Backus, Tulloch the ironmen of the Lions

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Offensive tackle Jeff Backus will start his 177th consecutive regular-season game for the Detroit Lions in Sunday’s opener against the St. Louis Rams.

Linebacker Stephen Tulloch will be playing in his 97th straight game.

Neither has ever missed a game during their NFL careers.

“I want to give everything I have while I’m here,” Tulloch said. “He (Backus) wants to do the same thing.”

Nobody appreciates that durability and reliability more than their teammates, who don’t take it for granted.

To be an ironman in a violent sport like the NFL, you obviously need extreme toughness and dedication, not to mention some good fortune.

But you also have to be a little stubborn, greedy and protective of your job.

“You’re giving someone else an opportunity by coming out,” Tulloch said. “So you play through it.”

Backus ranks third among active NFL players in consecutive starts by a non-kicker, behind only Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber (199) and Washington linebacker London Fletcher (179).

He already holds the Lions’ franchise record.

“Coaches have to try to sit him down (in practice) to give him rest cause all he wants to do is work, work, work,” Tulloch said. “That motivates me to see a guy like him.”

Backus is entering his 12th year in the league. He turns 35 later this month. There’s no denying that his career is coming to an end in the near future.

This could be his final year.

“I haven’t sat back and reflected too much,” Backus said. “I realize where I am in my career. My focus is on this year and just having the best year we possibly can have, me personally and as a team.”

A few weeks ago, one of the Lions’ younger employees referred to him as “Mr. Backus.”

“I didn’t like it,” he said. “I’m not that old.”

Not too old that he can’t keep lining up in the trenches. He’s started every game for the Lions since the 2001 season opener.

Rookie Riley Reiff, the club’s first-round draft pick and the likely heir apparent at left tackle, was 12 years old when Backus made his debut.

“You don’t hop out of bed as quick as you used to in your early 20s, but you learn how to deal with it all,” Backus said.

“I just take a lot of pride in being there, where they can count on me, that they know I’m going to be there every week. It’s the attitude that I’ve always had, whether I was in college or now.” 

Offensive guard Rob Sims called Backus “the consummate professional in our room.”

“He does everything the right way,” Sims said.

Tulloch is only in his second year with the Lions, but he already has earned similar respect from his teammates.

Tulloch played his first five years with Tennessee before signing with Detroit as an unrestricted free agent before last season.

“He wants to play hurt, injured, whatever you want to call it,” Lions reserve linebacker Ashlee Palmer said. “Sore, tired, he’s just going to be out there.”

Not just for games, but for practice, too.

Just like Backus.

“We take a beating each and every day from hitting linemen to running backs on each play,” Justin Durant, another linebacker, said when asked about Tulloch’s streak. “I’ve missed a couple games each season. I look at him and wonder how can he do it?”

The worst for Tulloch came during his third season when he played despite a torn labrum for about 14 weeks.

“Constantly making tackles and your shoulder popping out, popping it back in and keep going,” Tulloch said.

He kept going because that’s what his mentors did. Tulloch learned from veteran teammates such as Keith Bulluck and David Thornton. Both were also linebackers for the Titans. Bulluck went seven straight years without missing a start, Thornton five.

“I saw how they take care of themselves and how they practice through injuries and played in games,” said Tulloch, who has started 62 of the 96 games during his streak.

“They took pride in that. It kind of rubbed off on me.”

Now it’s rubbing off on others.