EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Jim Kleinsasser has spent the last 13 years bulldozing linebackers and defensive ends on NFL Sundays, a blue-collar battering ram for glamorous runners like Robert Smith and Adrian Peterson.
There have been a few Saturdays and Monday nights thrown in there, but Kleinsasser will throw his last block this Sunday against Chicago.
One of the toughest of tough guys in the proud history of the Vikings is calling it a career. And it’s been more than anyone could have imagined when the Vikings drafted him in the second round back in 1999.
“I’ve always kind of liked being under the radar and just going to work,” Kleinsasser said. “I don’t know. I’ve just kind of liked being a normal guy.”
Kleinsasser has been under the radar from the start, growing up as a boy in the small town of Carrington, N.D., going to college at North Dakota and getting overshadowed by quarterback Daunte Culpepper in the Vikings draft class of 2009. He’s worn many purple hats over the years, playing tight end, fullback and often acting as an extension of the offensive line with his 6-foot-3, 273-pound frame.
Through it all, a player whose game was built on overpowering giants — and Bears and Lions and Packers — at the point of attack play after play, Kleinsasser only suffered one major injury. He missed all but one game in 2004 with a torn ACL, but hasn’t missed a game since.
“He comes and he does everything you would ask him to do and not looking for the headlines,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “But his importance to our football team and our offense is equal in a lot of ways to some of the star players that we have.”
His career has run the gamut of emotions, from the euphoria of two runs to the NFC title game to the heartbreak of teammate Korey Stringer collapsing and dying of heatstroke in training camp in 2001. He’s seen the best and worst of Randy Moss come and go, Brett Favre rise and fall and the Metrodome’s roof collapse.
The Vikings could always rely on Kleinsasser to be there, and he has been. He caught 46 passes and scored four touchdowns in 2003, but has reached double digits in receptions just twice since then. As the seasons have come and gone, Kleinsasser has morphed from a dual threat to almost exclusively a blocker, but that may have only increased his respect in the locker room and on the field.
“He’s a Neanderthal man, no bull,” tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. “He’s just strong. I remember guys come up to me after the game or even during the game and say, ‘Why is No. 40, or they say Kleinsasser, why’s he so … strong?’
“I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s the way they used to build them back then. That’s the way they used to make them.'”
Smash-mouth fullbacks do seem to be a dying breed these days, and Kleinsasser has been considering retirement for the last few years. The thoughts first started coming in 2009, but then Favre arrived and led the Vikings to the NFC title game, where they lost to the Saints in overtime.
“I kind of thought, ‘Hey, let’s actually try to get this thing going,'” Kleinsasser said. “So you keep going on. But at this point, yeah, the offseason, we were pretty much like, ‘This will be a good way to go. Just end it right here.'”
It’s been anything but a fairy tale finish. If the Vikings don’t beat the Bears on Sunday, they will finish tied for the worst record in franchise history. But Kleinsasser insists the struggles this season have nothing to do with his decision. He will turn 35 in January and thinks the time has come to walk away, while he still can.
“I like the thought of leaving with the body still feeling somewhat good and not walking away from the game with a limp,” he said. “So I feel at peace with my career, I guess you would say. And I don’t feel like there’s anything else left than to get to my family and work on the next avenue.”
The casual fan may not have noticed Kleinsasser’s contribution while their eyes were trained on Smith’s long, graceful strides or Peterson’s electric cuts against the grain, but few players are held in higher esteem in the Vikings locker room.
“Oh man, I love Jimmy,” receiver Percy Harvin said. “He plays this game only for one reason and that’s his teammates and the love of the game. This week is probably going to be emotional for him so we want to send him out the right way.”
For perhaps the first time in his career, Kleinsasser found himself surrounded by television cameras and reporters as he reflected on his career.
“I’m going to get his jersey,” Shiancoe said. “I asked him to sign it, an authentic jersey, so I can hang it up in the house. It’s been an honor to play with him.”
Kleinsasser hasn’t carried the ball in eight years and has only one reception for 4 yards this season. His last touchdown came in 2007. If Frazier and the Vikings have their way, that will change on Sunday.
“No doubt about it,” Frazier said. “I’m not letting out any secrets there. If we get down to the 1, Chicago, you better stop number 40. We’re going to find a way to try to get him in the end zone if we can.”
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