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McClure rarely noticed but in middle of everything

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McClure rarely noticed but in middle of everything

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) When Todd McClure was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, they had just made it to the Super Bowl for the first time.

``You think it's going to be easy,'' he remembered.

It's not, of course.

Fourteen years later, McClure is still waiting for his first trip to the big game.

``I tell the young guys on this team that we have to take advantage of this opportunity,'' he said, ``because it's not a given that you'll be in this position again next year.''

When the Falcons (14-3) host the San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) on Sunday for the NFC championship and a spot in the Super Bowl, McClure will be right in the middle of things, though chances are he'll barely be noticed.

He may be the center, but he's hardly the center of attention. McClure snaps the ball to get the play started, then fades into the background while players such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez grab all the headlines for the Falcons high-octane offense.

But ask around the locker room, and everyone will say that McClure is the glue that holds the unit together.

``Todd has been huge for my career here in Atlanta,'' Ryan said. ``He's a guy who doesn't get enough recognition. In all honesty, my first two years here, in terms of pass protection, Todd carried me. He really did. He set every protection, he got us on the right page, and he kept me clean. He helped me out immensely.''

As the longest-running member of the Falcons by far, McClure has certainly gone through his share of ups and downs.

A seventh-round pick out of LSU in 1999, he sustained a season-ending injury in his very first training camp, raising doubts about whether he'd ever play in the NFL. Turns out, he claimed a job on the line the very next season and went on to set a franchise record with 148 consecutive starts. Over the past dozen seasons, he's missed only four out of 192 games.

``He's a consummate professional, he really is,'' Ryan said. ``He's extremely well prepared week in and week out. He gives it everything he has. He's a guy I look up to on how to handle your business and be a good teammate, and what it takes to have yourself prepared, those kinds of things. I've looked up to him since I've been here and he's certainly meant a lot to me.''

McClure has gotten this close to the Super Bowl only other time. During the 2004 season, when he was snapping the ball to Michael Vick, the Falcons came up one win short, losing at frigid Philadelphia in the conference championship game.

Now, as the lone holdover from that team, McClure is back for another shot.

With his 36th birthday right around the corner, he doesn't want to let it slip away again.

``This is why we play the game,'' McClure said. ``That's why I'm still playing this game.''

McClure was seriously considering retirement during the dismal 2007 season, when Vick was busted for dogfighting and Bobby Petrino proved to be completely ill-suited for coaching in the NFL. Petrino didn't even make it through the year, bolting back to the college ranks with three games to go, and that cleared the way for McClure to return.

There was no way he was going to play another year under Petrino, who demanded silence during team meals and barely acknowledged his players when he passed them in the hall.

``I hated getting in my car and coming to work every morning,'' McClure said. ``It just wasn't any fun. I've never seen anything like it. In this game, if you can't have fun coming up here to work and handing out the guys, it can be brutal.

``But,'' he pointed out, ``we're way past that now.''

Indeed, they are. Since then, McClure has been part of the greatest run in Falcons' history. Five straight winning seasons. Four playoff appearances. Two division titles. Only New England has won more regular-season games than Atlanta during that span.

No wonder McClure hopes to come back for at least one more season, maybe two.

``I'm still having fun,'' he said. ``I enjoy this team, enjoy hanging out with the guys in the locker room. I don't know what else I would do with my time if I didn't have football.''

McClure's linemates have pushed for his overlooked career to get some recognition. There's still some ``McClure for Pro Bowl'' caps around the locker room, part of a campaign last season that started tongue-in-cheek - right tackle Tyson Clabo knew it would get under McClure's skin - but definitely had a serious side to it.

Well, he's still never made it to the Pro Bowl, and chances are he never will at this stage of his career.

That's fine with McClure, who is perfectly content to be just another nondescript guy in the trenches, barely noticed because all he's doing in his what he's paid to do.

Unlike so many pampered athletes, McClure knows how fortunate he is to still be out on the field at his age, having already earned enough money to be set for life, all while playing for the same organization.

While he still returns to his native Louisiana in the offseason, he's been able to put down roots in Atlanta with his wife and their four children - two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 5 to 11.

``I definitely feel blessed to have been here the whole time,'' McClure said. ``I haven't had to move my family all around the country.''

There's just one bit of unfinished business.

``Now,'' he added, ``I think it's time for us to go win a championship.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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A Capital doesn't win Hardest Shot at NHL Skills for the first time in 3 years

A Capital doesn't win Hardest Shot at NHL Skills for the first time in 3 years

ST. LOUIS -- John Carlson did a valiant job trying to defend his title for the hardest shot, but Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber took home the prize with a blistering 106.5 MPH shot at the NHL Skills on Friday.

Alex Ovechkin won the Hardest Shot in 2018 and Carlson won it in 2019. He looked to be in good position to win it again after taking the lead with only one shooter left to go.

As Carlson skated up for his turn, the number to beat was 102.4 from Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson. Carlson shattered that with a shot of 104.5, beating his own winning shot from last year of 102.8.

The only problem? Weber was the last shooter.

"With Webs going behind him you kind of just expect him to go put up some big numbers," T.J. Oshie said. "But when John put up 104.5, you thought maybe there was a chance, but obviously Shea stepped up and took care of business."

Weber had Carlson beat on his very first shot. Weber smashed the puck for 105.9 MPH on his first attempt. As he was the last shooter, he had already won, but took his second shot anyway and beat his own mark, finishing with a 106.5 MPH shot.

While the Caps had won the event in each of the past two seasons, Weber had won it three straight times before Ovechkin took the title in 2018.

Even when Carlson took the lead, he still did not believe he would win knowing Weber still had to go.

