FOXBOROUGH — The NFL has only 1,952 spots available each season, so if your plans are to play professional football, you might as well buy a Powerball ticket instead and cross your fingers.
Not only do you have to be genetically gifted — big, strong, fast, or athletic enough just to make it into the conversation — but you need good health, a good support system, and the right kind of coaching to live the childhood dream of playing in the NFL.
Patriots guard Logan Mankins, meanwhile, is an even rarer breed. He has won the lottery inside the lottery, not only making it to the NFL but beating astronomical odds to forge an impressive pro career that is entering its 10th season.
And he knows how many things have had to go his way just to get to this point.
“I think I’ve been truly lucky,” Mankins said Thursday after a workout at Gillette Stadium. “No catastrophic injuries. I’ve been lucky enough to stay with one team this entire time, and play for a great head coach, great organization, a lot of great teammates.”
Mankins’s entire career has pretty much been atypical, starting with the 2005 draft.
“The whole draft day was pretty fun,” he said. “Ended up getting drafted pretty high, so that was great.”
Draft time isn’t supposed to be “fun.” It’s supposed to be filled with suspense and often involves disappointment (just ask Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers).
Playing an unsexy position (guard) and coming out of a small school (Fresno State), Mankins had no expectation of being drafted in the first round, but the Patriots snagged him 32d overall. On top of that, Mankins fell into a plum situation, landing with the world champions.
He has played his entire career with a legendary coach/quarterback tandem in Bill Belichick and Brady, and every year his team is competing for a championship. Mankins’s Patriots teams have had double-digit wins in all nine of his seasons, with eight playoff and two Super Bowl appearances. Two of his division rivals — Buffalo and Miami — have one combined playoff appearance since 2004.
And somehow Mankins has managed to stay healthy, playing in 80 straight games to begin his career, and avoiding major injuries through his nine seasons. Yes, he toughed it out and played through a partially torn ACL in 2011, but even that was a blessing, he said.
“I think I was lucky that year, too, just to have the type of body that could handle it,” Mankins said. “I’m lucky in a lot of aspects to have a lot of things that have happened to me happen.”
Mankins also is one of the rare players who took on Patriots management in a contract dispute and won. He held out for seven games in 2010 after the Patriots cut his restricted free agent tender, then signed a five-year deal worth $51 million before the 2011 season. He has already realized $30 million of the deal, with another $6.5 million coming this year.
And Mankins knows that another contract bout with the Patriots will happen before his career is up. It could be next year, when the Patriots could save $7 million of his $11 million cap number, or in 2016, the final year of his deal.
He just saw his buddy Vince Wilfork go through one this offseason, with Wilfork helpless to do much as the Patriots cut his pay and turned a significant amount of his salary into incentives.
“Some guys probably think they’re going to have this long, great career,” Mankins said. “It’s a business, and if you don’t think it’s a business, you’re lying to yourself about that.
“The team, they want good players, but they want to make money, too. That’s their job. They’re not just here to hand out money to everyone.”
The NFL Players Association should have Mankins reiterate that message at its rookie symposium each year. Mankins also should be on the speed dial of college athletic directors to come speak to their players about the long odds of forging an NFL career.
Most college freshmen and NFL rookies don’t quite understand the long odds facing them. They have multimillion-dollar dreams, and don’t grasp that the NFL, unlike other sports, chews up and spits out players by their 26th birthday.
Baseball, basketball, and hockey players can have “careers.” For most football players, the NFL is a quick diversion before entering the real world.
Mankins is the shining example of the incredible life of fame and financial opportunity that the NFL can afford. He also knows how lucky he has been, and is just looking to enjoy his good fortune for as long as he can.
“It’s been a fun ride,” he said. “Hopefully it lasts a few more years.”