2011 NFL Preview: The Buck (and runners) stops here

The Old Man of the 'D'

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At an age when most players already have retired, James Farrior continues to grow in stature, even if he might be shrinking in size.

When he came to the Steelers as a free agent from the New York Jets in 2002, Farrior was an outside linebacker who weighed 240 pounds. But the Steelers wanted him to play inside linebacker in their 3-4 defense, and they wanted him to play the Buck position, which meant he was responsible for running to the ball and making tackles.

Taking on blockers? That was a role left to Casey Hampton, a 340-pound nose tackle in front of him, whose job, if at all possible, was to keep guards and centers away from Farrior.

"The guys up front do a good job keeping guys off us," Farrior said. "Every now and then, we got to wrestle and tussle with the linemen. But, most of the time, we're just running."

So Farrior decided he needed to weigh less to run more, so he lost approximately 10 pounds after his first season with the Steelers. But, as he got older and the grind of a season took its toll on his body, Farrior kept finding it difficult to maintain his body weight.

A couple of years ago, even some of his teammates used to tease him that he looked more like a safety when December rolled around and playoff time approached. At one point, Farrior was playing inside linebacker at a lithe 218 pounds.

Most teams prefer size, too, but Farrior and Larry Foote, his backup at inside linebacker, disprove that notion.

"They're not big, but they hit hard," Hampton said. "That's what people don't realize -- how hard they hit."

As he enters his 15th NFL season, Farrior is at the same weight he has played the past couple of seasons -- 225 pounds, even though he is listed at 243 pounds in their media guide.

Just don't tell anybody.

"I like them to think I'm big," Farrior said.

Farrior is big -- a spiritual leader and captain of one of the best defenses in the league who is as active as he is ageless and resilient. He has led the team in tackles in six of his nine seasons with the Steelers, including four of the past five, and has started 100 consecutive games since missing two games in the middle of the 2005 season.

Last season, he finished second to inside partner Lawrence Timmons in tackles, but he offset that with six sacks, tying his career high. It was a remarkable performance for a player who will turn 37 in January and, according to coach Mike Tomlin, "is genetically blessed."

"You take it year by year," Farrior said. "As long as you still have it in your heart, you keep going. I've talked to older guys and retired players, and they said they knew when it was their time [because] they felt like they couldn't go anymore. That's when they called it quits."

Since free agency began, Farrior is arguably -- and likely without question -- the best signing the Steelers have made. He is the unquestioned leader of their defense, on and off the field, and his personality ranges from calm and methodical at times, to child-like, boisterous and downright giddy at others.

It is that youthful exuberance that inspires those around him, but also keeps Farrior playing at a level that not even his coaches expected after the 2009 season.

"He just loves the game," Hampton said. "He don't play his age. He keeps himself in great shape."

Playing at an age when most players have either retired or had their careers cut short by injury is nothing new in the NFL.

Former center Jeff Van Note was 40 when he was still starting for the Atlanta Falcons, the team that had drafted him 18 years earlier. When he was 40, Bruce Matthews was a starter for the Tennessee Titans, the only franchise for whom he played in a 19-year career.

"I don't know, it's something inside, something mental, that keeps him going," Foote said. "He loves the game. He loves to play. I always joke with him -- I don't think he's going to miss the football when he quits; he's going to miss the fraternizing with the boys. I think that's what keeps him going."

Foote is right.

"That's definitely part of it, just being around the guys in the locker room," Farrior said. "The stuff we do off the field together, being in the locker room before a game, feeling that energy, that's something you can't get anywhere else."

Then Farrior added, "I still got the love of the game. I feel like this is the best job in the world for me, and there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. I think about what I'll be doing after football and I don't really want to think about that right now."

Neither do the Steelers.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @gerrydulac


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