For Chris Long, the potential No. — pick in this spring's NFL draft, the keys to success dangled from the janitor's belt loop.
They unlocked the door to his high school weight room.
Long, you see, took nothing for granted. Yes, he's the son of an NFL legend. Yes, his body was evolving from gangly to gargantuan. Yes, he had enough raw athleticism to throw down a 360-degree dunk in a game, never mind that basketball was merely his other sport.
He still needed those keys. Without them, he couldn't have staged those late-night lifting sessions in the weight room at St. Anne's Belfield High School in Charlottesville, Va.
"The parking lot would be empty, the light would be on in the gym, and he'd be in there alone on a Friday night doing cleans and squats," said his father, Howie Long, a Fox analyst and an eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end for the Los Angeles Raiders. "At some points we were somewhat concerned that he was so obsessed. You're concerned that, are things going to work out the way he hopes?"
Maybe even better. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound Long has gone from the hunter to the hunted, and stands a good chance of becoming the first overall pick of the Miami Dolphins &
a distinction that would lead to a rookie contract including about $35 million guaranteed.
Twenty-seven years ago, Howie Long was selected in the second round out of Villanova by the Raiders and was a fixture on their defensive line for 13 seasons. He has resisted the urge to become overly involved in the football development of his son, lending his help and opinion only when asked.
"It's not his style to want to steal the spotlight from his sons," Chris said. "I have two little brothers, and he does the same with them. He takes the back seat. Everybody has a time, and this is our time. I've said, 'Dad, you're an old man now. It's not your time anymore.' He has done a great job with that, and I'm grateful."
In his senior season at Virginia last fall, Long was named the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year after collecting 14 sacks, 23 quarterback pressures, nine pass breakups and an interception. He also received the Ted Hendricks Award &
named for another Raiders great &
and presented to the nation's best defensive end.
"Every play, you have to block him to death," said Billy Devaney, executive vice president of player personnel for the St. Louis Rams, who draft second and desperately need a pass-rushing defensive end. "If you let up, that's where he's going to get his sacks from."
At the scouting combine, Long had the seventh-best time among defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash, 4.75 seconds; was fastest in the 20-yard shuttle, 4.21; second in the broad jump, 10 feet, 4 inches; and third in the vertical leap, 34 inches.
The square-jawed Long, who bears a striking resemblance to his father, was born in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1985 and spent the first years of his life in Southern California. The family moved to Charlottesville, Va., after Howie's 1994 retirement.
There's no denying the role of genetics in the younger Long's rise to the top of this draft class. In fact, all three of the Long boys are astoundingly athletic.
Kyle Long, a 6-7, 280-pound senior at St. Anne's Belfield, might be the best offensive tackle in high school football. But he's also a left-handed pitcher with a 96-mph fastball who has committed to playing baseball at Florida State &
depending on where he is selected in the Major League draft, that is.
Baseball America has Kyle Long ranked as the No. 58 high school prospect for the draft, not counting college prospects. That would put him in the vicinity of the third round.
"I'm just hoping I can live in his condo if I fall on hard times or something," Chris said with a smile.
The youngest of the sons, Howie, is a high school junior who is among the country's best lacrosse players and has already committed to Virginia.
"My wife and I never pushed football," his father said. "All three of our boys are different. ... I think it's important that they all chase their own passions, whatever they may be. The only prerequisite that I have with anything that they do is, if it is in fact your passion, you should pour your heart and soul into it and work as hard as you can."
Chris was a seventh-grader when he came to his father and told him he wanted to play football and hoped to make a Division I roster one day. His father wasn't teeming with confidence about that.
"At the time, he looked like a horse that had just popped out of his momma &
all legs and still trying to find his way physically," Howie said. "But once he made the decision that's what he wanted to do, and he asked for my help in doing that, I told him the same thing that my defensive line coach, Earl Leggett, told me when I first got to the Raiders: 'If you work as hard as you possibly can, and you do what I tell you to, you'll have an opportunity to play. Where that is, I don't know. It could be a Division I-AA school, it could be Division I-A. But you'll have an opportunity to play.' "
Around that time, Howie began helping as a volunteer assistant coach at the high school. The head coach, John Blake, will never forget the first drill the Hall of Fame player demonstrated for the team.
"I was holding a bag for him, a 70-pound bag," Blake recalled. "He knocked it out of my hand and was standing behind me before any of our kids realized what was going on. He made a rip move and went right through me. There were 20 kids there with their jaws somewhere around their ankles, and I was about the same."
A few years later, it was Chris leaving people slack-jawed. He often found himself triple-teamed yet still made plays. He became known for his relentless style and was almost more impressive when plays went away from him. Scouts say he simply never took plays off, an almost unheard-of characteristic even for the best defensive linemen.
"I don't think of myself as doing anything extraordinary with my effort," he said. "I think that's just the way football is supposed to be played, at a high speed. I'm not a guy who does things half-speed well. So it's been pretty natural for me to go that fast."
Even his father, who had a Hall of Fame career, is amazed by his son's tireless effort on the field. Howie said that if he played in third gear, Chris plays in fourth.
"We live in kind of an attention-deficit, 'SportsCenter' world where the highlight or the one sack is big," Howie said. "If you can get one sack a game and play terrible the other 55 plays, you're a great player.
"Not in my book you're not. And not in his book."
Genetics plus hard work equals NFL prospect Chris Long