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HomeSportsFlacco coming back to spotlight proves age is just a number

Flacco coming back to spotlight proves age is just a number

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Joe Flacco was once brutally flattened by a future UFC fighter – and popped right back up again. That was 17 years ago when he was still a virtual unknown playing for FCS school Delaware against Hofstra before eventually being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens and putting together a long NFL career. 

In the years that followed, the Hofstra lineman, Gian Villante, who delivered the bone-crunching hit on Flacco, would go on to prove himself as a world-class expert in physical punishment, fighting on the same mixed-martial-arts cards as the likes of Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones and Georges St. Pierre.

Villante now coaches high school football on Long Island and, by happy coincidence, is an avowed Cleveland Browns fan, turned to the Dawgs by his old training partner and former UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, a diehard Clevelander. 

And Flacco, against all reasonable odds, is still getting hit and popping back up again, topping it off by winning football games for the Browns at a point when most seemed sure he was destined for duties as a bad team’s placeholder or backup. 

Nope. 

The past two weeks have been a thrilling ride for Cleveland with Flacco at the heart of it, restoring and perhaps even enhancing belief that had faded when Deshaun Watson went down. 

His experience, calmness and composed play have led the team to a 9-5 record behind wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Chicago Bears, with last weekend’s effort highlighted by a spectacular late comeback and a series of clutch throws on the final drive when nothing else would suffice. 

“I watched the game and I can’t believe that guy I played against all those years ago is still out there doing it at such a high level,” Villante told me by telephone on Thursday. “It blows my mind.  

“Think of all the hits Joe has taken over the years, from guys like me and so many others. As a fighter, you obviously get hit brutally hard, but you can take six months until your next fight. “Quarterbacks are trying to get off a throw, they can’t protect themselves, but they’ve got to go back next week and do it again.” 

Joe Flacco speaks on finding success with Browns | FOX NFL Sunday

Joe Flacco sat down with Mark Sanchez to discuss finding success with the Cleveland Browns late in his career.

Enough time has passed that it isn’t so easy to track down people who intersected with the early part of Flacco’s career, but there are plenty of easy reminders as to just how long he has been doing this. 

Remember in the distant past when Beyoncé did her halftime thing and then the Super Bowl lights went out in the New Orleans Superdome? That was the Super Bowl that Flacco won, nearly 11 years ago, beating Colin Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers in the big game. 

Back then, LeBron James had just won his first NBA championship months earlier and LeBron is a supporter of the Flacco revival now. Why wouldn’t he be? James is a Browns fan, he turns 39 on Dec. 30, just 18 days before Flacco does the same, and the notion of one old geyser rooting for another to shine on behalf of his hometown team seems entirely fitting. 

Having spent the first two months of the season on his couch, next up for Flacco is a visit to Houston on Sunday to take on the Texans. Frankly, it is a little hard to work out if the more surprising thing is that he’s still here or how well he is doing.  

If not for his advanced years, the success wouldn’t be a shock at all. His career tallies are 43,259 passing yards (19th all-time) and 239 touchdowns (30th), and even when bouncing between the Jets (twice), Broncos and the Eagles, he never let his professionalism waver. As much as anything, that’s what a talented but somewhat inexperienced Browns squad is benefiting from. 

“You know what’s ahead and what’s kind of promised to us, we are not blind to all that,” Flacco told reporters. “But the guys have a singular focus.” 

So too, does the fan base, ignited by seeing a veteran shining in ways that, frankly, guys stepping in for this kind of role aren’t expected to.  

“Everyone is pumped,” Villante told me. You could see the air go out of the season with Watson’s injury, then it has all come flooding back – maybe even more so.” 

Joe Flacco, Browns SHOCK Justin Fields, Bears – Dave Helman reacts | NFL on FOX Pod

Dave Helman sits down to analyze the Cleveland Browns’ victory over the Chicago Bears alongside Mark Sanchez and Kevin Kugler. How did Joe Flacco and the Cleveland Browns pull off the improbable victory? Did Justin Fields cost the Chicago Bears the victory? Helman also makes sure to give his personal thoughts to the Browns victory.

If the chalk holds in the loaded AFC, an 11-win tally might be what is needed to make the postseason. With Flacco firing, such a target seems attainable, though this weekend will be a huge step in the process with a winnable game against the Jets and a tougher one against the division rival Bengals to follow. 

Through it all, it is worth considering that this is a somewhat odd and delightfully unexpected piece to the career saga for a former Super Bowl MVP, with his exploits over recent weeks such that some fans came to regard his salt-and-pepper beard as a lucky charm – but now hope it wasn’t because he shaved it off midweek. 

For Villante, the connection from the past adds something to the viewing experience. Not many fans get to say that the QB they’re cheering for is a guy they once drove into the turf. 

“I feel all the aches and pains in my body, and I’m in awe of how he’s able to keep doing it,” Villante said. “Let’s hope he has a few more weeks left in him.” 

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.



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