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Chris Long savoring career resurgence after mulling retirement

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PHILADELPHIA -- Two years ago, Chris Long got the offseason phone call many NFL players dread. As then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher informed the veteran defensive lineman of his impending unemployment in February of 2016, Long wasn't chagrined, outraged or particularly surprised.

If anything, after two injury-plagued, unproductive seasons in St. Louis -- and eight consecutive losing campaigns -- Long was resigned to his fate. And as he processed the reality that the only NFL franchise he'd ever known had given up on him, Long began to question his football future, with retirement suddenly a very real possibility.

"It was very possible," Long acknowledged last week, in an interview at the Eagles' training facility that will air Super Sunday on NFL Network's "GameDay Morning." "I knew [getting released] was coming -- the last month or two of the season, I moved into the Ritz-Carlton. ... I figured maybe this was it, and I probably needed to put the place up. I had no hard feelings about it, and I just started to think about what was next. I didn't know if I was probably too burned out to put all the energy that needs to be put into it, and I wasn't sure where my body was, so I took a little while and figured out that maybe I want to keep going."

A few weeks later, Long got a call from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who expressed interest in bringing him to New England. Since then, from a football perspective, everything has been Super: After signing a one-year deal with the Pats, Long earned a ring in stirring fashion last February. He then made another big career move, signing a free-agent deal with the Eagles because he felt they offered a better schematic fit.

Sure enough, even as a part-time player, Long re-established himself as a difference-making pass rusher in 2017 -- and the 32-year-old's resounding performance in Philly's thrashing of the favored Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game helped send the Eagles to Minneapolis, where a Super Bowl LII showdown with (you guessed it) the Patriots awaits.

For a man who didn't experience a winning season until he reached his 30s, Long is highly appreciative of the sharp turn his career has taken since that fateful phone call from Fisher. At the time, however, he was pondering the possibility of walking away from the game without having sniffed the postseason.

"We just couldn't get over the hump," Long recalled, "and I was thinking, 'Well, maybe my career wasn't supposed to be successful.' When you go 1-15 or 2-14, as we did early on, you could be 25 years old and thinking about retirement. That's how hard those seasons are on your psyche as a pro athlete, if you really care about it.

"So I thought, maybe I was one of those guys. Honestly, I sat around for a bit and felt sorry for myself -- not for getting cut, because I deserved to get cut ... I was getting paid too much to be limping around. So I just sat around, and eventually I got that hunger, where I said, 'There's no way I can go out like that. I've got to try one more time.' "

And now, a decade into an NFL career that began with the Rams drafting him second overall out of Virginia, Long is having the time of his football life. Not only did he thrive coming off the edge in the Eagles' Wide Nine scheme -- his four strip-sacks tied him for second among NFL players in that category -- but he also became a locker-room leader for a resilient team that has overcome injuries to many key performers, including star quarterback Carson Wentz.

Off the field, Long has emerged as a strong voice for social justice in a polarizing time, not to mention a shining example of a high-profile athlete who gives back to the community.

"I'm proud of the way I've been able to play this year," Long said. "I feel like I'm back to being who I was, and it's fun to be on a good team. I'm always trying to play for respect. I don't play the game for much else."

In Long's case, this isn't mere hyperbole. Many players proclaim that they love the game so much, they'd "play for free." This season, Long did -- literally.

Already active in charitable causes that ranged from building clean-water wells in Africa to ensuring the welfare of military veterans, Long was rattled by the violence surrounding the white-supremacist rally last Aug. 12 in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. In response, he decided to donate his first six game checks of 2017 to organizations furthering educational equality in that region. Later, he established the "Pledge Ten" campaign, contributing his final 10 game checks toward the same cause in St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia, and successfully soliciting matching donations along the way.

"I've been lucky, man," Long said. "I've been very lucky for 10 years, made a lot of money playing a game, a kids' game. I think we have a platform, and we're responsible for giving back, and this is my way of doing it in my 10th year. It's not like it's an earth-shattering amount of money -- I'm not making $10 million -- but it's more the act to me of doing what I love for a cause, and something bigger than myself. And the cool thing about it is ... and I was reluctant to publicize it, but publicizing it was what got the match and the fans are the people that stepped up."

As for the disturbing spectacle in Charlottesville, which featured displays of overt racism, Long said, "It was rough to see that, but I'm never going to complain that I'm the one that has to deal with that stuff every day. You know what I mean? That's a reality, and an ugly underbelly to our country that's existed since the beginning of time. And I actually hate that I never felt disgusted until it happened in my hometown. I mean, I've always been disgusted by that stuff, but it just puts it on your front door. There are people that have to deal with that reality every day and in a lot more personal way. And so for me it was a little extra wake-up call."

