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Blanchette: Hanson put his best foot forward

Jason Hanson (4) has been surrounded by the Detroit Lions family since joining the team in 1992. (Associated Press)
Jason Hanson (4) has been surrounded by the Detroit Lions family since joining the team in 1992. (Associated Press)

Before he was pro football’s most underappreciated kicker for the game’s most appreciation-resistant franchise, Jason Hanson apprenticed for the job at Washington State University.

There was little competitively to recommend his last two Wazzu teams and of what there was, the best was Hanson himself. His punts salvaged approving nods out of numbing three-and-outs; field goals were actual spectacles. And in a few lost causes, he was sent out for attempts that brought to mind the sideshow quality of Evel Knievel taking measure of the Grand Canyon.

Such a hasty judgment.

Any opportunity to see Hanson take on the laws of physics with his right leg should have been welcomed. Just as his leave-taking from the National Football League, inevitable as it was, is a disappointment.

Hanson’s retirement, announced last week, brings to a close another Spokane professional sports career of mind-blowing permanence.

Twenty-one years, 327 games – all with a single team.

That’s an NFL record and it seems as unlikely to be broken as it was unlikely to happen.

“The life is incredible, but it’s so temporary,” Hanson once told The Spokesman-Review’s Dan Weaver. “In 20 years, the kids are going to say, ‘You did what? You don’t look like a football player. You look like my dad’s banker.’ ”

That was 12 years ago.

Norm on his barstool was temporary. Jason Hanson was no temp.

Impermanence is drummed into us relentlessly. In sports, we now shrug at free agency, one-and-done, franchises re-greening themselves in ever-hungrier urbs. Converts to the Church of the Short Attention Span see longevity as merely the arithmetic of hanging in there, oblivious to the reality that hanging in there takes preparation, professionalism and luck.

On top of having to be better at your job than nearly everyone else.

In Hanson’s case, throw in the resolve it took not only to weather 21 years of the feast-or-famine existence of an NFL kicker, but to do it with a franchise with a spirit-sapping embrace of failure.

Those last 12 years? The Lions managed a winning record in one of them. During his 21 years, the team lost 213 games.

Is this retirement, or a clean getaway?

Consider that Hanson leaves the NFL third on the all-time career field goal list with 495, despite season upon season of fewer opportunities simply because the Lions needed sixes, not threes.

And yet he stayed, not just because moving would have meant uprooting his family, but also because after investing so much into the struggle, he longed to be around for the payoff.

For a guy who seemed to keep a cork on celebrating his big-kick successes, Jason Hanson wanted to win as much as any player.

It might have been nice, then, that when Hanson expressed a desire to return for a 22nd season earlier this year, the Lions could have responded with something more befitting than the NFL minimum offer for his circumstance. Hanson, however, insisted salary “didn’t matter” and that the decision was based on his health (a nagging heel problem refuses to come around) and his flagging desire to nurse it through another season.

But dismissing issues of money and even the unlikely prospect of the Lions fielding a winner out of courtesy is something a pro might do, too.

The kicker-as-kook school of football thinking has mostly died, with a few notable exceptions. Hanson was far too bright, insightful and level-headed to ever be lumped into it anyway. Beyond that, he had the temerity to consider himself a real athlete, and to see him throw his accountant’s body at a kick returner to save a touchdown backed that up. Indeed, there’s still a practice takedown of Steve Broussard from their college days that must still haunt Bruiser.

He wouldn’t be above showing off his bruises in the Wazzu interview room. And he was always there after games because the media was desperate for his articulate analysis.

The length he showed off in Pullman – 20 field goals of 50 yards or better, with a long of 62 – served him well in the pros, though he became a better kicker once he realized not every kick had to sail above the uprights as well the crossbar. But even in his football dotage, he made 10 of 14 from 50 or longer in the last three seasons.

He should go directly to the Hall of Fame, except that Canton won’t deign to acknowledge kickers. Jan Stenerud’s the only specialist who’s ever seen the inside of the joint; the Grozas and Blandas all moonlighted at other positions. Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson, the two kickers ahead of Hanson on the NFL career points list, have never received a sniff.

It may be the least appreciated position in all of sports. Jason Hanson was certainly that, but he was undeniably something else.