Today, Mike Vrabel, a linebacker by trade who also moonlighted as a touchdown target, announced that his career is over. Vrabel spent 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, New England and Kansas City. He is joining the football coaching staff at his alma mater, Ohio State University.
In the NFL, the days of athletes playing full-time on both offense and defense are long gone. The league is populated with one-sided specialists whose specialties, in most cases, are in one very specific place in the formation.
However, we still get occasional glimpses of football players in unusual spots: a sure-handed wide receiver sent in to defend a Hail Mary; a kicker who tackles like a strong safety; a quarterback in the slot for the wildcat.
William “The Refrigerator” Perry is probably the most famous of the modern NFL fish-out-of-water stories. A massive defensive lineman who spent the bulk of his career with the Chicago Bears, Perry retired with three offensive touchdowns to his credit.
His size (325 pounds on a good day), status as a pop culture icon and the fact that he scored in a Super Bowl cemented his place among football’s asterisks.
But Vrabel turned a gimmick into a serious side business. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is famous for repurposing players, and, in 2002, he sent Vrabel in for a goal-line formation. Quarterback Tom Brady hit Vrabel in the end zone, the start of an unusual scoring combination.
Vrabel was scoreless in 2003, but grabbed two TDs in 2004, three more in 2005 and two more in 2007.
The Akron, Ohio, native was traded to Kansas City in 2009, but his offensive output continued. He added a receiving touchdown in each of his final two seasons.
All the while, Vrabel was having a very successful career in his primary role: stopping guys like (well, sort of like) him from getting into the end zone. He had 57 sacks, earned three Super Bowl rings and made the 2007 Pro Bowl. He also had 11 career interceptions, returning one for the only defensive TD of his career.
You might say Vrabel was interesting because he kept us guessing. But there wasn’t much guessing after the first couple of times Brady hit him in the end zone, especially after the linebacker turned receiver hauled in a Super Bowl score of his own against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005.
If Vrabel came in on offense, there was a good chance he’d score. He’ll never have the household name status of “The Fridge,” but he leaves a much more impressive career stat line on the “wrong” side of the ball: 10 receptions for 10 touchdowns.