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Lennie Friedman: West Milford’s player turned corporate manager talks draft day, 10-year career

It was April 17, 1999, the first day of the NFL Draft. Lennie Friedman was on his sister’s couch, watching ESPN, when a message crossed the screen. It was an invitation to exceedingly rare experience, he said, a golden ticket.

“I never went to Duke to go to the NFL,” he said from a car phone in North Carolina on Tuesday. “It wasn’t anything that I built my life planning to do, so everything with the NFL was just a fantastic opportunity that I was going to try to take advantage of."

Friedman, now 41 and working as a corporate manager in the aerospace industry, was one of the most decorated athletes to come out of West Milford.

Scholarship offers came from all over the country for the 250-pound two-way lineman. His high school defensive coordinator still calls the 6-foot-4 Friedman the most talented position player he ever coached.


Friedman chose Duke for academics, not athletics. His plan was to go to medical school, not embark on a 10-year, 97-game career in the NFL.

“It wasn’t until my senior year that that was even thought of, and at no point in time did I think I was going to be a second rounder,” Friedman said.

So, on the first day of the draft, a 290-pound Friedman was at his sister’s house, eyeing the picks on TV.

“We were watching like a typical fan would, with the exception that at some point we were hoping my name was going to get called,” he said.

No phones rang. He heard his name called at the same time as everyone else did - a lot sooner than he ever expected.

After four years at Duke, collegiate All-Star games, the combine, pro day, and team interviews, Friedman considered himself a 5th to 7th round pick at best.

All he could really do that April weekend was hope for the same opportunity that awaits 256 players in the 2018 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday night. It is a chance to measure yourself on the highest level against some of the best athletes in the world, Friedman said.

Cleveland Browns' Lennie Friedman before the Browns
Cleveland Browns' Lennie Friedman before the Browns played the Houston Texans in an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard) (Photo: David Richard, AP)
“There’s not much you can actually do at this point,” he said of draft weekend. “You just have to wait and see how the cards unfold.”

Opportunity awaits

Friedman received his opportunity at the tail end of the second round from the then-defending world champion Denver Broncos. His first thought: “I couldn’t think of a better fit," he said.

The start was dismal. An anterior-cruciate ligament injury three days into training camp derailed his entire rookie season. Friedman was transferred to NFL Europe before returning to Denver in 2000 to become a regular starter.

The experience living and playing in Barcelona was amazing, Friedman said.

"But it wasn't exactly the way I wanted to start my NFL career," he said.

Friedman said he doesn't have much invested in the 2018 draft but would like to see Cleveland use one of its two, top-four picks to draft former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to compliment quarterback Tyrod Taylor, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, he said.

"He's kind of a local guy and he seems to be a really positive, energetic young man," Friedman said of Barkley. "If you have a veteran quarterback and you can get a study running back to kind of take the pressure off him that would be great."

Story continues after video


Northjersey.com sports writer Andy Vasquez and Columnist Steve Popper discussing Jets' draft options outside of Atlantic Health Training Center in Florham Park on 04/23/18.

Playing days

During his NFL career, Friedman started 34 out of a possible 124 games. He lined up with Olin Kreutz, Clinton Portis, Ruben Brown, Joe Thomas, and Sean Taylor. He also had three fumble recoveries – “not good, because that meant the running back or quarterback fumbled” – and three kick returns.

"Those were a lot of fun," he said.

With Cleveland, Friedman served as the arrow’s head of the wedge-blocking formation on kickoff returns for Josh Cribbs. Teams often avoid kicking to Cribbs, the all-time NFL leader in kickoff returns for touchdowns with eight.

Consequently, Friedman had the ball come his way three times and once brought a kickoff back for 13 yards.

“The ball ended up coming to me, which was good for the other team because I obviously wasn't moving anywhere fast," he said.

All-team player

Friedman also spent more than a half of a game playing on both the offensive and defensive lines for Lovie Smith in a Week 17 game after the Bears had wrapped up the division.

“Coach came up to me and asked if I’d ever played defense,” he said. “I said, ‘In practice a few times in the NFL, but that’s about it.’ He said, ‘Well, would you like to play here?’”

Friedman said he tore cartilage in his left knee sometime before or after halftime – “I want to say before halftime,” he said.

Friedman continued playing, however, and registered a half-tackle with 58 seconds to go in the third, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. He needed micro-fracture surgery and took the entire offseason to rehab. It was his second knee surgery.

