O'Hara: Dominic Raiola is keeping pace in the race against time

Posted Sep 3, 2013

Entering his 13th season, the numbers, milestones and years are stacking up, but the reality of continuing his career is as important as ever

Dominic Raiola is keeping pace in the race with time. Time beats everyone in sports. Teammates, friends, opponents, enemies – they all lose out to time.

Someday Raiola will be another victim in the race against time, but it hasn't happened this year. He is beginning his 13th season. When the Lions play the Vikings at Ford Field on Sunday, it will be his 12th start to a season as the starting center on opening day.

The numbers, milestones and years are stacking up, but the reality of continuing his career is as important as ever.

Dominic RaiolaC Dominic Raiola (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

"It's pretty awesome when you think about it," Raiola said the other day. "You don't expect a lot of vets to play 13 years in one place. That's quite an honor, to be in one place.

"At the same time, you want to see the place better when you leave than when you came in. That's my number one thing now – to make sure this team is good to go."

Raiola heard the clock ticking and time racing him to the finish line the first day he came to the Lions in 2001 as a second-round draft pick out of Nebraska.

He had won the Rimington Award, given to the best college football's best center, but that meant nothing when he got to the NFL and had to learn new blocking systems.

"When I was a rookie, everything was so fast," he said. "I was learning pass blocking, coming from an option."

He remembers making the same mistakes, lunging to deliver blocks, and hearing doubts from his own voice: "I might not get this."

He got it. He was a reserve for all 16 games as a rookie and a starter in his second year.

Raiola has advanced to become the Lions' elder statesman in terms of service with the franchise.

Only kicker David Akers, beginning his 15th season, has played more NFL seasons. Akers, 38, is the only Lion older than Raiola, who is 34.

The offseason retirements of kicker Jason Hanson, a Lion since 1992, and offensive tackle Jeff Backus, also a 2001 Lions draft alum, have left Raiola atop the Lions' seniority ladder.

It is rarefied air, and not just as a Lion. Of the 246 players drafted in 2001, Raiola is one of only three who are still active with their original team.

The other two are wide receivers Reggie Wayne of the Colts and Steve Smith of the Panthers.

Other 2001 draftees such as nose tackle Casey Hampton of the Steelers and safety Adrian Wilson of the Cardinals were let go by their teams after the 2012 season.

Raiola has missed only four games as a Lion. All were in 2008 because of a wrist injury. He has played in 188 games and started 172 since opening day of 2012.

As a rookie, Raiola never thought about longevity.

"I was fighting for my life just to get a year," he said. "Thirteen years down the road, it's crazy.

Raiola faced a serious challenge for his starting job for the first time this year.

Last year the Lions claimed Bill Nagy off injured waivers from Dallas. The Lions liked what they had seen in Nagy's limited action, and took a flyer on him as a low-risk waiver claim.

Nagy spent all of last season on injured reserve and was expected to compete at center or guard this year. Nagy never got healthy and was released by the Lions just before the start of camp.

Raiola is closing in on some milestones. He is fifth on the franchise's all-time list with 188 regular season games played. Hanson holds the record with 327.

Wayne Walker, a linebacker, has played 200 games, the most of any position player. Raiola needs 13 games to pass Walker.

Raiola has expressed a desire to get to 200 starts. He has 172 and can hit the 200 mark if he is still starting next year.

That seems less unlikely than it might have a year ago. In the offseason, Raiola bulked up to 315 pounds, about 20 more than his former playing weight.

That no doubt was a reaction to comments made by general manager Martin Mayhew that the offensive line had to limit the interior pressure teams were getting on quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Raiola has never taken his job for granted. He has expected to start, but he worked to keep his job.

"I see a lot of turnover at every position," he said. "I can say I've never taken my job for granted. It might be better to ask other people that, but I don't think so."