Thanks for the Memories-Jeff Saturday

The Colts have purged their roster of some of the all time greats, with more farewells in the works. This is the last (hopefully) of a recurring series saying farewell to Colts greats. With the signing of new center Samson Satele, it appears Jeff Saturday is gone as well. Portions of this essay originally appeared in Blue Blue: Tales of Glory of the Indianapolis Colts.

Center is not typically a glory position in the NFL. In most cities, the team’s starting center would be virtually anonymous to the average fan.

Not in Indianapolis.

For more than a decade, the heavily bearded face of Saturday was been one of the most recognizable on the Colts roster. Everyone expects the star quarterback to get the attention, but the Colts’ center graced the cover of national publications as well. The story of howa cast-off lineman became a star is almost as incredible as his play on the field.

Coming out of the University of North Carolina in 1998, no one wanted Jeff Saturday. The 1998 draft saw such luminaries as Cam Quayle, Jason Chorak, and Jomo Cousins selected, but no team wanted to take a chance on an Academic All-American who happened also to be an All-ACC member of a 12-1 team. The Baltimore Ravens signed Saturday as an undrafted free agent, but waived him two months later. Saturday sat unclaimed until January. He got a normal
job back in Raleigh, NC, but kept lifting weights just in case an NFL team changed its mind.

Saturday was considered too small by many to play line in the NFL. He is not tall. He is not heavy. Fortunately, the Colts’ system demanded slightly smaller, more agile linemen, and after months without an NFL job, Saturday got a call from the Colts. He made the team in 1999, spending most of the year as a backup guard. By 2000, he was the starting center, and he’s been in the middle of the Colts’ success ever since.

Saturday was hardly a prototypical star or player, but he exceled in the unique demands made on him because of the Colts’ offensive system. The Colts rarely huddled, and even when they did, almost all plays are subject to change. Just as Peyton Manning was deciphering the defense to put the offense in prime position to capitalize with the right play call, Saturday was also analyzing the rushers to call out the complementary blocking scheme to execute the play. Like Manning, Saturday’s greatest weapon was his mind. Together the two outwitted the opposition for a decade. Saturday often joked that they
were like an old married couple continually arguing and fighting, but able to read one another’s minds as well.

Saturday’s impact had been felt with the Colts for years, but everything came to a head in 2006. Few centers have ever had thekind of remarkable game that Saturday did in the Colts thrilling 38-34 win over the Patriots. The night before the game, it was Saturday who challenged his teammates, saying, “This is our time!” a cry echoed by Tony Dungy in the team’s darkest moments the following night. During the game itself, Saturday made two of the biggest plays for the
Colts. Not only did he recover a Dominic Rhodes’ fumble in the endzone for a key touchdown that tied the score, but he also delivered the signature block that freed Joe Addai to run for the game winning touchdown. Saturday was recognized by popular NFL writer Gregg Easterbrook as the “Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP” after the ’06 season.

Saturday was active off the field during his time inIndianapolis. He was the NFL Players Association representative for the Colts and is a member of the influential executive committee. His efforts during the 2011 lockout helped to save the future of football. He was later hailed as one of the architects of the new deal and a key reason why the 2011 season wasn’t lost.

Because of his recognizable face, he was a popular pitchman for a variety of products and companies. In the end, his play speaks louder than even he does. Saturday has made five Pro Bowl squads and is afour-time All Pro. One of the most difficult decisions ever to face the Colts was whether or not to re-sign the captain of the line after the 2008 season. Saturday was set to become a free agent, and despite his importance to the team, the Colts were right up against the salary cap. All indications were that they would have to let the popular leader test the market. Fortuitously, a last minute increase to the salary cap gave the Colts just enough money to sign Saturday to a deal that would go a long way to making him a Colt seemingly for life.

The move not only kept the Saturday/Manning rapport together, but also served to anchor an offensive line in flux. While the 2009 Colts played better up front than the 2008 Colts, the line still suffered from numerous changes, including some during the season. Through it all, Jeff Saturday played spectacularly and managed to keep the confusion to a minimum. Had the Colts not re-signed Saturday, they likely would have experienced little of the success they ultimately
had in 2009.

Saturday continued to excel through the 2010 and 2011 seasons, providing a touchstone to sanity during the tumultous 2011 campaign. As bad as things got in Indianapolis last year, they would have been so much worse without Saturday.

In most NFL towns, no one knows the center. In Indianapolis, everyone knows Jeff Saturday’s name and face. Not only that, but on game day, hundreds of fans wear his jersey.

Goodbye, 63. Thanks for the memories.