FLOWERY BRANCH — The water break was over, and 35-year-old Todd McClure had his No. 62 jersey at the front of the pack of the Atlanta Falcons' offensive players returning to the field in Tuesday's practice.
For a rookie like Peter Konz, it's an important lesson. Even with a heavy brace on his right knee, McClure finds a way to run instead of walk because leading is his natural role.
"The best example," Konz said of McClure.
McClure, Atlanta's starting center since 2000, is beginning his 13th season with the team. He said Tuesday he hasn't decided if this will be his final season. Just in case, he says he is savoring every moment — even training camp in the Georgia heat and humidity.
"I've always kind of approached it like that in my mindset," McClure said. "In this league, you never know when it's going to be your last day, so it's nothing new. But in the same breath, I'm cherishing every moment and every opportunity. I've been blessed to play as long as I have.\
"I'm still taking it day by day. I haven't made up my mind if this is it or not."
McClure, from LSU, was only a seventh-round pick by Atlanta in 1999. His rookie season ended when he tore the ACL in his right knee early in his first training camp.
"If you'd said then I'd be standing here 13 years later, I'd have said you were a liar probably," McClure said. "But I'm still having fun playing this game, having fun doing it with a great group of guys."
McClure won the starting job midway through the 2000 season and has snapped the ball to a series of quarterbacks including Chris Chandler, Michael Vick, Doug Johnson, Joey Harrington and, for the last four years, Matt Ryan.
The center has started 166 of his 168 games with the Falcons. He set a franchise endurance record with his streak of 144 consecutive starts. The streak ended when he missed the first two games last season with a knee injury.
"To me it's just something that's amazing," Konz said of McClure's endurance. "You know how your body feels after a game and to go through (12) years of that in the NFL, and you add on the four years in college and four years in high school, and you're looking at a guy who has seen everything. There's not a single thing in football he hasn't seen. So you can really take what he does on film and watch it."
McClure's importance to the line was highlighted when Ryan was sacked nine times in the first two games last season with Joe Hawley filling in at center.
Konz, a second-round pick from Wisconsin, may eventually take over for McClure at center. Konz could play at right guard and center this season.
The rookie will have at least one season to take notes from McClure.
"You've got to have guys like that," said coach Mike Smith. "You've got to have guys like Todd McClure, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, Mike Peterson. You've got to have those mentors in every room and that's something we look at when we're putting our roster together. We stick to it and try to make sure we have a leader in each room."
Smith challenged the offensive line by opening up competition at every position. McClure appears to be set as a starter.
"Todd has done a great job for us since we've been here and anticipate that he will continue to do what he's done in the past," Smith said.
Konz is competing with Garrett Reynolds at right guard and with Hawley behind McClure. Another position to watch in training camp is left tackle, where Sam Baker is working ahead of Will Svitek.
Rookie third-round pick Lamar Holmes is another contender at left tackle. Holmes was behind at the start of training camp after missing the offseason workouts while recovering from a foot injury.
Tuesday's first-string offensive line included right tackle Tyson Clabo, Reynolds at right guard, McClure, left guard Justin Blalock and Baker.
The Falcons (No. 13 in the AP Pro32) are preparing for Thursday night's preseason opener against Baltimore.
McClure said he's looking forward to "just showcasing what we're doing" with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
"I know the whole playbook won't be opened up," he said. "It's the first preseason game. But to go out there and see the work we've been putting in on the practice field in a game is going to be fun to watch."
NOTES: Smith said health issues could affect how long some starters play against the Ravens. He said he hopes most starters can play the first quarter and possibly into the second. He said some starters may not play that long. ... Backup CB Christopher Owens was out Tuesday with a hamstring injury and won't be rushed back, according to Smith. ... CB Asante Samuel continues to entertain with his loud talk and big plays during practice. He called out for WR Julio Jones to "stop running so fast." Then, on the next play, Samuel baited Ryan by playing back before rushing up to cut in front of Jones for an interception. Samuel then sprinted to the side to celebrate with fans.