- Elizabeth Merrill
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MIAMI -- Taped to the side of Ryan Lilja's locker is a newspaper clipping that features the smiling mug of Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday. It's a bank ad with a Grizzly Adams-looking 295-pound pitchman, and the linemen think that's kind of funny.
"We joke about him, that he's kind of a media, uh I don't want to say the word," Lilja said. "We're offensive linemen. We don't get a lot of attention, but Jeff seems to. So he's kind of a playboy."
Maybe it's fitting that the man who has snapped the ball to Peyton Manning for the past 11 years should get his cut of the limelight. Saturday has his own action figure, which means some of the linemen had to buy it, just to tease him even more. (Lilja's Saturday action figure, by the way, is missing a plastic foot). He's featured in one of Manning's latest commercials for MasterCard, and he signed a $13 million contract extension with the Colts last year.
And if you ask Manning, Lilja or anyone else on the Colts' offense, he's worth all the adulation. Manning might call the plays, but Saturday is clearly the boss of an offensive line that kept the quarterback virtually unscathed in 2009. Manning was sacked just 10 times, and, year after year, is one of the least-touched quarterbacks in the league.
"I'll always be indebted to what Jeff has done for me, just protecting me as a quarterback," Manning said. "I feel very comfortable with him right in front of me.
"Every time I make an audible, Jeff kind of has his own audibles after that. He makes those calls and then he has to go block a 320-pound noseguard. So I have never taken him for granted. I stay real close to him."
So close that their lockers are right next to each other and they sit side by side on plane rides. Manning and Saturday are golf partners in the offseason and communicate constantly in-season. Asked earlier this week whether they're kind of husband and wife, Saturday cracked, "If he's the wife, that would be very accurate."
Teammates say Saturday knows as much about defenses as Manning does, and that's saying a lot, given the quarterback's reputation for nonstop preparation. Saturday is the voice of the linemen in meetings, and he tells the coaches what works and what doesn't. Saturday's words hold a lot of clout, Lilja says.
And his chemistry with Manning is crucial. The center-and-quarterback relationship, New York Jets center Nick Mangold says, takes time and practice. They have to be in sync and, in Saturday's case, be able to decipher Manning's no-huddle shuffle, the flailing arms, the last-second adjustments.
"I think you've got to have a good relationship," Mangold said of the center-quarterback relationship. "If you don't like each other, I think it'd be a rough one. You spend so much time together, and the things you do are so crucial to every play.
"It just seems like [Saturday] has such a grasp of what they're doing as an offense that he's able to do things without having to check with anybody. He can just do it on his own."
It seems funny, now, that Saturday almost ended up doing something else. He went undrafted out of North Carolina in 1998, got signed by the Baltimore Ravens, then cut that summer. He was out of the game that fall but lifted weights just in case a team called. The Colts rang in December.
Many times that year, Saturday wondered whether his football career was over. He got a job selling electrical supplies in Raleigh, N.C., a decent gig with one exception: The guy he worked for was a Duke grad.
"I had worked for seven months there or whatever, but I was OK with where I was," Saturday said. "I had a good job. I was comfortable with what I was doing. It just wasn't going to be football."
Back then, the biggest knock on Saturday was his size. At 6-foot-2 and a shade lighter than 300, he wasn't a prototypical NFL center. Then again, nobody on this Colts line fits perfectly to type. Three of the starters weren't drafted, and the newest addition -- guard Kyle DeVan -- was earning $100 a day as a substitute junior high school teacher last year.
DeVan and Saturday have talked about it -- not being able to play football, not knowing what comes next. Saturday told the youngster that it's great that he made it. "But now you've got to stay here," Saturday told him.
"That was the biggest advice I really took in," DeVan said. "Keep working hard, keeping getting better. Because someone else is coming in behind you."
Eleven years, two Super Bowl trips, and Saturday has been the rock of the offensive line. He's confident and assertive enough to tell Manning exactly what he thinks; he's playful enough to keep things fun for the big guys.
Sometimes, Saturday and his pals liven up the team meetings by flicking their fingers at the back of rookie quarterback Curtis Painter's head. The Colts are having a good time, and Saturday is at the center of all it.
Now if only he could fix the foot on that action figure
"He's got a little ankle issue," Lilja said, jokingly. "I think he's down two to four [weeks]."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's the Saturday before the Super Bowl -- so maybe it's fitting that Jeff Saturday, the man who has snapped the ball to Peyton Manning for the past 11 years, should get his cut of the limelight.