"I think I knew all along we were all just a part of the show," Carlson said.

Braden Holtby also fell short in his attempt to win the Save Streak event. Frederik Anderson had the number to beat of seven when Holtby went between the pipes. He faced shooters from the Atlantic Division and made a run at seven when he stopped David Pastrnak’s shot. A goalie's round could not end on a save. As the captain, Pastrnak was the last shooter unless Holtby saved his shot. When Holtby stopped Pastrnak, that meant he would continue facing shots until he was beaten. With two straight saves, Holtby denied Shea Weber and Brady Tkachuk to get his streak up to five saves before he was finally beaten by Jack Eichel.

"I was just hoping Shea Weber wouldn't come down and take a slap shot on me,” Holtby told the NBCSN broadcast.

St. Louis Blues Jordan Binnington ended up winning the event, much to the delight of the home crowd. Andrei Vasilevskiy raised the save streak up to nine with Binnington as the last goalie to go. In dramatic fashion, Binnington went on to deny 10 straight shots to take the win.

Other highlights of the All-Star Skills:

Ryan O’Reilly’s football helmet

Next week is the Super Bowl Sunday and Ryan O’Reilly showed who he is cheering for in warmups as he came onto the ice wearing a Kansas City Chiefs' helmet.


Connor McDavid is not the fastest skater?

We all know who the fastest skater in the NHL is. It’s Connor McDavid. You might as well just declare the race over, right?

Not so fast. (See what I did there?)

Stunningly, McDavid did not win the event and was edged out by New York Islanders forward Mathew Barzal who completed the event in 13.175 seconds, just 0.03 seconds away from the record.

The Justin Bieber mask

San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl decided to have some fun during the save streak. Before his shot attempt on Binnington, he busted out a Justin Bieber mask and put it on before shooting.

No, he did not score. Yes, the mask was terrifying.


The women’s 3-on-3 game was awesome

If there is one complaint about the All-Star Skills and All-Star Game, is that it is not competitive enough. Players have fun with it, as they should, but they aren’t exactly going 100-percent like they would in an actual game. That was certainly not the case for the 3-on-3 women’s game between Canada and USA.

The women’s teams put on a great display of skill in what was an incredibly fun game to watch. Canada took a 1-0 lead in the first period off a goal from Rebecca Johnston. Melodie Daoust made it 2-0 in the second period and Hilary Knight finally put USA on the board putting them to within one.

But really it was the goalies who stole the show. With plenty of room to work, there were a number of breakaways and odd-man rushes. Both Alex Cavallini for the USA and Ann-Renee Desbiens for Canada were strong in net to keep it a three-goal game.

"It was pretty impressive," Oshie said. "The goalies stood on their head, but the girls were making some awesome plays, some great moves. It's always fun cheering on the Americans."

Desbiens had a drop the mic moment with a glove save just as time expired to maintain the 2-1 win for Canada.

Shooting Stars

You have to credit the NHL for trying. One of the new events featured players on a raised platform in the crowd shooting at targets on the ice. It was...different. The biggest issue with it was that the players could not hit most of the targets and the one that seemed the easiest to get was worth the most points. This one will need some tweaking if they want to bring it back again next year.

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Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

If Ryan Zimmerman did not return to the Nationals, he at least would have a future teaching how not to negotiate.

Zimmerman openly drove down his bargaining leverage for almost a year before signing a one-year deal on Friday to return to the only professional team he’s known, a source confirmed. The deal is reported at $2 million.

Throughout the season, Zimmerman openly discussed his interest in returning and understanding it would be at a low rate. As if his stance wasn’t already clear, Zimmerman explained at a screening of the Nationals’ championship video he would return or play more golf.

“So, we’ll be good to go,” Zimmerman said.

It’s baseball for now. Zimmerman rejoins the defending World Series champions to play his 16th season. He’s a 35-year-old platoon player this season. Zimmerman’s money and legacy have been established. He’s back in the fold to pursue another title. 

And he makes an already old Nationals team older. Zimmerman turns 36 years old the day after the 2020 regular season ends. Howie Kendrick will be 37 years old by midseason. Asdrúbal Cabrera is 34 years old. Eric Thames is 33 years old. Will Harris is 35, Daniel Hudson 32, Sean Doolittle 33, Max Scherzer 35, Kurt Suzuki 36. Yan Gomes will be 33 just after the All-Star break. 

Zimmerman will share first base with Thames and, occasionally, Howie Kendrick. They provide an intriguing splits-based platoon. Thames hits right-handers well -- 23 of his 25 2019 home runs came against them, as did much of his opportunity in Milwaukee -- and Zimmerman has a .917 career OPS against left-handed pitchers. Zimmerman is the much better defender.

He’s back because he -- and the Nationals -- believe Zimmerman’s production remains directly tied to his health. His September and postseason work showed Zimmerman’s bat speed remains intact. He is quietly one of the better defensive first baseman in the league. They think they can protect him. Overall, the Nationals are so comfortable with an expanse of older players because they plan to shield them with limited usage. Also, Josh Donaldson went to Minnesota, clearing the cash and providing a need for Zimmerman. 

Kendrick, Cabrera and Starlin Castro can play various infield spots. Thames and Zimmerman will reduce the other’s role, as well as pinch-hit when not starting. Davey Martinez has options. He also has the challenge of rotating players. One thing on his side: older players know they are just that. Grousing about playing time should not be an issue with the group, the majority of which played as role players last year on the way to a World Series title. 

One other thing to note about Zimmerman: he’s 30 home runs short of 300. Can he get there with another two years on the field? He has at least one more to add to his total, assuring his driver has another lonely summer.

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