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Monument to longevity contemplates calling it a career

As a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings, offensive tackle Tim Irwin didn't make a great first impression.

"I used to say he had the worst body I'd ever seen on a guy who'd come out of Tennessee," said Bucs defensive coordinator Floyd Peters, who scouted Irwin in college.

But that body, which grew to 6 feet 7 and 300 pounds, survived 14 NFL seasons and 197 straight starts _ the most by any active player _ until Irwin was inactive last week because of an elbow infection.

Irwin returns, although not as a starter, today against his former team.

To understand what Irwin will be feeling, consider that he earned $30,000 as a rookie with the Vikings in 1981 and played one season at frozen Metropolitan Stadium before the team moved indoors.

"I have a lot of respect for those guys over there, and I damn sure want to play well in front of them," Irwin said. "Because I care about what they think about me. I want to leave them with the impression that "Hey, ol' Irwin can still play.' "

This has been a tough season for Irwin _ on and off the field.

Aside from a torn biceps, the elbow infection, and a back injury that forced him to miss practice time and finally a start, he suffered his biggest loss ever when his father died this season at the age of 52 of a heart attack.

Irwin is proud of saying that all the men in his family were "either plumbers or policemen," and his father, Eddie, served 30 years on the police force in Knoxville, Tenn. He was only 17 when Tim was born.

"The hardest thing for me personally is that he was my best friend," Irwin told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "He was only 17 years older than me, so we had a really close relationship."

The work ethic Eddie instilled in Tim has served him well during his long career in the NFL and during the off-season, when he earned a law degree.

"The only thing I can remember is that once we started something as kids _ be it baseball, football, track, tennis _ we were never allowed to quit until the season was over, even if we hated it," Irwin said. "We were never allowed to quit anything."

Irwin modestly attributes his longevity in the NFL to biology.

"It's not a question of toughness as much as genetics. If you look at guys my size and my height _ Dave Butz played forever, Mike Kenn played forever, Jackie Slater played forever _ giant dinosaurs and we're not expected to get hurt," Irwin said. "You're expected to be the blue-collar guys who'll go and dig ditches for you every day."

Still, Peters says, "To survive as many years as he has at offensive tackle with all the guys you have to face year after year, that's quite a remarkable career."

After his contract expired with the Vikings, Irwin signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay. He's uncertain how long he wants to continue playing.

"It's a year-by-year thing for me. I'll evaluate how the season went and how my body feels. I don't want to play when I can no longer play. When I can't block people coming off the corner, I want out. I don't want to get anybody hurt because I'm hanging on."

Re-fined: The NFL fined tight ends Tyji Armstrong and Jackie Harris and fullback Anthony McDowell for their involvement in a fight last week with the San Francisco 49ers.

Armstrong, who along with 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer was ejected, was fined $8,000. Harris ($5,000) and McDowell ($2,500) were fined for coming to Armstrong's defense. San Francisco defensive backs Toi Cook and Dedric Dodge were fined $2,500 apiece.

The incident occurred after Armstrong tackled 49ers cornerback Eric Davis, who had intercepted a pass from Trent Dilfer. Plummer accused Armstrong of twisting Davis' leg, and the fight ensued.

Armstrong's fine is twice that of Plummer because it was his second this season. Armstrong was among 15 players fined for coming off the bench during a preseason game at Miami.

Self-doubts: Sam Wyche last week telephoned Stanford coach Bill Walsh, his old friend and mentor, seeking advice.

"He's my counselor at times," Wyche said. "I was beginning to think I may have forgotten every last thing I know. That's what some people are thinking."