The NFL draft starts some careers, puts others in jeopardy and signals the eventual changing of the guard of many others.
The Lions’ decision to draft Travis Swanson of Arkansas in the third round last week is the sign of the eventual changing of the guard.
In Raiola’s case, it more specifically means the eventual changing of the center. He has been the Lions’ starting center without a significant challenge since opening day of 2002. There is no indication that an immediate change is forthcoming, and Raiola is coming off a 2013 season that was one of the best of his career.
Raiola was at home in Hawaii following the draft on his smartphone when he saw that Swanson was drafted with the 12th pick in the third round and 76th overall. He didn’t panic or mope, but he still was hit with the reminder that being a pro athlete is not a lifetime job.
“When you first hear it, the reality sets in,” Raiola said. “At the same time, I’m like, ‘I’m 35. I can end right now and call this a good career.’”
But he isn’t thinking about calling it a career. Far from it. Swanson showed his durability at Arkansas, starting all 50 games from 2010-13. Raiola will do whatever he can to help Swanson, but he’s not going to surrender his job.
“I think I have a lot left in my tank,” Raiola said. “It’s a good pick. If you look at our room, we added depth to our room. We added somebody who possibly in the future could be that guy.
“My job is to continue to do my job. I know the intricacies of what it takes to play center in this league. I know what it takes to help this team. In the meantime, whatever I can show him, I’m going to show him. And whatever I can help him with, I’m going to help him with.”
Raiola laughed at the suggestion that there might be some gamesmanship with a rookie. There are legendary stories about old-time baseball pitchers who offered “help” to rookies, who followed the advice and wound up on the disabled list on opening day with sore arms.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Raiola said. “It would hurt us. If, God forbid, something happened, we’d need him. He’s got to be prepared, too. If they draft somebody to take my place, I want him to carry on being tough, physical, durable.
“I’m happy for him to get this opportunity. I’m happy to be in this position, as well. I’m 35 going on 36. The organization has to cover itself.”
Raiola spent his rookie season as a backup since being drafted in the second round in 2001. He took over as the starter in 2002 and has started every game except for four in 2008, when he had a wrist injury that required surgery.
Raiola’s longevity puts him among the NFL leaders in games played and started for active players. At the end of last season, he was 16th with 204 games played and ninth with 188 starts. He will move up at the start of 2014 because of the retirement of Tony Gonzalez and London Fletcher.
Raiola passed one milestone last year by playing in his 200th game. He needs 12 starts to reach 200 for his career.
For Raiola, that will not be a stopping point.
“That’s a goal I had in mind,” he said. “Now it’s close enough, it’s 12 more. But like the rest of my career, I’m going to take it like a speed bump in a parking lot. I’m just going to keep going, keep pushing -- keep that car rolling forward.”