O'Hara: Jeff Backus is walking away from football in the same way he played … quietly

Posted Mar 15, 2013

No one could ever question the durability and commitment to the team Backus brought from the day he came to the Lions as a first-round draft pick out of Michigan in 2001

Jeff BackusJeff Backus is walking away from football in the same way he played the game.


No fuss. No fanfare. No press conference in front of the bright lights and microphones. Backus announced his decision to call it quits after 12 seasons as the Lions’ starting offensive line tackle in a statement released Thursday afternoon by the team’s public relations department.

Backus’ work ethic and dedication to the game were summed up in one sentence in his seven paragraph statement.

“It’s a bittersweet moment, but I’m content knowing I gave everything I had, played as hard as I could, and tried my best to live up to the standards I believe in,” Backus said.

Those standards were embodied in the durability and reliability he displayed from the moment Backus came to the Lions in 2001 as a first-round draft pick out of Michigan. Backus missed only one game in his career, starting 191 of a possible 192 regular season games. His franchise-record 186 straight starts ended when he missed last season’s Thanksgiving Day game because of a hamstring injury.

Detroit Lions President Tom Lewand said it was typical of Backus to be away from the limelight in announcing his retirement.

“I can almost assure you he’s out fishing somewhere,” Lewand said. “He’s a genuine person, and he genuinely felt this was the time to hang up his cleats.”

Counting his four seasons at Michigan, Backus was a starter for 16 seasons.

“He’s been a fixture on Saturday and Sunday on the fields in Michigan for almost half his life,” Lewand said.

Backus departed without a sound publicly – literally – but he’s leaving big footprints for younger linemen following him to fill.

As the Lions go forward in 2013 and decide who they will plug into the position Backus held for a dozen years, a look back at his career shows a player with intense desire to play no matter how difficult the conditions.

Backus, who turned 36 in September, played through numerous injuries, and the Lions posted only one winning season in his 12 years. The 2011 team went 10-6 and made the NFC playoffs as a wild card.

As his teammates celebrated in the locker room after a victory over San Diego that clinched a playoff berth, Backus was obviously happy but did not go overboard.

“It’s about damned time,” he said with a satisfied smile.

Backus was a workingman’s football player. Lions fans never fully appreciated his play and often made him a target of their frustration over the team’s sustained losing, but teammates respected the professionalism in how he conducted himself on and off the field.

What could not be questioned by anyone was the durability and commitment to the team Backus brought from the day he came to the Lions as a first-round draft pick out of Michigan in 2001.

His consecutive-starts streak ended in a game against the Packers. He was hurt blocking for an extra-point attempt late in the first half. Backus left the field, limping badly, and tried to continue but the pain and loss of function were too much to overcome.

Rookie Riley Reiff replaced Backus and started on Thanksgiving Day. Backus was made inactive and watched from the sideline.

What was not known to the public was how hard Backus worked in what proved to be a fruitless attempt to play. With only four days between games, there wasn’t enough time to let the injury heal, but Backus hit a blocking dummy during practice to see if his leg was strong enough to play.

The injury failed to respond, but Backus returned the following week and started the last five games.

Center Dominic Raiola, who also came to the Lions in 2001 as a second-round draft pick, often marveled at how Backus played through injuries.

Jeff Backus“More than the streak, he’s a person you can count on,” Raiola told reporters last season. “His accountability level is unbelievable. I don’t think it’s the streak. I think it’s he wants to be out there with us.”

In a discussion near his locker one day last season, Backus was asked about the surgeries players undergo to stay on the field. He started counting his own. When he got to 10, he stopped counting – and never complained.

In 2007, a painful rib injury forced him to leave early in a game against the Eagles. The pain was so intense that it literally hurt to breathe, but Backus never missed a start.

In the offseason after the 2010 season, a torn pectoral muscle sustained during a workout put his availability for training camp in doubt. Backus was healthy midway through camp and never missed a game.

In the playoff loss to New Orleans in the 2011 season, Backus sustained a torn biceps late in the game. Even though the game was out of reach, Backus had the injury wrapped in an attempt to continue playing.

The hamstring injury was one that Backus finally could not overcome. He was able to finish the season and was working out regularly before making his decision to retire.

When Backus reached the end, he departed quietly.