FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Todd McClure was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, they had just made it to the Super Bowl for the first time.
"You think it's going to be easy," he remembered.
It's not, of course.
Fourteen years later, McClure is still waiting for his first trip to the big game.
"I tell the young guys on this team that we have to take advantage of this opportunity," he said, "because it's not a given that you'll be in this position again next year."
When the Falcons (14-3) host the San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) today for the NFC championship and a spot in the Super Bowl, McClure will be right in the middle of things, though chances are he'll barely be noticed.
He may be the centre, but he's hardly the centre of attention. McClure snaps the ball to get the play started, then fades into the background while players such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez grab all the headlines for the Falcons high-octane offence.
But ask around the locker-room, and everyone will say that McClure is the glue that holds the unit together.
"Todd has been huge for my career here in Atlanta," Ryan said. "He's a guy who doesn't get enough recognition. In all honesty, my first two years here, in terms of pass protection, Todd carried me. He really did. He set every protection, he got us on the right page, and he kept me clean. He helped me out immensely."
As the longest-running member of the Falcons by far, McClure has certainly gone through his share of ups and downs.
A seventh-round pick out of LSU in 1999, he sustained a season-ending injury in his first training camp, raising doubts about whether he'd ever play in the NFL. Turns out, he claimed a job on the line the next season and went on to set a franchise record with 148 consecutive starts. Over the past dozen seasons, he's missed only four of 192 games.
"He's a consummate professional, he really is," Ryan said. "He's extremely well prepared week in and week out. He gives it everything he has. He's a guy I look up to on how to handle your business and be a good teammate, and what it takes to have yourself prepared, those kinds of things. I've looked up to him since I've been here and he's certainly meant a lot to me."
McClure has gotten this close to the Super Bowl only one other time. During the 2004 season, when he was snapping the ball to Michael Vick, the Falcons came up one win short, losing at frigid Philadelphia in the conference championship game.
Now, as the lone holdover from that team, McClure is back for another shot.
With his 36th birthday right around the corner, he doesn't want to let it slip away again.
"This is why we play the game," McClure said. "That's why I'm still playing this game."
No wonder McClure hopes to come back for at least one more season, maybe two.
"I'm still having fun," he said. "I enjoy this team, enjoy hanging out with the guys in the locker-room. I don't know what else I would do with my time..."
-- The Associated Press