” ‘I am leaving, I am leaving’

but the fighter still remains”
— Paul Simon “The Boxer”

He was playing touch football on the lawn of the library. Just another college afternoon. A student came running over, told him an NFL team was on the phone. Down at Coach’s office. Hurry up.

Dave Krieg laughed, threw another pass.

The student insisted. The Seattle Seahawks. Calling about a tryout. This was a tiny place called Milton College — a Division III school where the football team had to walk 12 blocks, fully dressed, from the locker room to the field — so it was not a campus often called by the NFL. At Milton, they were happy when the mailman showed up.

The coach’s office was a few blocks from the library. Krieg, when it finally hit him — this is for real? — did what most of us would: He ran.

“I was worried they might hang up before I got there,” he says.

Soon Krieg was on the first airplane of his life. A puddle jumper from Wisconsin to Minneapolis. Then a connection to Kansas City. Then another connection to Seattle. He kept his face plastered to the window. “The whole time I was saying, ‘Wow, so this is what it looks like from up here!’ “

That was 15 years ago, when Krieg could play a whole game on Sunday and do pain-free exercise by Monday night. Now the pain lingers until Friday, and the hamstrings are tight as wood, and every lineman’s lick seems to rattle in his bones like coins in a bank. Still, he relishes the view from up here. Sees no hurry to come down.

Recently, the football world pondered Joe Montana — a close friend of Krieg’s — now taking bruises with the Kansas City Chiefs. A report claimed he was going to retire. He denied it, but people discussed it. Wasn’t it time he left? Isn’t 38 too old to take snaps?

Krieg, 36, heard the talk. Then pulled on his helmet and went back to work.

What people miss about guys like Montana and Krieg — who has sprung from the Lions’ bench to command them to their strongest position all season — is this: quarterback is not just a job, not just an adventure.

It’s an identity. No need to play, but a desire

“I talk a lot to Joe, and we both agree, the saddest part about leaving the game is that you’ve done this since you were five years old,” Krieg says one day after practice. “It’s what you know best.

“Look at Joe. The guy has won four Super Bowls already. He doesn’t need to play. But he wants to.

“That’s what I admire about him.”

He spits tobacco into a cup. It’s a habit he’s not proud of, but, for the moment, he is stuck with it. Sort of like his often-unsung achievements. Krieg has been quarterbacking 15 years in the NFL. He has more Pro Bowl appearances than any Lions quarterback ever, more career passing yards than any Lion ever, more completions and touchdowns than any Lion ever.

Yet he came here as a backup. To a kid, 10 years younger, who’d started all of seven NFL contests.

Typical. Like certain Olympic marathoners, Krieg seems destined to come from the back. He was never recruited in high school, was seventh on the depth chart at college, seventh on the depth chart when the Seahawks signed him. After a stellar career in Seattle, a new coach came in and replaced him with younger guys. He went to Kansas City, played every down of the 1992 season, took the Chiefs to the playoffs.

His reward? The Chiefs signed Montana.

“Two ways to deal with it,” Krieg says. “Cry, or see what you can learn.”

And Krieg knows the meaning of “don’t look back.” His alma mater, Milton College, doesn’t even exist anymore.

“They ran out of money.”

Krieg, the fighter, still remains. The voice of experience

So his success in Detroit should surprise no one. When you ask Scott Mitchell what he needs to work on, he’ll say, “Sometimes, I try to make too much happen myself.”

Ask Krieg what a veteran knows, he answers, “Poise. You don’t try to force things.”

They call that experience.

Of course, unlike Montana, experience has not given Krieg a Super Bowl ring. He has no cushy fantasies about life after football. He worked during college — in a paper mill and a cement factory — and he’ll work again. “I think I’d make a good salesman. If I can sell a play to 10 guys in a huddle, I can sell anything.”

You talk to Krieg, you hear the sound of a quarterback, the surety, the way he stops his conversation to yell at a tight end — “You got that play now?” — the way he shakes off notions that his job is complex. “When it comes down to it, a quarterback has to drop back and throw to the open guy.”

So simple. He has come a long way from the library lawn, and the 12-block walk, and the Wisconsin hometown. Yet the pattern repeats: He had to prove it as the young guy. He has to prove it as the old guy.

“Sometimes I think if they didn’t know our ages, if they just put us out there, things would be different. Sometimes (coaches) see an age and they say,
‘Uh-oh.’ “

Not this week. This week and the rest of the year, the job is his. He will do it the way he always has, with the determination of a late-kick runner, the fighter that remains, still checking out the window, seeing what it looks like from up here. CUTLINE: To Dave Krieg, quarterback is not just a job, not just an adventure. It’s an identity.

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