Continued from page 1

“Being an athlete, you’re year-round working out and doing the things you need to do to keep yourself that way, and so being 30 doesn’t really change anything. … So it’s all about how you keep your body in shape and where your mind is at that point. To me, I don’t feel like stopping no time soon.”

None of these players feels like giving it up yet, yet football is no sport for just hanging on. The potential for embarrassment is high. The potential for injury is higher. They all know they have to do more than the minimum.

“I have had people write me off the past six or seven months,” says Keith Bulluck, the outstanding linebacker with the Titans who joined the Giants this year after his 2009 season was shortened by surgery on his left knee. “If you look at my career, I have been nothing but at the top of my position. I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t plan on playing that way.”

Like Bulluck, Keith Brooking was a mainstay on his former team, the Falcons. A change in defensive philosophy in Atlanta led him to Dallas after 11 years. He had a strong season a year ago, allowing him to chuckle at claims he was washed up.

“That’s a compliment. It means I’ve been in this league a long time,” says the 34-year-old linebacker. “I don’t worry about what people say. The old cliche is, ‘The eye in the sky doesn’t lie.’ Turn on the film and watch it.

“They’re not paying me because I’m too old and can’t play. Who cares what other people say? All that matters is having the respect of my teammates, coaches and peers. That’s all that matters.”

Not quite. Sometimes, redemption matters so much it drives players to prove themselves after years of adversity. Pacman Jones and Michael Vick fall in that category, even though their problems were self-inflicted.

Both have served lengthy suspensions after well-documented run-ins with the law. Both have gotten reprieves. Jones is trying to make it back with the Bengals, and Vick, 30, is Kevin Kolb’s understudy in Philadelphia.

Each knows this is his last dance, his last chance for glory. Or, more simply, the last chance to make a living playing the game they love.

“Of course you change as you grow … it ain’t overnight,” Jones says. “I’m 26 years old now, so I can’t do the same things I was doing at 21, or I’m going to be dead or in jail. I know what my passion is, and my passion is football. I know what I’ve got to do to keep playing football, and that’s what I’m working on doing.

“I’ve got all my Ts crossed and my Is dotted. I know what it takes. I know what I have to do. Period, point blank. I know what my job is here, and I know what the coaches expect out of me and I know what the team expects out of me. It’s straight to the cut: ‘Hey, do your job, don’t get in trouble, you’ll be all right.’”

Ditto, says Vick, who did little as a third-string quarterback in Philly last year, his first season back after serving a federal prison sentence for dogfighting that cost him two years of football.

“If you look at my life over the last year, I’ve been trying to do all of the right things, whether it’s in the community or on the field, or with my family,” Vick says. “And I think that’s what it’s all about. I’m having fun, I had the most fun in the last year than I’ve had in the last eight years I’ve been playing football. I’m just happy to be in the situation I’m in. I’m blessed, and I just have to keep moving forward.”