Chris Long is healthy again, and proving his worth

After two injury-riddled seasons earned him a release from the Rams, Chris Long is finally healthy, and having the time of his life.

Thirty-one years old is to be young. If you’re lucky, perhaps only a third of your life is behind you, with decades of top earnings ahead. None of this applies to Chris Long, who has seen his biggest paydays with the knowledge that football twilight is ahead.

Only a few years ago, Long was a dominant star. With the Rams, the second-overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft notched 33 sacks between 2011-13. In the prime of his career, Long was reminding many of his father, Howie, who earned a bust in Canton as a Hall of Fame defensive lineman.

Then the wheels fell off. Long played in just 18 games over his next two seasons, totaling four sacks. A knee injury zapped the power and explosiveness that became a trademark of Long, leading to St. Louis to release him.

On March 15, Long signed one-year deal from the New England Patriots. It was a footnote on the afternoon, during the crush of a whirlwind free agency period. Nobody cared much about the broken-down defensive end except for Bill Belichick, who believed there was something left to extract. For Long, the belief in him was impactful.

“That meant a lot,” Long said. “Coach Belichick took a chance on me. … I had my opportunities to go elsewhere but it wasn’t like people were jumping at the opportunity to get the guy I was the last two years. But I knew that wasn’t me, and coach knew it wasn’t me. That makes me want to play even harder for these guys.”

Long has rewarded Belichick’s faith. In a rotational role, the California native amassed four sacks, providing pressure in a front defined by teamwork. In Matt Patricia’s defense, the key has been fresh bodies and shared productivity, something Long has fully embraced.

Despite a few rough years that could have scuttled his career, Long maintained both work ethic and hope in finding a healthy form. Whether or not Long can ever return to his double-digit sack ways remains to be seen, and is frankly unlikely, but that’s beyond the point.

“I just feel like me again,” Long said. “I’ve been able to be durable like I was before I was hurt. I don’t think I’ve missed a day of work. That’s something I take a lot of pride in. Playing inside, playing outside, it might not be my best statistical year but I know I’ve played well and I’ve played a hard role on this team.”

With a win on Sunday, Long will have his first championship (and the family’s second). It will validate both Belichick’s belief and Long’s perseverance. While a loss wouldn’t change those truths, it would bury them beneath an avalanche of disappointment.

This is what Long has been working for all season long. A stage this big, an opportunity this grand, and, most of all, simply a game to play.

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