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Life of a Saint: Mike Karney

Karney speaks about life as an underdog, playing through Hurricane Katrina and some of the things he’s most proud of

New Orleans Saints v St. Louis Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

“I remember that ‘punt block heard round the world’ by Steve Gleason. It was like a bomb went off when he blocked that punt. I remember at the end of that game as the clock was ticking down, I just started balling. I just remember Ernie Conwell was sitting next to me. I looked at him and started crying. He put his arm around me and I just kept crying.” – Mike Karney

Life of a Saint: Mike Karney

It was a culmination of the devastation, the uncertainty and ultimately, the perseverance of the people of New Orleans all rolled into a 60-minute game. The same fans that had seen their city, their homes and their lives torn apart by Hurricane Katrina were now back within shouting distance and bursting with hope. The script was something out of a Hollywood tear-jerker and Mike Karney had the best seat in the house.

For former New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl fullback Mike Karney, the incredible, field-level view of that historic game wasn’t purchased Superdome box office prior to the 2006 home opener. To understand how Karney earned admission, you must go back to a decision he made in 1988. It all started on a field at East Hill Elementary School in Kent, Washington. Karney shared, “I actually had an encounter with a nine-year-old doing an Oklahoma drill when I was seven. I was a pretty husky kid growing up. I must have been a 130-pound seven-year-old.” Karney laughed as he continued, “I don’t know if you remember seeing the movie, ‘Little Giants’. The guy Spike in that movie, I went against a kid that was like Spike. We did the Oklahoma drill. You lay down and put your heads together. The whistle blows, you pop up and one guy is the ball carrier and the other guy is the defender. Well, I was the tackler and he was the ball carrier. He ran right over me.”

After the dust settled, Karney had an exchange with his father that would unknowingly shape his future. “I’m crying and my dad is standing over me. I remember him saying, ‘What did you learn?’ I’m thinking, ‘What do you mean? My shoulder hurts. It’s on fire.’ He said, ‘What did you learn? Do you want to be the hitter or the hittee?’ From that point on, the light bulb went on and I thought, ‘I’m going to be the hitter.’” While football started out as something fun to watch on a Saturday, it was quickly turning into a passion.

Karney Impresses in High School

Kentwood High School inherited the talents of Mike Karney in the mid-90’s and his offense was able to take full advantage of their new addition. Kentwood ran a pro-style, I-formation offense conducive to Karney’s talents. Karney said, “I was a true fullback in high school. The advantage was that I was 5’11” and 255 pounds my senior year and I was benching almost 400 pounds. I was kind of a man-child. I was doing a lot of things in training and in the weight room that a lot of kids weren’t doing at that age.” For Karney, high school was an eye-opening time in his life, realizing that his dreams of playing in the NFL were getting more and more realistic.

Karney’s Success Continues in Arizona State

When asked why the Washington native chose to attend Arizona State University, Mike Karney’s answer was simple and humorous. “They were the only school that offered me a scholarship”, he jested. Karney would go on to explain the recruiting process of those days, mailing out letters and highlight tapes to various schools. Karney did get responses back from other schools, but not the type he was looking for. He explained, “At that time, you’d get the generalized questionnaire and the copied letters back from colleges. My whole goal was to get the hand-written letter. If someone sent you the hand-written one, that means they took the time to look at my stuff and wanted to recruit me.” Arizona State would end up being one of those schools. After a visit to see Karney play in person in his Junior year, Arizona State made him an offer on the spot. They visited Karney again at the first game of his senior year, re-emphasizing their interest. A few weeks later, Karney committed.

After all that, the decision to commit to Arizona State wasn’t just because they were the first to show serious interest. “It was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to play major college football, to play Division I. Also, Arizona State was a great fit because they ran a true fullback at the time. It was a match made in Heaven for me and it worked out”, Karney shared. Karney would end up getting national attention, setting himself up to cash in on his dream to play in the NFL.

