Over 41 seasons, Mark Ahlemeier missed just one game for the Cardinals, and even that was for work.
It was a preseason game. The Cardinals had just finished up training camp, and Ahlemeier, the assistant equipment manager at the time, offered to stay behind in St. Louis to unpack from camp at Busch Stadium while the team went on to close out the exhibition schedule.
But every other game – preseason, regular season, postseason – Ahlemeier was there. He was also there helping at practice, in the locker room early each morning for more than 3,600 players, after then-owner Bill Bidwill came down after what was supposed to be just a training camp internship in 1981 and offered Ahlemeier a full-time gig.
"I was in the right place at the right time," said Ahlemeier, who retired 823 games later.
Twice Ahlemeier was honored with the Whitey Zimmerman Award for the NFL Equipment Manager of the Year (in 2008 and 2014) during the 36 years he worked as the team's lead equipment man, following five years as an assistant.
"Mark is a special individual," Cardinals Ring of Honor wide receiver Roy Green said. "He didn't have a lot of words but he was always doing his job, doing more than what he should do. You know how athletes are, we're always wanting stuff and wanting people to do extra for what we want. He did it all and never complained.
"I gave him some (grief) now, but it was always in fun."
AHLEMEIER'S send-off came with a farewell luncheon – owner Michael Bidwill had Imo's Pizza flown in from Ahlemeier's hometown of St. Louis for the occasion – and a special message from former Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who delivered it via video.
"I just think back to when I first got to the organization back in 2004," Fitzgerald said, addressing Ahlemeier. "I had no family, no friends, no children at that point, and to sit there and just talk to you about old stories about when you were in St. Louis and the hot training camps. You know, how tough the players were and how soft we were as current players.
"Folding towels with you into the late hours, you really made the beginning of my career so much more comfortable. You were my de facto family, and you gave me that semblance of normalcy that I so missed when I left college."
Another surprise message came from the newest voice of ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and longtime Fox NFL announcer Joe Buck. Buck, whose father was the long-time voice of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, spent two training camps with Ahlemeier as an equipment intern in the mid-1980s when it was held at Eastern Illinois University.
"I came there as a 15-year-old, homesick by the way, with zero worth ethic," Buck said. "And I learned my work ethic, and what it took to do his hard job every day, from Mark. How to set up a field, how to fold and clean, how to put stickers on a helmet, and how to be trusted with (linebacker) E.J. Junior's valuables bag. A lot of things that I will never forget. He is one of the sweetest, kindest people you will ever meet anywhere in life, and I am indebted to him."
Ahlemeier is indeed a man of few words. Attention, he'd rather not have. His first season, the NFL had a players' strike that wiped out seven games; there was another strike in 1987 that brought in replacement players for three games and admitted had Ahlemeier – relatively new to the head equipment role – to wonder "what did I get into?"
He remembers certain details out of nowhere, recalling a time when he might've cut Green's jersey too short for a game in New Orleans. That happened when Jim Hanifan was head coach, and Ahlemeier, still an assistant, had to take over for the road trip while boss Bill Simmons had surgery.
The Cardinals lost, but Hanifan told Ahlemeier after, "if we were all as organized as you, we would've won that game."
"It made me feel real good," Ahlemeier said. "But I was a nervous wreck."