Time Marches On--So Does Falcons' Van Note : Even He Finds It Hard to Believe That He Has Been Atlanta's Center Since 1970

Times Staff Writer

There's a simple test you can give aging NFL players to determine whether they really belong on the field instead of some padded room trying to fit triangle pegs into square holes.

Quickly, Jeff Van Note, can you name all your coaches with the Atlanta Falcons?

"Yes, I can," he said, confidently. "Norm Van Brocklin, Marion Campbell, Pat Peppler, Leeman Bennett and Dan Henning."

And what do you remember about Peppler?

"He was a (bleepity bleep)."

OK, good.

Now, quickly again, name at least nine quarterbacks he has played with since becoming Atlanta's starting center in 1970.

"OK. Uh, Randy Johnson, Bob Berry, Bruce Lemmerman, Pat Sullivan, Bob Lee, Dick Shiner, (Steve) Bartkowski, (Mike) Moroski, (Dave) Archer."

What do you remember about Johnson?

"No one can find him," Van Note said. "They've been trying to get a hold of him for the last couple of years for some reunion, but no one knows where he is."

Good. Now, please put your shoulder pads on and proceed to your 40th birthday.

Don't laugh. Even Jeff Van Note can't believe it. He's in the midst of his 17th season with the Atlanta Falcons (he played in one game in 1969), and hardly anyone outside of Fulton County knows it.

He started snapping four Presidents ago. He has missed only four games in his entire career. He has been in six Pro Bowls.

If Jeff Van Note were a 39-year-old fullback playing in one of the NFL's glitter cities, they'd probably give him a key to the city.

But when you've spent your career with the Atlanta Falcons, it's not easy becoming a center of attention.

A few months ago, Van Note was a guest on a radio sports-talk show in Atlanta. Before Van Note went on the air, the switchboard was blinking with callers.

But when he was introduced as the in-studio guest, the switchboard went black. He got one call in 25 minutes. Yeah, a lot of dead time to fill. "So, uh, Jeff, how's the new garden coming along?" It was like a bad vaudeville act, but no one had a hook to yank him off the stage.

Van Note, of course, deserves better.

This Sunday, against the Rams in Atlanta, he'll play in his 224th NFL game, tying Carl Eller of the Minnesota Vikings for 11th place on the all-time list. Only two players in NFL history, Jim Hart of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jim Marshall of Minnesota, have played more years with the same team.

But those fun facts tend to get lost when you're playing for a team that always seems to be 1-9 after 10 games.

Van Note is the oldest active player in the league right now, if you don't count 42-year-old field goal kicker Jan Stenerud of the Vikings.

And Van Note doesn't count him.

"There are football players (kickers) and then there are players ," Van Note said. "I'm a player. "

That, he is. Last season, Van Note was called for only two holding penalties.

The Falcons have been planning his retirement for years but can't get Van Note to come to the party.

This season, the Falcons went out and signed a USFL center named Wayne Radloff, presumably to replace the aging relic in the middle.

But Radloff can't knock Van Note out of the lineup. Van Note is averaging more than three quarters a game this season and shows no signs of slowing down.

"He's like the watch your grandfather gave you," Atlanta Coach Dan Henning said. "It's solid gold, getting to be antiquish but still running like a top. I still think he's playing pretty good. It's very unusual for a guy to play in the trenches like that for so many years and remain injury-free."

And, oh, how the game has changed since Van Note fastened his first chinstrap. In 1970, Van Note's first full season in the NFL, he made $14,000.

He's played against legends--Dick Butkus, Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly--whose highlight films are starting to yellow in the Hall of Fame in Canton.

"He epitomizes what the game's all about," Dave Archer, the Falcons' new fuzzy-cheeked quarterback, said of Van Note. "He's a throwback to the mid-'60s and he's still playing in the '80s. There's no way he should be in their blocking those big guys the way he does."

Yet, Van Note marches on. He isn't saying whether he'll play beyond this season and through his 40th birthday and isn't even sure he'll be asked back.

"I don't have the final say in it," he said. "Other people have to evaluate needs. But I'm still playing a lot."

But even if it were all to end tomorrow, Van Note can look back on 17 years invested in the NFL bank.

It was about 16 more years than he expected.

Back in 1969, the summer of Woodstock, Van Note joined the Falcons from the University of Kentucky as a defensive end. Coach Norm Van Brocklin and the Falcons were so impressed that they cut him after the first regular-season game. Van Note spent a season in the Continental Football League team on a team in Huntsville, Ala., which he cheerfully described as "the armpit of the world."

"I didn't give up," Van Note said. "I figured I'd give it another year. Then, it ballooned."

He got another chance with the Falcons in 1970, and this time he stuck. Van Brocklin switched Van Note from defense to center, a move for which Van Note is forever grateful.

"The Dutchman was one of a kind," he said. "I had great respect for him. He was gruff, opinionated and a very interesting man."

Van Note's career, though, has wallowed in the mediocrity of the Falcons, who have been to the playoffs only twice since he joined them.

The 1980 season, the one in which the Falcons won the NFC's Western Division title, remains the biggest thrill and disappointment of Van Note's career.

The Falcons finished the regular season with a 12-4 record but Dallas knocked them out of the playoffs in the first round, 30-27.

"We never recovered from that loss," Van Note said. "We had it all. We had it going."

The Falcons haven't been the same since, posting records of 7-9, 5-4, 7-9 and 4-12.

"Maybe I've been here too long," Van Note said. "It seems we can't get the coaches, players and management into sync to become a successful organization. We just haven't been able to put it together."

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