As one of the most woke high-profile white athletes, Long has made a strong impression on many of his African-American peers, some of whom have been vilified by President Trump and others for staging protests against police brutality during the playing of the national anthem. Long was one of many players who chose not to go to the White House following the Patriots' Super Bowl LI victory; on Monday, Long told the podcast "Pardon My Take" that he would skip the trip again this year were the Eagles to win.

Last October, Long joined teammate Malcolm Jenkins and 11 other players in meeting with 11 NFL owners (including the Eagles' Jeffrey Lurie, a supporter of the players' cause) to discuss the anthem protests and the social issues that spurred them.

"He is definitely invited to the cookout," Jenkins said of Long, who showed his support for the veteran safety before a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, placing an arm around Jenkins' shoulder as Jenkins raised a fist during the anthem.

"At that point, I had only known Chris for a few months," Jenkins said. "We weren't really friends before that. We've been able to have a friendship after talking through the issues together. The way he did it was the most impressive thing. He asked if I would mind if he made that gesture. He didn't want to draw attention to himself or take away from the sentiments we were trying to express. He just wanted to show that he was supportive."

While Long is unafraid to speak up for his convictions, he's sensitive about drawing too much attention to his charitable efforts, for obvious reasons.

"We give him a hard time about the charity stuff," Eagles defensive tackle Beau Allen admitted. "We go, 'OK, you're the man, we get it!' But really, we love the guy. He's not into the rah-rah stuff, but he has brought so much to our room, and to our team."

Long said he first became intrigued by the Eagles' defense while watching film of the Atlanta Falcons' high-powered offense before last year's Super Bowl. Philly had gone only 7-9 in 2016, but, Long thought, Those guys get after it.

And while he thoroughly enjoyed his Super Bowl LI experience, during which the Patriots stunningly overcame a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to win in overtime, Long didn't feel as though he showcased his talents during his season in New England. Playing largely as a "three-technique" in the Patriots' 3-4 hybrid scheme, Long spent much of his time holding gaps on the interior of the line, registering four sacks, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble on the season.

"I don't regret anything about going there," Long said. "You know, winning a world championship fulfilled almost everything that I wanted to do in my career, and it's something you can never take away, and everybody that's a part of that team can feel pride in that. Even though I wasn't playing my best ball in my best spot, I totally bought in, and I loved it, and was really lucky to get that ring."

Once he hit free agency, Long began eyeballing the Eagles, excited by the way defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz deployed his edge rushers.

"I really wanted to reprove myself," he said. "I wanted to play to my strengths, and I wanted to finish my career that way -- whether it was this year or a couple years from now. I just didn't want to go out not playing the style of football I was proud of."

Mission accomplished: Long was a force throughout 2017, and on Dec. 10 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he made one of the biggest plays of the Eagles' season. Even after Wentz went down with a torn ACL and LCL in the third quarter, the Eagles rallied to defeat the Los Angeles Rams, clinching the NFC East title. Playing against his former team -- in the stadium where his father, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Howie Long, once starred for the Raiders -- Long stripped the ball from quarterback Jared Goff, setting up the game-winning field goal.

Though Long harbors no ill will toward the Rams and speaks glowingly of Fisher, his former coach, he reveled in the moment.

"Listen, we needed a stop, and there was play-action, and I saw something that would tell me it was play-action, and the coverage held up pretty well, and I was able to bend the edge and get the ball," Long said. "Goff patted it one too many times. That was a lot of fun because it was my former team, I'm not gonna deny that. I respect those guys a great deal, but you wanna win, and we just needed a stop, so I was glad I could do my part. Everybody had a hand in this season, and I guess that was my little hand."

In the NFC Championship Game, Long supplied a massive fist. After the Vikings took a 7-0 lead, he provided a game-turning play, slamming into Case Keenum's shoulder as the quarterback threw downfield to force an interception, which Philly cornerback Patrick Robinson returned 50 yards for a game-tying touchdown. Late in the first half, Long recovered a fumble to kill a Minnesota scoring threat, and the Eagles rolled to a 38-7 victory.

Now, one victory away from a second consecutive championship, Long has revived his career in a manner beyond his wildest dreams. Should the Eagles pull the upset on Super Sunday, would he then step away from the game, this time on his terms?

"I don't know, man," Long said, smiling. "It'd be a heck of a way to go out, but this football bug, it is hard to shake. I think once you get that feeling, you want more. This city ... hasn't experienced it like that. You just want them to experience it so bad. Whether it's this week or the next year, if you hypothetically get an opportunity to be lucky enough to win one, this city is going to go crazy. And you're just going to want more."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

Take a look at the career of Chris Long through the years.
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