Karney on the NFL Draft

“Mel Kiper didn’t even have me as a top-5 fullback”, Karney mentioned. Despite knowing he had a well-rounded and pro-ready game, Karney still felt a level of disrespect. Karney went on to mention, “I always thought that it was kind of a slap in the face. I took that personally.” Karney stated part of the reason for the slight may have been his combine performance. “I wasn’t really a numbers guy when it came to the combine. I’m not going to jump out of the gym. I’m not going to run a fast 40. What I did have was four years of solid game tape”, said Karney.

Despite the slight by the “Draft Guru” Kiper, Karney would end up being the first fullback chosen in the 2004 NFL draft, going in the fifth round to the New Orleans Saints. Karney remembered, “It just so happens that my agent at the time knew the running backs coach of the Saints, Dave Atkins. Dave Atkins watched me my freshman year and I remember my freshman year he thought I was a senior. He took note of me. He continued to follow me year after year.” The eligibility was well timed for Karney as the Saints had just parted ways with fellow Arizona State alum Terrell Smith who they had drafted in 2000.

So what did Kiper say when Karney was drafted before any of Kiper’s top five? Karney disclosed, “I couldn’t wait to watch on TV because I wanted to hear what he (Kiper) had to say. He was saying how great I was. I thought, ‘If I was so great, why wasn’t I on your top-5?’ Now when I see all these mock drafts, I don’t even take them seriously.”

Karney Earns Teammates’ Respect in New Orleans

There was no time to adjust. Despite the Saints bringing in Sam Gash in the 2004 off-season to compete, the starting fullback position would end up going to Mike Karney. Although head coach Jim Haslett handed Karney that role, he wanted to earn it in the eyes of his teammates. “There’s pressure there”, Karney explained. He continued, “It was an old school way where you kept your mouth shut and earned your way. I was fortunate that at about week eight, I felt like the offensive line began to embrace me.” Karney wanted nothing handed to him, so things played out in New Orleans just the way he wanted them to.

Karney mentioned that learning the offense was probably his toughest challenge in the early part of his career. “It was like 14 or 15 words per play. I knew that it would be a serious challenge for me”, he declared. By the time he finished his rookie season, Karney was establishing himself as a true asset to the Saints and one of the better fullbacks in the sport.

Playing Through Hurricane Katrina

“I remember that year more than I remember any other year that I played in the NFL. Landing in Oakland that Tuesday night as we were set to play a Thursday night game and then turning on the tv and seeing the whole city under water”, Karney recalled. Karney and the Saints would play their entire 2005 campaign on the road with four games in Baton Rouge, three at the Alamodome and one “home” game played in Giants Stadium against the New York Giants. And while the city of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast had their obvious, devastating and well-documented problems, the Saints dealt with uncertainty. Uncertainty of where they’d play their next game, where they’d live throughout the season, how they’d furnish their temporary homes, how they’d get around and worst of all, how the city they called home and its residents would recover. “The guys were tired. I remember guys as we taxied on the runway, the whole plane was asleep. It was the most emotionally exhausting year I ever played”, Karney stated.

The displaced Saints ended up going 3-13 in 2005, a feat which Karney still can’t believe. He exclaimed, “I still don’t know how we won three games. It was absolute chaos.” In 2006, the Saints looked to put all the troubles of the past year behind them, ultimately firing Jim Haslett in favor of new head coach Sean Payton. “I think Sean did a phenomenal job of keeping those core guys from the ’05 year that were there for the right reasons. He also did a phenomenal job grabbing guys like Drew Brees, Mark Simoneau, Scott Shanle, Hollis Thomas and Scott Fujita. Then he drafted Reggie Bush”, Karney said. Karney and the returning members of the ’05 Saints squad were impressed with the talent and urgency they were seeing under the new regime.

