Michigan tackle has taken the Long road to top of the draft

New York -- Offensive linemen are like background singers, rarely noticed unless they are off key or cue. And though NFL-sized ones are gigantic, they generally stroll with little face or name recognition.

So, Jake Long found it curious that people were gawking at him and wishing him good luck this week in Miami and doing the same here during his first trip to this towering city.

Long is no longer obscure.

He is only the third offensive tackle in 73 NFL Drafts to reach the ultimate peak. The last one (Orlando Pace) was 11 years ago. The first (Ron Yary) was 40 years ago.

Long is beginning to absorb that his draft day here on Saturday is more a coronation than a selection, since the Miami Dolphins have already awarded him a nearly $60 million contract.

"It's still going to be electric," Long said of hearing his name being the first one called on Saturday. "It's something I always watched on TV. I've worked hard for all that I've gotten. No one had to give me anything. I took the right steps to get where I am. And, then, again, I feel like I was just plucked from all of mankind to get this great chance."

Imagine what this 22-year-old is experiencing.

He grew up in Lapeer, Mich., a town of fewer than 20,000, traveled a little more than an hour to Ann Arbor for college football and stayed at Michigan for his senior year, a season that began 0-2. He was a long shot for the No. 1 pick when the draft process began and now is enjoying New York this week with his family while other draft hopefuls across the country fret over where they will land, if at all.

John Sr. and Denise, his parents, are here, and so is his girlfriend, Jackie Laurian. His brothers, Joe and John Jr., will join them before the draft as will his longtime friend, Jacob Weingartz.

Every step Long takes is a reminder of his journey and re-affirmation that hard work and strong character were as important as his 6-foot-7, 315-pounds of talent.

"Jake is like the rest of us here this week, looking around at this amazing city and thinking how overwhelming it would be to live here," John Sr. said. "We are a close family. My wife and I married when we were young, 19 and 20 years old. We all grew together. Just a close family that didn't have the best of everything but had what we needed.

"People are asking me now what it is like to be rich. I'm not rich. Jake is. It's his career. It's his money. We don't even talk about the money. We talk about the man. And Jake is special, a guy who is going to do the right things, a guy who knows how to lead and show others how to get things done. He is upstanding. He knows what he wants and he goes for it."

Jake said he learned that from his father, who has worked for General Motors for 30 years, always showing up, never complaining. Thus, Jake says he shows up. And never complains. Little wonder the Dolphins -- rebuilding after a frightful 1-15 season -- opted for this cornerstone rather than a more glitzy pick.

Long said he cares more about his team than himself. The first takes care of the latter, he said. He was the player after the rough start at Michigan last season who called the team meeting, led by example and helped turn the team's fortunes. He is the player who developed a close relationship with his college coach, Lloyd Carr, and listened and applied disciplines that helped Long become a man.

He says these things looking directly into inquisitors eyes. No hemming. Direct and believable. Inspiring, really, in his confident presence and soft-spoken, humble words.

Match that with the fact this lineman allowed only one quarterback sack in 423 pass plays last season and only three sacks and two penalties in four years at Michigan, and it is clear that the Dolphins have made a superior choice.

"They want me to be a leader in Miami -- I've done that, be a leader," Long said. "It's part of my job to make sure we are not 1-15 again. I think they know they have a player who is not going to commit stupid penalties. I know I have to prove to people that Miami made a good choice. But I also have to do more than the job. I have to do things in the community to make a difference."

John Jr., his oldest brother, is a high school offensive line coach. Joe (6-6, 280) is a redshirt offensive lineman at Wayne State.

Maybe Jake and Joe will be like Peyton and Eli Manning. In a few drafts, maybe Joe matches Jake and reaches the No. 1 draft spot.

"Why not?" Jake said, smiling. "Who can predict it all?"

Football, life seem so full of surprising, wondrous possibilities for Jake Long.

"I head to Miami (next) Thursday for a camp and then come back in the middle of May for more team workouts," Long said. "I'm dedicated to football."

The game has given him, he said, more than he can describe. It is his vehicle to stardom this weekend. It has helped him, he said, become a "real" leader. A "real" man.

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