“That’s part of the league,” he said. Would I advise others to play through that? Logically, no.”

Friedman said he was in the game to give the starters a rest for a playoff run and was going to execute that task.

“I had a lot of fun being a two-way player,” he added. “Only guys like Deion Sanders are two-way players. So, I was going to seize that opportunity.”

Denver Broncos lineman Lennie Friedman (64) blocks
Denver Broncos lineman Lennie Friedman (64) blocks for quarterback Gus Frerotte (12) during the second quarter Saturday, Dec. 23, 2000, at Denver's Mile High Stadium. (Photo: David ZalubowskiI, AP)
Retirement is a 9 to 5

Friedman retired in 2008 to attend business school at Harvard and Duke. The decade milestone seemed an appropriate finish line, he said. The game was taking its toll on his body, he said.

“I was really risking injury, physically or potentially mentally with concussions,” he said. "But lasting 10 years was really a great sense of pride for me. I'm glad I played it out for as long as I did, and I'd do it all again,"

Now at roughly 235 pounds, Friedman suits up with a neck tie. He works a 9 to 5, has a wife and three kids, is a casual football fan, and wonders where he stacks up in the business world. It was easier to know how good you were in the league, he said.

"Your job was seen everyday, on every film. Every time you walked out on that field someone was watching it," he said. "Some days, you prepare great. Other days, you get your butt handed to you."

Friedman lives in North Carolina but often visits New Jersey to visit family - and eat bagels and pizza. His wife, Katie, is also from West Milford. The two met in 7th grade.

Friedman’s mother and father, Mike and Sandi, ran the recently revitalized Camp Vacamas, a day camp for underprivileged youth near West Milford’s Bloomingdale border.

While not the stereotypical hardening grounds for a top athlete, he said the camp allowed him the opportunity to compete with athletes all summer. Sports, he said, are a great equalizer. It does not matter where you come from but what you can do on the field, Friedman said.

“I had 1,500 to 2,000 new friends every summer,” he said. “I got to meet people from all walks of life with all sorts of different experiences. We played a ton of sports. It was a big part of what made me who I am."

Hall of Famer

Friedman will return to his hometown this October to be inducted in the inaugural class of the high school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. He joins fellow NFL player Kevin Walker and Olympic gold medalist Donna Weinbrecht in that class, student-athletes he looked up to then and holds in the highest regard now.

"I heard those names quite a bit," he said. "They had some athletes that were certainly deserving of making a hall of fame and to be part of that first class is exciting."

Friedman’s high school head coach Larry Harding said his former football and track and field co-captain is well deserving of the honor himself. Friedman’s tenacity, Harding said, was unrivaled and surely propelled him to success in football and life, Harding said.

“Time and time again, he would put in the extra hours,” Harding said. “He’s also a very level-headed person and a caring person. If he had the time, I’m sure he’d do well (mentoring young athletes).”

Friedman lives about 30 minutes from Duke University. He attends a few games a year and said the football program’s recent success has been pleasing to witness.

He has spoken at the university a few times but expressed a desire to get more involved with the team to share his experience and knowledge.

“I don’t know the young guys at all. I keep in contact with some of my friends and teammates, but honestly I’d like to get more involved,” he said.

Duke draftee

His success coming from Duke is rare. No former Duke players were among the 336 invited to this year’s NFL Combine, where players were drilled afore coaches and scouts to jockey for draft position.

Since Friedman was drafted in 1999, only six other former Duke players have been drafted.

Friedman was the highest draft pick of Duke since the Cleveland Browns selected notorious “draft bust” Mike Junkin with the 5th overall pick in 1987. Since, only fellow Duke guard Laken Tomlinson has been drafted higher than Friedman. Tomlinson was selected by the Detroit Lions with the 28th pick in 2015 and started 15 games for the San Francisco 49ers last season.

“It’s certainly not common to be drafted coming out of Duke. When I was drafted, it was just me and a handful of guys,” he said. “There’s been more recently, but it’s definitely something I take great pride in.”

Notable 61st overall picks since 1999 include Shaun Rogers (University of Texas, Detroit Lions, 2001), Vincent Jackson (Northern Colorado, San Diego Chargers, 2005), Martellus Bennett (Texas A&M, Dallas Cowboys, 2008), Eddie Lacy (Alabama, Green Bay Packers, 2013), and Allen Robinson (Penn State, Jacksonville Jaguars, 2014).



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