*Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, through an unparalleled year-long regimen, has started every game for the Redskins since being drafted in 2011. At just 28, he's now the veteran leader of a young outside linebackers group that's already learning his tips for longevity. *
"It's kind of unreal when you think about."
Left tackle Trent Williams isn't surprised by too much in the NFL at this point in his career, but when he considers what linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has done since being drafted in 2011, he comes up with a word like "unreal."
And when you do actually think about it, the word seems apt. After taking the field in Monday Night's season opener against the Steelers to commence his sixth year in the league, Kerrigan extended his start streak to 81 games. In other words, Kerrigan has been good enough and healthy enough to make the starting active roster in every Redskins game since entering the league as the team's 16th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
If you're not impressed, let Williams try to persuade you.
"You think about the position he plays, how physical it is," Williams said. "Not to mention, you've got to bang with the biggest guys on the field, and at times, you've got to go drop back and cover some of the smallest guys on the field and have to tackle some of the most skilled ball carriers in the world. It's kind of unreal for him to still be able to come out every Sunday for the last six years and still compete. It's amazing."
For those who walk the hallways at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park on a daily basis, this steady statistic is more plausible. Many of his teammates and coaches are quick to jump on a cliché that's actually true, which is that Kerrigan is almost always the first one in the building and the last one to leave. Walk past the weight room and there's a good chance he's in there, stretching, lifting, finding more time for cardio.
"Ryan Kerrigan is a classic warrior," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said back in February, though Barry's praise occurs just about every month. "I mean, every day is exactly the same. I think that's unbelievable is that it does not matter if it's September or if it's February, I see Ryan Kerrigan every single day. There's no offseason with this guy, he is in the building every single day."
The dedication really began when Kerrigan started playing high school football at Muncie Central High School in Indiana. His coach, John Hostetler, made weight lifting a major emphasis throughout the season, harping on the fact that football, especially at the high school level, would be won with physicality.
It took some coaching for Kerrigan to build that inner drive – to buy into what all the weight room sessions were actually producing – but the determination to achieve his goals was never in question. He always loved sports as a kid, and as he grew, he knew the desire to excel in them required extra work.
"I always feel like I've been my own motivator, my own harshest critic," Kerrigan said. "I'm very self-motivated and I know that the work that I put in away from the football field will help me on defense… I felt like if I did the extra things, the extra lifts, the extra stretching, the extra ice tubbing, I felt like doing those things would give me an edge over my opponents."
Check out the top images of Ryan Kerrigan from the 2015 season.
Once last season concluded, Kerrigan gave himself three weeks to take off – eating whatever and relaxing whenever he wanted, letting his body completely heal from the attrition over the past six months. To get his body ready and back into shape, Kerrigan started weight lifting supplementing it with Pilates, to keep up his flexibility, and non-impact cardio such as elliptical. Closer to football activities, Kerrigan engaged in more running and football drills through OTAs, taking a final week off in July to prepare for training camp and the grind ahead.
"I'd like to think there's a lot of correlation [to staying healthy], that's my point in doing it all," Kerrigan said. "That's in weight lifting hard even throughout the season where I think a lot of people try to maintain throughout the season, I'm just trying to get stronger throughout the season. I feel like that will give me an edge, play harder and play more effectively late in the season."
"He's one of the guys I can count on, no matter where he's working," Williams said. "He'll never be out of shape, you'll never question his stamina, his physical ability."
This isn't to suggest that with all of that additional training and preparation that injuries don't exist. Kerrigan will be the first one to tell you he's been lucky when it's come to the timing of some of his misfortunes.
While at Purdue he broke his foot twice and had to have surgery, and a screw inserted, for one of the fractures, which fortuitously occurred with just four minutes left in the last game of his junior season. With the Redskins, he's had a similar fate.
In May, before the 2015 season, Kerrigan had arthroscopic knee surgery that prevented him from offseason workouts but not the start of the regular season. In the middle of that year, Kerrigan fractured a bone in his right hand during the first quarter of the Redskins' comeback victory over the Buccaneers. He underwent successful surgery and played the next game against the Patriots thanks to a timely Bye Week.
In the Redskins' third preseason game this year, against the Buffalo Bills, Kerrigan exited early with a groin strain, which ended up being not as severe as originally thought, letting Kerrigan join his teammates in practice the following week. The willingness to never take a break is part of what shapes him as a leader, too.
"A guy like Ryan Kerrigan, he comes out here and sets the standard for how to practice and how to play," linebacker Preston Smith said. "Comes out every day and plays a high level, he practices at a high level, so it's one of the guys I look up to on this team. I try to shadow him and ask him questions to add to my game because he's a guy who brings it every play."
Throughout his rookie year, Smith looked to Kerrigan for tactical advice as he switched from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense, the same transition Kerrigan made out of Purdue. As someone unused to the grind of an NFL regular season, Smith leaned on Kerrigan later for nutritional advice – how to keep a big body like his fresh, so that fatigue didn't set in late during the season.
Kerrigan advised Smith on how to keep his body ready, "how to take care of what you're putting into it, helping you recover with the right stuff, what kind of foods you're eating," Smith said.
"That's the biggest thing for guys coming into the league is taking care of your body, because in college, at least nowadays there's more of an emphasis on it, but when I played, it wasn't much of an emphasis," Kerrigan said. "Little things like that as you get into the league, learning how to constantly stay hydrated, avoid cramping, avoid soft tissue injuries."
These are things Kerrigan imparts without much fanfare. He is a self-described quiet guy, someone who leads by example and has had to "feel out" being a leader. He is, at age 28, the veteran of the group, even though "in societal terms, I'm still young," he reassured.
"If you feel like there's something that needs to be said, then I feel like I have enough experience and enough clout to say it," Kerrigan said. "But I also know that these guys are professionals, too. Although they may be young they've done a lot to get here so I don't feel I need to say too much."
"I tell all the young guys, if you want to know how to act like a pro, watch Ryan Kerrigan," Barry said. "If you're ever confused on how to work, how to act, how to practice, watch 91 because he does it right every day."
The observation Barry is preaching hasn't been hard to adhere to because there's been so much to observe over his six years. Kerrigan said he wants to be more consistent in 2016, to play a bigger factor in the run and pass game and make sure he has consistent physicality with his hands.
He'll rely on the regimen that's allowed him at least 16 opportunities each season to keep improving to do so.
"When you prepare yourself for battle, and you put in as much work as he does, your body reacts and it recovers a lot quicker than a standard person does of what's asked of them. He's prepared himself for the long haul," Williams said. "The proof is in the pudding."