From Tragedy to Triumph

As the citizens of the Gulf Region began to try and put the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina behind them, so too did the New Orleans Saints. The Saints were looking to give the city something to believe in and they did just that. Karney made mention that throughout the season, he and his teammates would donate money, attend fundraisers and give of their time and platform anyway they could. Ultimately, it would be their play on the field that would help the healing process more than anything. “That year, we took it upon ourselves to be the shining light for the city. It needed to be a positive restart to the city for everything they went through. To me, I took that personal”, recalled Karney.

In their first home game since the disaster that left the Superdome in shambles, the Saints, in front of an emotional sell-out crowd, put forth a championship-level performance. The blocked punt by Steve Gleason early in the first quarter sparked the “Rebirth” of the city, a moment that has been immortalized by statue outside the Superdome. As Karney spoke about that moment, and that season as a whole, you could hear the genuine emotion in his voice. Karney stated, “It would be an inspiration for them. And that was reciprocated. We felt inspired from them as well. That ’06 season will always be one of the greatest things for me to be a part of.”

Karney Parts with the Big Easy

“Things that were said, on both sides, were things that we all regret. The situation could have been handled better. I think on my end I could have handled some things better with some things I said publicly”, Karney admitted. Leaving New Orleans was a tough pill to swallow for Karney. He wanted to stay, but after five seasons in New Orleans, Saints management had other plans. Karney enjoyed being part of the healing of a city that he says, “eventually becomes a part of you”.

Karney was able to amass an All-Pro award and two Pro Bowl appearances in his five year stay in New Orleans. He helped the Saints reach their first ever NFC Championship game and worked with the nucleus of what would become Super Bowl champions a year after his departure. Did the timing upset him in relation to that? Karney admitted, “The next year they went to the Super Bowl and that was hard to take personally, but I was happy for those guys. I was happy for Drew and happy for the city more importantly, that they were able to have their championship. I would have loved to have been a part of that, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Karney was out to prove he still had high level football left in him. He signed with the St. Louis Rams for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, blocking for an incredible back in Steven Jackson. With the aid of Karney, Jackson went to the Pro Bowl both of those years. Karney decided to end his football career after the 2010 season.

Looking Back

When asked what he was most proud of in his football career, Karney answered, “I was the cliché guy. I was told, ‘You’re not big enough. You’re not fast enough. You’re not strong enough.’ That was my whole life. So, to be able to block that out, to believe in myself, work hard be able to do the things that were asked of me to the best of my ability was important.” Karney mentioned he was always motivated to train harder than the next guy, always looking to prove himself. As Karney started to reflect on his playing days, he added, “And for me, I was blocking guys that I grew up watching. I was in there blocking Derrick Brooks, banging heads with someone who is now a Hall of Famer. I played against Brian Urlacher a bunch of times. I pancaked him and Derrick Brooks. I did that against the best in the world; some of the best to ever play the game.”

Karney continued to walk down memory lane, speaking about his three-touchdown nationally-televised game versus the Dallas Cowboys. You could hear the smile on his face. As proud as he spoke about that moment, he was equally as proud of the blocking, catching the short screen passes and the occasional NFL carry. It’s worth noting that Mike Karney played for two NFL teams and blocked for both of those teams’ all-time leading rusher: Deuce McAllister for the Saints and Steven Jackson for the Rams.

Mike Karney Today

These days, despite being a human battering ram for two decades of his life, Mike Karney is a healthy and active father of two boys. He has worked in real estate management as well as broadcasting and coaching football. As far as what’s in store for Karney in the future, he said he always needs to “scratch the itch” of football. With and eight and five-year-old, there is certainly more focus on a work/life balance, but Karney does envision having a lifelong tie to the game he loves. Aside from his work at the NFL combine every year, Karney is considering coaching and scouting.

Whatever the next step is for Karney, it’s apparent he will perform it with heart and he will outwork anyone with which he’s competing. Whichever path Karney chooses, it’s a bad idea to underestimate him. Just ask Mel Kiper.