BILLINGS — When he was drafted into the NFL, Montana State product Mike Person shared a notion with his father about career longevity.
“If I can make it seven years in the NFL,” he told Jim Person, a longtime coach and school administrator in Glendive, “it will be one hell of a career.”
Late-round picks don’t have the best advantages. To make a team you have to fight twice as hard to not only endure competition from established veterans but to also beat out undrafted free agents with just as much hunger and drive.
Person, a 2006 graduate of Dawson County High School, is accustomed to that routine.
After making 35 consecutive starts at both left and right tackle at Montana State, Person was drafted in the seventh round —239th overall — by the 49ers in 2011.
That was the easy part.
Over the course of the next seven seasons Person spent time with six different NFL franchises — the 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Falcons, Chiefs and Colts. He played in 43 total games and made 18 starts at center. Last season in Indianapolis he made four starts and appeared in 12 games.
It says something that Person played tackle in college but made a name for himself as a center in the pros.
Person is happy to have hit the magic seven-year target he intimated to his father when he first began his NFL journey. But Person’s career isn’t over yet.
Though he’s a free agent again, he’s heading back to where it began for him — San Francisco — for a workout on Tuesday. If the 49ers like what they see, they’ll offer Person a contract. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
Or it could be the end.
The NFL grind
Person has one requirement if he is to continue in the NFL: He wants to sign with a team before the last round of organized team activities in June so he can acclimate to a new organization.
Otherwise, Person is content to call it a career and plunge into family life with wife Kelly and their two young children, Sean and Nora.
“I don’t want to go into a situation where I don’t know the playbook going into training camp and go in blind like that,” Person said Thursday during a phone conversation from his home in suburban Kansas City.
“I would have to have enough time to get in there during OTAs to really soak up the playbook as much as I can.”
It’s true Person hasn’t played in as many NFL games as he would like, and his only regret so far is the fact that he was cut from three Super Bowl teams — the 49ers in 2012, the Seahawks in 2013 and the Falcons in 2016 — but he nonetheless seems fulfilled with the career he’s forged up to now.
It took him two seasons before he appeared in his first regular-season game, which came in 2013 with the Seahawks, the year they won the Super Bowl. But he was cut in Week 2.
In 2014 he appeared in all 16 games with the Rams.
The pinnacle of Person’s career (to date) was the 2015 season when he started 14 games with the Falcons. He was the center for quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for over 4,500 yards, and also helped pave the way for Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.
That season also produced his best on-field memory, in which Freeman ran for a long touchdown in a game versus the Texans.
“We were all running down the field to celebrate with him, and he hands me the ball and lets me spike it. That was something else,” Person recounted.
The Falcons went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, and the following season he was stuck behind center Alex Mack, one of Atlanta’s top free agent addition. Person tried to work his way onto the field as a guard, but it didn’t work out. Person was cut in Week 8.
He was briefly with the Chiefs last season but ended up with the Colts, where a 12-game stint served as revitalization.
“It was great. I started four of the last five games,” Person said. “It always feels good playing. Nobody wants to be in this business just to be there. They want to be on the field.
“I thought I played pretty good at times, and I was kind of hoping to re-sign with Indianapolis, but for whatever reason that didn’t happen. It’s just something you accept and move on from.”
'Fighting for your life'
It’s been a long road for Person, who in high school was a primary recruiting target of then-MSU offensive line coach Jason McEndoo.
McEndoo loved Person’s technical savvy, his stick-to-it-ness and his smarts. His work paid off in spades during Person’s senior season in 2010, when the Bobcats beat Montana, won a share of the Big Sky Conference title and ended a four-year postseason drought.
McEndoo, now an assistant coach on Mike Gundy’s staff at Oklahoma State, said he knew Person had the internal fortitude to remain a viable NFL lineman for as long as he has.
“Everybody thinks an NFL career is just glamor and glitz, and for the top two percent of the NFL it’s that way,” said McEndoo, who was a lineman with the Seahawks in 1998 after starring at Washington State.
“But the other guys are just like Mike who come to work every day, lunch pail guys who put their work in, put their time in, scratch, claw and do whatever they can do to make a roster. And he’s done a great job of that.”
“It can become a lonely road, just the mental aspect of it,” McEndoo said. “It can be difficult at times trying to overcome those negative thoughts or fight through the adversity that you go through.”
When Person’s career does come to an end, he’d like to become a coach at the collegiate level. If that doesn’t pan out, he said he will pursue a graduate degree in education and then teach and coach in high school.
But he’ll try to keep living out his NFL dream a little while longer, beginning Tuesday in San Francisco.
“It’s one of those things where I’ve just kept chugging along and whatever’s happened,” Person said. “I’ve always made sure that I was in my best shape possible so I could go into any situation and try and excel and hang on to a job.
“It’s really just fighting for your life. Obviously, enough teams saw something in me to give me that opportunity. That doesn’t happen all the time. Usually guys get to about three teams and they’re out of the league, but for whatever reason I’ve been able to stick it out.
“One of the things that always sticks with me is when you run out for the starting lineup, and they say, ‘Mike Person, Montana State.’ That always kind of gives me goose bumps thinking about it. I was a kid from a town of 5,000 people in Montana playing in (the NFL). That’s something else.”