JERSEY CITY, N.J.––Linebacker Paris Lenon, who's preparing to play in Super Bowl XLVIII this weekend as a member of the Denver Broncos, gets a fair amount of attention for being the last player from the XFL still actively employed in the NFL.
The XFL is notable for its professional wrestling flair, but it's Lenon's participation in another football league that's probably more to credit for his development as a player who's survived for 12 seasons in the NFL, now at 36 years old.
After leaving college, Lenon was cut by three NFL teams between 2000 and 2001, including the Packers, having failed to make a regular-season roster.
Then in 2001, Lenon received a second chance in Green Bay, being signed in the offseason and later allocated to the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe, where he honed his game and eventually would go on to earn a berth on the team's regular season 53-man roster for the first time of his career.
"Any time you step out on the field and you get an opportunity to play, you're going to get better," said Lennon, "or at least you should if you're going about it the right way, you should get better. And I think it just helped me improve as a player."
With a record 98 underclassmen declaring for the NFL draft in 2014 and the number growing seemingly every year, perhaps the NFL should take note of Lenon's remarkable achievement and the advantages a developmental league can provide.
NFL Europe went defunct in 2007 and with it went the opportunity for teams to provide game experience to players that aren't necessarily ready for prime time.
Sure, NFL Europe probably isn't the place to risk exposing a first round draft pick to injury, but it provided a breeding ground for the undrafted players and the types that need more seasoning before being trusted under the bright lights and microscope of an NFL regular season game.
"If they make the team, they don't need it," said Lenon. "But for guys who don't necessarily make the team right out of college, I think that having something like NFL Europe is great, a great way to gain experience and improve as a player."
The question here isn't whether Europe is the place for a football minor league of sorts. Rather, it's whether one should exist at all.
If proof is needed, Lenon could be Exhibit A why a developmental league should exist.
On a team decimated by injuries this season, Lenon has provided the perfect veteran influence for the Broncos, having taken over for Wesley Woodyard at middle linebacker late in the season and making eight total starts, including the playoffs.
Now it's Lenon who's passing down the lessons to the younger generation of players.
"He's a mentor," said second-year Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan, one of the better up-and-coming players on the team. "He's one of those grumpy guys. He plays all the time, and he helped me slow down a little bit. I'm used to being energetic, fly around, everything. But sometimes you've got to slow down.
"This game gets so fast, you get caught up in your mind. So you've got to be able to sit down, be a pro and just slow yourself down. He helped me with that."
Lenon played with the Packers from 2001 to 2005 and eventually left as a free agent, but he holds no ill will to the team that gave him his first crack at the NFL.
"I appreciate my time there," said Lenon. "It's a great organization. I enjoyed the time I spent there, but you just move on."
Move on Lenon has, not looking back.
The opportunity is now in front of him to win a Super Bowl, which would be his first. He'll be taking on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, in a cold-weather environment he became used to in Green Bay.
But perhaps more importantly, it's Green Bay and the existence of an NFL developmental league that provided the opportunity for professional growth that led Lenon to have a chance to win a Super Bowl ring.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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