Raiola will play in his 200th game against the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. It’s a nice, round number – a "cool number" as Raiola blithely puts it – and a testament to his passion to play football and his commitment to prepare for the rigors of playing center in the NFL.
For Raiola, the milestone is just that – a milestone. It’s not an end point in his career. He’ll pass it by and move on to other goals that are more important to him.
"I haven’t thought much about it, just because of where we’re at," Raiola said earlier this week, referring to the Lions’ battle to remain in first place in the NFC North.
"It’s kind of a personal thing. It’s special. It’s a cool number, a nice round number. The biggest thing, if you want to talk personal, is that 200 starts would be a lot more."
He isn’t downplaying 200 games, though.
"Playing 200 games in the NFL – if you’d told me that when I got drafted, I’d say you’re crazy," he said.
Playing in his 200th game will tie Wayne Walker for the most by a position player in franchise history. Walker, a linebacker who occasionally doubled as the kicker, played 200 games from 1958-72. Kicker Jason Hanson is No. 1 on the all-time list with 327 games in 21 seasons, from 1992-2002.
Raiola has played every game in 12 of his 13 seasons since coming to the Lions in 2001 as a second-round draft pick in 2001.
The only games he missed were four in a row in 2008 because of an injured right thumb sustained in a loss at Chicago in Game 8.
Raiola snaps the ball right-handed. He was so intent on not missing any games that on the flight back to Detroit he held a football in his left hand and practiced snapping it. It was no go. He underwent surgery and returned after missing four games.
Raiola was a backup for all 16 games of his rookie season and became a starter in 2002. Thursday’s start will be his 184th, leaving him a full season short of reaching 200. Raiola can get to 200 starts in Game 12 of next season, assuming he remains healthy and continues playing.
There might have been some doubt about Raiola remaining a Lion going into this season. He was on the final year of his contract, and it was restructured in the offseason to reduce his base salary from $4 million to about $1 million.
The Lions also had claimed Bill Nagy on waivers from Dallas last year with the expectation that he might recover from an ankle injury and compete for Raiola’s job. Nagy never got healthy and was released.
Raiola’s competitive will was apparent in his approach in the offseason. He put on about 20 pounds to add bulk to help shore up the interior of the offensive line, and he did it in a way that did not compromise the quickness that has been one of his major physical assets.
The result is that at 34 – he turns 35 on Dec. 30 – Raiola is having his best season in many years. He is playing at a level that could earn him the first Pro Bowl berth of his career.
"It’s his best year since I’ve been here," said Scott Linehan, in his fifth year as the Lions’ offensive coordinator. "This is the year where I think he’s played his most consistent football, from game-to-game, week-to-week."
One thing that hasn’t changed is how much Raiola enjoys every facet of football, from offseason training to playing on Sunday and everything in between.
"He’s not playing this game because it’s a job," Linehan said. "It’s what he loves. He loves everything about the competition. He loves it all."
"He loves it," Sims said. "He loves preparing in the offseason. He’s been my lifting partner for four years. He pushed me to the limit. He pushes himself to the limit.
"Guys who get to as many years as he has, they say, ‘Look, if somebody calls me, I’ll go play. I’ve made enough money.’
"He’s just as hungry as the rookies are to get in there and play. He doesn’t want this to be over for him."
Raiola’s contract is up after this year. He has said many times that he wants to remain a Lion. With the way he has played, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be back in Detroit.
No matter what, Raiola isn’t looking forward to retirement. Playing football has never been a chore. He’s never dreaded come to work.
"Never," he said. "Not one day. Nope. Not even the offseason. There’s never a bad day here.
"Can you imagine me in a cubicle?"