Where are they now: Jeff Backus

Jeff Backus was being feted before his senior year at the University of Michigan as a member of the Playboy All-America team for the upcoming 2000 college season when meeting fellow offensive tackle Leonard Davis of Texas at the event in Phoenix gave him doubts about playing in the NFL.

Backus wondered if he measured up physically with a player of Davis' stature.

Davis was a big man who cast a big shadow. Backus felt overshadowed for one of the few times in his life.

"I'm 6-5, 305," Backus said the other day at his home in Dexter. "The first guy I meet is Leonard Davis. He's 6-6, 355. He's like solid steel – no fat.

"I'm thinking that I might not be cut out for this."

Backus paused before adding: "It worked out."

"Worked out" is an understatement.

Backus played 12 seasons as the starting offensive left tackle for the Detroit Lions after being drafted 16th overall in the first round in 2001. He set a franchise record with 187 consecutive starts.

Backus missed only one game in his career – the 2012 Thanksgiving Day game against Houston – because of a hamstring injury sustained in the previous game against the Packers.

Had the Lions been playing on Sunday, instead of the Thursday kickoff, the hamstring likely would have had time to heal with three more days of rest, thus allowing Backus to keep his streak alive.

Backus returned to start the last five games. He retired after the season.

Backus, 42, had a brief coaching stint with the Lions in his first year of retirement. Backus helped offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn during the 2013 offseason, but he decided the life of an assistant coach wasn't for him.

Backus is proud of the legacy of reliability he earned for lining up week after week. That was not easy on a team that struggled to win games in his first 10 seasons before breaking through in 2011 with a 10-6 record and a playoff berth.

"It's just your personal pride," Backus said. "It's pride in myself – not wanting to let my teammates down. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be accountable.

"I think it was driven into my head early on in my career at Michigan – to be dependable, to be consistent, to be a team player. You make sacrifices for your teammates. It's about the team. Those are basic principles.

"That drove me to battle through any type of adversity and injuries. You show up and be ready to play every Sunday."

Backus, 42, has been working in real estate since his retirement and has a builder's license.

Backus and his wife, Regan, have three children –a daughter, Harper, 11, and sons Griffin and Bryson, 9 and 8 respectively.

Backus has no regrets over his career with the Lions, except for the obvious of wishing they had won more games.

"It provided me with experiences that were good and bad, that not many people get to experience," he said. "I learned from those. It helped mold me into the person I am today.

"It provided me with a lifestyle to be able to provide for my family and for us to enjoy ourselves. I got to play 12 years in the NFL for one team in a state I love living in, and that I have a lot of ties to.

"I'm just extremely fortunate."

Backus cherishes his days at Michigan, as he should.

After a redshirt 1996 season, he started 49 straight games in the next four seasons and was a member of the 1997 Wolverines team that won the national championship.

Among his teammates at Michigan were Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, guard Steve Hutchinson and quarterback Tom Brady.

Hutchinson is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2020. Woodson is considered a favorite to be voted into the Hall with the class of 2021.

Brady, of course, is regarded by many as a lock for the Hall of Fame with a record six Super Bowl championships to his credit.

Backus did not foresee greatness for Brady, but he had a high regard for his personal makeup during their days together at Michigan.

"My kids are football fanatics," Backus said. "They can't believe I played with Tom Brady. He's still playing.

"He was just down to earth – very disciplined, very studious. He was just kind of one of the guys, but very respectful. And on the field, I've always said that when you're in the huddle with him, you felt a level of confidence that he was going to get the job done."

Left tackle is one of the premier positions in pro football. Most football people think it's the third most important position on the team, behind quarterback and pass rusher.

From high school through college and his 12 pro seasons, Backus spent his career playing left tackle and protecting his quarterback's blind side.

"You never get a break," Backus said. "You're always playing, most likely, their best defensive lineman – probably their best athlete on the defensive line. You just have to be ready to go. I played it in high school and college, and then with the Lions.

"That's what I knew. Line up and do your job – the best I could, to the best of my ability."

Backus didn't have to wait until the Monday meeting with his position coach to know how he played in a game.

"You just have a gut feeling," he said. "Did I protect the quarterback? Did I give up any sacks? Did I pick up blitzes? Did I make all my calls and adjustments correctly?

"At the end of the game, you have a gut feeling if you did your job and did it well."

Backus felt a sense of accomplishment – and perhaps some relief – when the Lions broke through in 2011 and made the playoffs. They won their first five games, hit a midseason slump, then clinched a playoff berth with a dominating 34-10 win over the Chargers at Ford Field.

It was a Christmas Eve game, and when it was over the players walked around the outside of the playing field and shook hands with fans who'd stayed behind for the postgame celebration.

"It was a sense of accomplishment," Backus said. "The Lions fans, they stick by their team every year. It's unreal, really. You've got to thank them for their loyalty, and for their support."

The Lions finished out of the playoffs in 2012 and the only highlight of what proved to be the last season for Backus was the record-setting performance by wide receiver Calvin Johnson. He had 1,964 receiving yards, breaking the former record of 1,848.

Backus had played through numerous injuries in his career, which is common for linemen. He was proud of his durability and reliability, but when the starting streak ended he accepted it as something out of his control.

"It was odd," he said. "I used to wake up in a panic, thinking I was going to miss a game. And when it finally happened – that I was injured – it was what it was. There was nothing I could have done to play.

"I got treatment on it all week. I tested it. It was the best thing (not playing). It wasn't fun missing a game. There was nothing I could do about it.


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