FLOWERY BRANCH — Sitting around the large table for Thanksgiving dinner with the McClure family, Joe Hawley kept wondering why he was invited to the feast.
At the time, he was considered the latest heir apparent to take over the center position for the Falcons from Todd McClure.
Most veterans frown upon prospective replacements and give them bad advice about how to survive in the NFL. But McClure, who’s been snapping the ball to the team’s quarterback since 2000, is a little different.
Instead of throwing out false signals or misinformation, he embraces all of the offensive linemen the team brings in, even those slated to potentially take his job.
Hawley is from California and had no family in the area, so the McClures opened the doors of their house to him and some other linemen on the team.
“That was just amazing to me that he would invite a guy that he barely knew, that really in essence was trying to compete for his position,” Hawley said. “Off the field, he’s just so friendly it’s awesome. He’s such a great person.”
McClure, who’s set to enter his 14th season with the team, was taught by his parents to treat others the way you want to be treated.
“I always said when I came into this league that I’m going to help every guy out,” McClure said. “I’ve seen different situations where guys would tell the guy that just got drafted at their position, they may tell them the wrong thing or something to make them mess up. I’ve always felt that I’m going to help the guys behind me and the best guy is going to play.”
Since 2000, four different coaching staffs have concluded that McClure was the best guy for the pivotal position.
“It’s worked out for me,” McClure said. “I feel like I’ve touched some guy’s careers that have been here with me. I’ve helped them out and helped them become better football players. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.”
Last season, McClure had right knee surgery late in training camp. Hawley started the first two games, but quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked nine times.
“He’s like a father-figure to me,” Hawley said. “He’s taught me a lot, more than any film or anything.”
McClure was selected in the seventh round of the 1999 draft. In his second practice he tore the ACL in his right knee and missed the 1999 season. He became entrenched as the starter in 2000.
Over the offseason, McClure was a free agent and contemplated retirement before agreeing to a one-year contract. He’s not sure if this will be his last season.
“I’m going through training camp and I’m feeling really good, so I’m not going to make up my mind right now,” McClure said. “I play it day-by-day and enjoy this year. At the end of the year, I will see where I’m at, where my body is at, and make a decision then.”
He’s seen some of the highs and lows of Falcons’ lore during his tenure. He was on the team that reached the NFC title game under Jim Mora in 2005. He also had a front seat for the Michael Vick federal dogfighting trial and the Bobby Petrino 13-game head coaching stopover.
But over the past four years under Falcons coach Mike Smith, he’s been rejuvenated as the team has reached the playoffs three times. Their status as a playoff contender and a Super Bowl threat played a key role in his decision to return.
“We have the makings of a really special team,” he said.
McClure has started 166 of 168 games over his career and holds the franchise record for most consecutive starts, with 144. While he doesn’t know when he’ll retire, McClure seems pretty certain that he can’t match former center Jeff Van Note’s 18 seasons with the Falcons.
“He’s a special guy for that,” McClure said. “He’s a tough guy. I’m just going to take it year by year, if I make it to 18 I do, but I’m going to enjoy this year and see where I’m at. I’m still having fun.”
McClure knows the offensive line must improve from last season, when quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 26 times and hit 84 times. He believes that the screen passing attack that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is implementing will help the line immensely.
“We accept that as a challenge,” McClure said. “We know that Matt had too many hits on him last year.”
Ryan knows that McClure will have the unit ready.
“He knows what it takes to be productive in this league,” Ryan said. “All of those guys look up to him. I think he’s done a great job with it. … I think those guys feed off of it.”
Hawley and right guard Justin Blalock look forward to sitting around that same large table at the next Thanksgiving dinner with the McClures.
“Being from Louisiana, they are taught to cook at an early age,” Blalock said. “They just made your typical stuff, but with their own Cajun flair on it that kicked it up a notch or two.”
THE LATEST NEWS
MORE ON THE FALCONS