The Associated Press via The Boston Herald.

That move ostensibly clears the way for Saturday to sign a one-day contract with the Indianapolis Colts, the team with whom Saturday spent all but one of his 14 seasons in the NFL.

Not bad for a guy who sold electrical supplies.

Georgia Beginnings

Saturday was born on June 18, 1975 in Decatur, Georgia, and started for Shamrock High in his hometown. In fact, as high school coach Ron Gartrell told Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated in 2012, the team's philosophy was pretty simple with Saturday on the field.

"Eighty percent of our offense was behind Jeff," says Gartrell, now the coach at Stephenson High in Stone Mountain, Ga. "On defense we put Jeff on one side and all our other good players on the other side, because teams ran away from Jeff."

However, despite the fact that Shamrock had sent numerous kids on to the SEC, no schools in that conference would bite on Saturday, who they told Gartrell "was too short and his arms were too short to play in that league."

Georgia Tech also wasn't interested, but after calling in a favor Gartrell was able to get Saturday a scholarship to the University of North Carolina.

Photo Courtesy of FanBase

Kicking Butt in Chapel Hill

Saturday joined a North Carolina team that was among the better football schools in the ACC at the time, and by the end of his freshman year Saturday had worked his way into the starting lineup.

Saturday went on to become a two-time All-ACC performer, with the team going 21–3 over Saturday's last two seasons. Teammate Nate Hobgood-Chittick, who himself went on to a three-year NFL career that included a Super Bowl win, told Layden that Saturday had no problem holding his own in practice against the likes of Greg Ellis and Vonnie Holliday, both of whom went on to long NFL careers.

"Jeff kicked our a***s all over the practice field," says Hobgood-Chittick, now a retirement specialist and financial planner in Los Angeles. "I could count on one hand the number of times I beat him in a one-on-one drill, and if it happened, I celebrated."

The NFL Says No Thanks

However, upon leaving North Carolina, Saturday's smallish size once again became an issue.

In their 1998 NFL Draft preview Sports Illustrated called Saturday a "tenacious overachiever" but said that Saturday was the "type of guy you pull for but may struggle to make an NFL team."

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Meet the man who saved Jeff Saturday's NFL career

Apparently the NFL agreed. Saturday went undrafted, and although he was signed as a free agent by the Baltimore Ravens, he was waived that June.

Saturday, believing that was it, went back to North Carolina and took a job in sales.

An Old Friend Opens a Door

That very well might have been the end of Saturday's football career were it not for the aforementioned
Hobgood-Chittick, who had latched on with the Indianapolis Colts.

SI's Layden continues the story.

"I had no footing at all with that franchise, so I stood outside Polian's door in my dirty sweats, saying a prayer," says Hobgood-Chittick. "I walked in and said, 'There's a guy selling electrical supplies in Raleigh right now who whipped all those first-round draft choices at North Carolina every day.' Polian looked at me and said, 'I love it. Let's get him in here for a workout.'"

The Colts, who lost third-round draft pick Brandon Burlsworth to a fatal automobile accident that spring, signed Saturday.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Eh, Why Not? Maybe this Saturday kid will turn out to be decent.

He played 11 games at guard for the Colts that season, and after asking offensive line coach Howard Mudd after the season if he should renew his apartment lease Saturday was told "Hell, you're not going anywhere."

A Decade of Dominance

The only move that Saturday made for a very long time after that was one slot down the line to center.

Beginning in the 2000 season, Saturday started 85 straight games at center for the Colts before missing two games toward the end of the 2004 season.

Saturday served as the Colts' starting center for 12 seasons, earning five trips to the Pro Bowl and serving as the anchor of an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the National Football League for three straight seasons from 2004–2006.

Granted, having Peyton Manning at quarterback didn't hurt. However, Manning appreciated Saturday just as much as Saturday appreciated Manning.

The two had adjoining lockers, spent considerable time together in the offseason and developed a strong friendship, one that teammate Charlie Johnson joked about with with Joe Capozzi of The Palm Beach Post in 2010.

"Those two, it's kind of like an old married couple,' said offensive tackle Charlie Johnson. "They've spent so much time together that they know everything about each other. They know what irks the other one, but at the end of the day they just want to be successful and get along."

No quarterback and center have shared more exchanges in NFL history.

The NFL's Pinnacle

If Manning and Saturday were the NFL's "old married couple," then the 2006 season was their vacation to Aruba.

That season, after years of playoff disappointments, the Colts finally got over the hill.

The Colts were propelled to a berth in Super Bowl XLI by a victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, thanks in large part to Saturday, who scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery and paved the way for Joseph Addai's game-sealing score.

According to Jeff Rabjohns of The Indianapolis Star Saturday dubbed his pancake of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork "The Block," and the Colts went on to beat the Chicago Bears and claim the Lombardi Trophy.

An Ignominious End

They say that all good things must come to an end, and after a 2–14 debacle of a season in 2011, the Colts cleaned house.

Among the players who departed were both Manning, who joined the Denver Broncos, and Saturday, who signed a two-year deal with the Green Bay Packers.

According to Tom Silverstein of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel the first call that Saturday placed after signing with the Packers was to Manning, to let his old friend know that he wouldn't be joining him in the Mile High City.

"Peyton is a close friend and I loved playing with him," Saturday said. "I loved the time we spent together. It was the most difficult call I've ever made. I told him before anyone else that I was going to Green Bay. I told him I don't think the Broncos wanted me as much as he did. They've got things going on that they're happy with and are moving forward with and I didn't think it was an exact fit. I always felt like in Green Bay I was their very first choice."

However, Saturday wasn't the fit for which the Packers hoped. Maybe it was age, or a new team. Maybe it was some of both, but Saturday struggled mightily in Titletown, grading out as one of the worst centers in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
It was a miserable 2012 campaign in Green Bay for Saturday

By the end of the 2012 season Saturday was out of the starting lineup and the writing was on the wall.

One Last Day in the Sun

Voting for the Pro Bowl is a joke, but for once even though they got it wrong, they got it right.

Despite a miserable 2012 season Saturday was named to a sixth Pro Bowl, and that set the stage for the play of the game in Honolulu.

Granted, it was far from flashy, but for one play Saturday switched teams, joined the AFC, and one final time snapped the ball to his friend Peyton Manning.

As Saturday told a sideline reporter via Kareem Copeland of NFL.com at the time, he couldn't have scripted a better end to his career after announcing his retirement in January.

"After doing it that long with him, we figured it was our last run together, might as well get one more," Saturday said during a sideline interview. "That was something special I'll always remember."

And that brings us to today, to the end of a phenomenal career and the beginning of the next stage of Jeff Saturday's life.

That may well involve coaching, as Saturday could certainly teach young men something about overcoming obstacles both on and off the gridiron.

Will he reach the Hall of Fame? That's debatable.

There's no debating, however, that Jeff Saturday was a very good center for a very long time.

And that's not bad for a guy selling electrical supplies.

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