LIKE “THE PURLOINED LETTER” in the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, offensive linemen like Jeff Saturday are hidden in plain sight. Every snap of the football that goes to Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning comes from center Saturday's hands. And that is rarely acknowledged – unless the exchange is muffed.
In an era of bad news locally, UNC alumnus Saturday gave Tar Heel football fans this week a reason to be proud of one Tar Heel's off-field behavior. For a nation mired simultaneously in two seeming irresolvable stalemates, one trivial (the National Football League's owners' lockout of the players following failure to come to a collective bargain agreement) and one consequential (the looming possibility of a first-ever national fiscal default due to the impasse on setting the parameters for raising the federal debt ceiling), the resolution of the trivial gave hope for the consequential.
Saturday's role was as a player representative for the Indianapolis Colts and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Football League Players' Association, which made him a key negotiator. Afterwards, Saturday was acknowledged as being instrumental in reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement between the players and the owners.
Given one brief moment in the spotlight, Saturday turned the focus away from himself and on to the wives of those involved in the negotiations, including his own, but with a touching tribute to the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Saturday made note of her contribution even as she was dying. Said Saturday, “A special thanks to Myra Kraft, who even in her weakest moment, allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out,” Saturday said at a joint news conference to announce a 10-year collective bargaining agreement. “Without him, this deal does not get done. He is a man who helped us save football. We’re gracious for that.”
What followed was a brief but warm embrace between Kraft and Saturday that marked the symbolic end to the lockout – and a moment of human decency following seriously adversarial negotiations.
So, how did Saturday get to that moment? And how is it that someone who works in relative anonymity came to deflect the glory to others in his moment of recognition?
A talk earlier this year by Jeff and Karen Saturday in Anderson, Indiana, reported by Abbey Doyle of the Herald Bulletin, may shed some light.
Jeff and Karen met when Karen was a high-school freshman and Jeff an eighth-grader in Atlanta. Both said religion wasn’t strong in their lives growing up. Jeff joked that his mother, “a prayer warrior,” spent a lot of time on her knees praying for him as he was being a “knucklehead.”
The first interaction between Karen and Jeff was after Karen’s friends pointed out the “handsome, flirtatious, outspoken” boy.
“They said, ‘You have the same eyes, you should go up to him and tell him you are going to have his children some day,’” Karen said, laughing. She did, and Jeff’s quick reply was, “You want to practice?”
Later, the two dated for seven and a half years and have been married for 12. They have three children.
The turning point for Jeff’s faith journey, he said, began when he wasn’t drafted right out of college. A two-time first-team all-conference selection in 1996 and 1997 and part of two of the winningest teams in Carolina history (10-2 and 11-1), Saturday expected to be drafted; despite his UNC business degree, he had no backup plan. When the draft was over and he hadn’t seen his name flash across the screen, he was devastated and called his mother – expecting a sympathetic ear.
“She said, ‘The reality is, God gave you a gift and you didn’t give anything back to him. He’s going to take it back from you,’” Jeff recalled. “It hit me right between my eyes.”
As an undrafted free agent Saturday signed with the Baltimore Ravens only to be cut two months later. Out of football for six months, he signed midseason with the Indianapolis Colts in 1999. There his pro career began to flourish.
But, personally, Saturday said he was still searching for an identity amongst the success and lifestyle of the NFL. An encounter with a teammate, Mark Thomas, resulted in Saturday attending a team Bible study, where Thomas challenged Saturday on his motives and desires.
The ultimate question: What defines you as a person?
"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't have an answer," recalls Saturday. "But, Jesus did. I did not have to come up with an identity for myself. Christ had created me with my identity already intact. All I had to do was step into it."
Saturday has had success (five Pro Bowls, twice picked as AP NFL All-Pro First Team, named one of the "Top 10 Undrafted NFL Players of the last 20 Years" and he owns a Super Bowl ring), but Saturday's greatest moment was one of gracious other-directed kindness. I'll bet his momma is proud.
Now let’s send Kraft and Saturday to Washington.
Gary D. Gaddy is proud today to be a Tar Heel fan.