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Trevor Pryce article

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Jets veteran lineman Trevor Pryce credits Rex Ryan for extending his career

Published: Sunday, October 17, 2010, 5:00 AM

Jenny Vrentas/The Star-Ledger

William Perlman/The Star-LedgerTrevor Pryce is in his 14th NFL season.

Trevor Pryce can rattle off, with ease, a list of Denver’s best steakhouses. He was at one — the upscale, dimly lit Del Frisco’s — in the fall of 2006, on a bye week trip back to the city whose jersey he had worn for nine seasons.

Mike Shanahan happened to be at the restaurant that night, too. And the 6-5 defensive lineman disappeared.

“I kind of ducked behind the bar,” Pryce recalled. “It was pretty unbelievable that a man my size can hide.”

It wasn’t out of any disrespect to Shanahan. Pryce made clear he has a high opinion of the former Broncos coach. It was just too soon.

Months earlier, he had been released suddenly from Shanahan’s team — relocated from the city where he and his wife, Sonya, had all three of their children, and faced with a critical juncture in his professional football career.

Pryce isn’t too proud to admit that he, and that career, needed a revival then. That was also the case 18 days ago, when his release from the Ravens could have meant retirement.

Both times, Rex Ryan stepped in.

At age 35, in his 14th NFL season, Pryce will return to Invesco Field this afternoon with the Jets — an extension of his playing years he credits to Ryan, though the Jets coach would not agree.

“I don’t see how I’ve done anything for him — I see what he’s done for me,” Ryan said. “I just know that I’ve always been a huge believer in Trevor Pryce.”

That belief is what brought Pryce to New Jersey after the Ravens let him go in the fourth week of the season — trumping Baltimore’s intention of bringing him back, and strong interest from at least two other clubs.

Pryce’s role on the Jets is a specific one: an inside rusher used in passing situations. He has played 32 snaps through his first two games with the team, by an unofficial count — though the coaches indicated his workload could grow to 20 to 30 snaps today, against the Broncos’ pass-heavy offense.

Before Pryce ranked fourth among active sack leaders, he was a kid in Denver whose career hit major milestones at an almost unnaturally fast pace. The first-round draft pick won back-to-back Super Bowls in his first two seasons. He made the Pro Bowl four years in a row. At 25, he signed a mega-deal that made him the league’s highest-paid defensive player at the time.

“How do you top that?” he wondered. What happened next, he explained, was that “everything kind of imploded.”

“Pressure does two things: it makes diamonds, but it also busts pipes,” said Pryce, whose linear build is unique at his position. “I was on my way to being a busted pipe. I was real close.”

Denver would either miss the playoffs or lose in the first round six straight times. Pryce’s 2004 season was curtailed by back surgery. In the late years of her husband’s tenure there, Sonya Pryce said it took “more coaxing” for him to head to the facility each day. The game had turned into a job.

The Broncos released Pryce in the spring of 2006, as part of a salary-cap purge. Then-position coach Jacob Burney, who now coaches under Shanahan in Washington, doesn’t remember “any real issue” behind the split, saying “parting is just part of it.”

Pryce had about seven suitors, coming down to Philadelphia and Baltimore. Maybe others would have been able to restore his competitive spark, too, but he was hooked when Ryan, then the Ravens defensive coordinator, told him, “We need you.” That season, Pryce had 13 sacks — nine more than the previous year — and the best way he can explain it is that Ryan saw something in him he didn’t even see in himself.

The next time Ryan came calling was last month, while Pryce and his wife were clearing their minds at Centennial Park in Maryland’s Howard County. Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine wonders if maybe Baltimore underestimated Pryce’s loyalty to Ryan’s way.

“We coached for a year down there with John (Harbaugh), and they do a great job,” Pettine said.

“But they’re more of a structured, toe the line, lot of small detail stuff that they’re very much sticklers about. I think for a guy that’s as free-spirited as Trevor, he had issue with it.”

Born in Brooklyn to Jamaican immigrants, and raised outside Orlando, Fla., Pryce has a free spirit that manifests creatively. He once owned an indie record label. He has sold screenplays, often inspired by his two daughters and son, recently one about a kid who wants to be a detective and his dog. He paints murals on the walls of his homes.

When he leaves the game, Pryce knows he’ll produce TV shows. He’s already considered retirement at multiple junctures: in Denver, last month and before this season, when he said he came “very, very, very close.”

His younger sister has been convinced it was over on three or four occasions — so much, that during the years she played for the U.S. National soccer team, Nandi Pryce would book early return travel from international tournaments to make more of his games. But here’s the effect Ryan has had on Pryce: He projects he’ll feel better at 36 than 26. Another season wouldn’t be out of the question.

“It would actually give him validation, that ‘I’ve got more steam left in me,’ ” Sonya Pryce said.

“You read blogs that say he’s an old man, but he’s still got a lot to offer.”

The Jets made sure of that before signing him. The coaches consulted cut-ups of each play he was on the field in Baltimore this season and watched his legs. Ryan was convinced after two snaps; so was Pettine, but he watched the complete set because he thought he should.

Pryce and his family still own a house outside Denver and spend the offseason there. He’s recognized by the city’s fans, who he says still tell him, “We should never have cut you.” They voted him to the Broncos’ 50th anniversary team last year, and he said team owner Pat Bowlen wrote him a warm note wishing him luck in every game that season, except the one against Denver.

In that city, members of those Super Bowl teams have a legend that will not expire. Pryce remembers that championship feeling. Should he bookend his career that way, not even Ryan could bring him back.

“Oh, I’m done. I’m done,” Pryce said. “You can quote me on that.”

Jenny Vrentas: jvrentas@starledger.com

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Watched him interviewed on Jets Game Plan I believe. Smart guy and a great interview. Gave credit to Ryan. I t really is amazing the loyalty he garners.

I saw it too and the guy sure is loyal to REX. I am hoping that he starts to bring the heat up the middle for us. If so, our defense will truly be scary!

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