METAIRIE — Ironman Todd McClure of the Atlanta Falcons fully understands the aging process for a 35-year-old center midway through his 14th and, perhaps, last NFL season.
In a nutshell, he isn’t getting any younger.
Plus, the hours aren’t getting any shorter. Nor is the game getting any less violent, and the bruises and soreness seem to linger a little longer.
That said, he’s loving every second of it.
Yes, an 8-0 start to the season and an exciting panoramic vision of playing in Super Bowl XLVIII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Feb. 3 are helping to keep McClure young at heart and pep in his step.
“It’s been very special, and we know we have something special with this team,’’ said McClure, a native of Baton Rouge who played at Central High and later starred at LSU. “In fact, we sensed we had something special even in training camp when we looked around the locker room at the guys and the playmakers that we have.
“We don’t have any ‘me’ guys on this team. We’ve got guys who are concerned about the team and the team goals. So, that still makes it fun for me, and I’m cherishing every minute.’’
The proper time for McClure to tussle with the “R’’ word will come at the end of the season. Meantime, there is pressing business for the Falcons on Sunday at the Superdome against the up-and-down New Orleans Saints (3-5), who are fighting to remain relevant in the postseason discussion.
Already five games behind the Falcons in the NFC South, the Saints enter Sunday’s game on a short practice week after disposing of the slumping Philadelphia Eagles 28-13 on Monday night.
With games looming at Oakland, home against San Francisco and back-to-back trips to Atlanta and the New York Giants, the Saints’ margin for error is growing slimmer by the week which makes them a desperately dangerous foe.
McClure knows it and the Falcons know it.
“No matter what the records are, or what has happened in the past, this game and this series is always close and that’s the way we are approaching it this week,’’ McClure said. “We know we’re going to get their best shot.’’
Which is what McClure has tried to give the Falcons each week since entering the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick in 1999. In 2000, he moved into the starting lineup, where he has remained a fixture through the years. He has started 187 games overall, including a franchise record 144 straight from 2000 through 2010.
“You know him as Todd McClure, but I know him as ‘Mud Duck,’ ‘’ said Saints middle linebacker and former teammate Curtis Lofton, who played with the Falcons from 2007 through 2011. “He’s a true veteran who always takes the younger players under his wings. He actually helped me out when I was a rookie. I started watching him how he takes cares of his body and his approach to the game.
“When you’ve been in the league for 14 years, anytime you can put ‘teen’ on your career, that tells you a lot about a guy. The ‘Mud Duck’ is one of a kind. He’s been a valuable piece to their offense for some years.’’
Atlanta coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan share that sentiment.
“I believe that you’ve got to have a good mix of experienced players who can mentor the younger guys and teach them how to be a pro and work at their craft,’’ Smith said. “I believe that you’ve got to have one in every meeting room. You’ve got to have those guys who can distribute the message, weekly or daily.
“And Todd McClure is one of those guys for us.’’
Ryan said McClure played a major role in helping ease his transition from Boston College to the Falcons as the third overall pick in the 2008 draft.
“Todd carried me my first two years in the league with protection calls and getting our offensive line on the same page,’’ Ryan said. “He is the ultimate example for the younger guys. He does all the little things every day and guys see that. Guys see that playing at a high level and having accountability with your teammates is important to him.
“He is the consummate professional.’’
If this season turns out to be his last in the NFL, McClure said he hopes to be able to look back and say he helped shape the career of younger teammates “by passing the torch, by passing the knowledge down.’’
“I still feel like I have some good football left in me, so I don’t I don’t know if this necessarily will be it for me,’’ McClure said. “My body will tell me how I’m feeling at the end of the season. Right now, my body still feels good. I love the guys. I love the locker room, and as long as I’m having fun and my health is good, then I’ll keep it going.’’
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said Friday right tackle Zach Strief, who injured his groin in Monday night’s game, went to Philadelphia on Friday to visit with a doctor who has performed sports hernia surgery on several players over the years. Vitt said Strief was due back Friday evening, but didn’t know if the seven-year veteran has a sports hernia or a groin injury. … Strief will be replaced in the starting lineup by third-year pro Charles Brown. … Also ruled out for Sunday were RB Darren Sproles (fractured hand), DE Junior Galette (ankle) and WR Courtney Roby (shoulder). … For the Falcons, LB Sean Weatherspoon (ankle) was the only notable player who won’t play. DT Jonathan Babineaux (hamstring) and DT Peria Jerry (knee) were limited in practice Friday and are questionable. … Former Saints tight end Henry Childs will meet and greet fans at the team’s Hall of Fame Museum, located at Gate B of the Plaza level of the Superdome from 10-11:15 a.m. Sunday. The museum is open for three hours before and 45 minutes after each home game with free admission for ticketholders.