Dr Z
Thursday December 21st, 2006

The following column by Dr. Z is a compendium of insights and experieces gleaned from 40 years of covering the NFL. While the story's main character is a composite, he is a representation of a real NFL offensive lineman and the real on- and off-the-field experiences of playing in the NFL.

I guess most of you know who I am, so I don't have to do any long biographical number. I'm black, I'm 31, which is old for a running back but just hitting your prime for my position, which is offensive line. Unless, that is, you've been injured. Then everything changes.

Even if it was a freak injury, an accident, like a guy falling over the back of your leg, it puts a curse on you. Get two of those and you get one of those "injury prone," marks that's like a kiss of death. Or, as the scouts like to say, "We just can't keep him on the field."

I talked to a scout about it once.

"Very few injuries are accidents," he said. "Someone fell on the back of a guy's leg because he wasn't agile enough to get it out of the way. Or he wasn't smart enough to keep the searchlights going at all times. Or he wasn't in good enough shape, so he got tired and that made him careless."

Scouts. When's the last time one of them was on the field? They look at you like you're a grocery product. They deal in negatives. Keep the stiffs away, save the owner money, then they feel they're pulling their weight. And if they miss out on someone real good, well, most of the other scouts did, too.

They ever figure out why bad teams get more guys hurt than good teams do? It's because you're surrounded by worse talent. It's because you're trying to cover for someone, maybe a buddy of yours or a guy you just feel sorry for. And that puts you in an unnatural position and you get hurt.

Call me lucky because I've never had a major injury, knock wood. Oh, lots of minor ones, or at least they were minor to the club. "Nicked up," is that awful phrase they use to describe something that keeps you in pain all week, but not in enough pain to sit you down on Sunday. You learn how to adjust, how to deal with it, especially if you started out as a low draft choice, like I did. Then you're careful not to draw attention to yourself or give them any reason to get your ass out of there. So you swallow the injuries and keep on.

Injuries are old family dogs. They'll follow you everywhere. When I was being scouted in college, some guy wanted to know about the sprained knee I had my freshman year. I've always been careful to be polite to those guys. One thing you never want to do, unless you're some kind of super star hotshot who doesn't give a damn, is show any kind of attitude to anyone who might affect your draft status in any way.

It's a strange thing about how high you're drafted. It sets the price for at least half your NFL career. With some coaches, it means the kind of treatment you're going to get. The first lie a coach will tell you when he gets everyone together is "Everyone's gonna be treated the same. There will be competition at every position." Then they put their first lineup on the field and that's the way it'll stay for the season, with only a few changes, usually due to injury.

What the hell, it was the same way in college, even in high school. That's just the way coaches are. Make you believe one thing, do another. Maybe that's the only way they can keep a bunch of wild ass kids in line.

As an offensive lineman, it's funny, though. The low draft rookie or the free agent...well, you're expected to learn two, three positions, so you can fill in anywhere. Or if you're not exactly told that, you pick it up on your own, if you have any sense. But say a guy has been drafted in the first round and they've penciled him in as a left tackle. Well, the idea of him filling in on the right side if he has to, oh my God, we can't have him do that. It might get him upset, or mess up his footwork or something. And to learn the guard position, too? No no, for God's sake, no. You want to screw him up completely?

So I signed on as kind of a utility lineman for a bad team and my agent got me a nice big contract, big as in terms of long and long as in terms of years. The money part was little, as I found out when I started comparing notes. And then some of the guys on the team, the brothers mostly, told me about this guy. A double agent. Sacrifices his low round players so the club can get them done early and brag to the media about what a great job they're doing, and then expects consideration for his one big high-number guy.

They told me to get out of my contract with him. They told me just what to say...that I would go to the Players Association and they told me the name of the Players Association guy to use, and when I went to my agent to break the contract, I was expecting this big fight, but he just said yeah, okay, and then gave me a buyout figure, which was how much it would cost me so he'd let me out of it.

I did it, and wound up with a new guy who talked to me about investment strategy and taxes. When I drew a blank, he said, "You mean (and he mentioned the other guy's name) never talked to you about this?" And when I nodded he just shook his head. What the other agent talked about was cars and clothes...he was always dressed real nice, himself...and he always had this black guy with him, telling us, "He really treats our people right, man." The old flimflam.

A year later my new agent called me into his office.

"I've got to get you off of that club," he said. I'd spent two years there, and I was a good utility lineman, with a few starts at two different positions, and no screwups, knock wood. They were talking about plugging me in at left tackle, without any talk about more money, and my agent just shook his head. And what he told me make me realize how smart this guy was.

"You'll burn out on that club," he said. "They'll never figure out how to build a good line around you. They won't draft or trade for it, they won't lay in enough depth. They're into what the owner calls, 'sexy picks,' a hot shot quarterback or wideout or pass rusher, to make sure the fans keep coming. And the club is going to hell, and I don't want you going there with it. Besides, do you like the racial situation on that team?"

Now this was a black guy, this agent of mine, but a black guy who had been to an Ivy League school, with a graduate business degree on top of it. But still, if it were a white guy talking, what he said wouldn't have carried the same weight, because...well, it just wouldn't.

And now we get into the unspoken part of the NFL, the kind of thing the media never messes with, even though some of them know what's going on. Every team has a black-white situation. Some have torn teams apart, and no one ever knew about it. With others, the internal leadership is so strong that it's never become an issue.

Coaches always are ready to appoint leaders, and usually they're locker room hotshots, guys who want to call a players only meeting every 20 minutes, and not many people pay attention to them. But the players can find their own leaders, and usually they're black, which figures because 70 percent of the league is black. Look at the great teams, the Super Bowl champions, and I'll bet you that most of them had one thing in common, strong black leadership.

White leadership usually is an on-field thing, and most of the time it'll come from a great quarterback, a field leader. But off the field? Can he get some wildass black rookie, some kid who's never had any real discipline in his life, and grab him by the throat and tell him, "You're screwing up, man?" Well, maybe your white quarterback can with a white kid, but nothing works better on a young black player than a head to head with a black guy who's got some skins on the wall, a few Pro Bowls, maybe a Super Bowl ring. If he can't listen to him, he can't listen to anybody.

Maybe it's the way I grew up, but woofin' or what they call trash talking has always annoyed me. The media has encouraged it, because it gives them easy stuff to write about, and of course they've got to be careful about what they say because it's basically a black thing. White players have their own stuff, too, and it's mostly that tattoo crap all over their bodies, but media people are too afraid to write about how ridiculous they look.

That chest thumping me-me-me routine got to me so bad one day that I actually approached our guy who was doing it and said, "Why don't you cool it with that stuff, man?" He just stared at me and I knew I'd made a mistake because next day in the locker, four or five black players came over to me and said, "Tomming it up again today, bro?" So I kept my mouth shut after that.

But sometimes it isn't bad to point something out. There's this one national writer who covers our team from time to time, and I kind of like him because he can be funny, you can talk to him...not like some of these guys who take every little bit of nonsense you say so damn seriously...and he tries to do an honest job. So one day he's cruising our locker room...those were the days when it was open, not like the designated interview times they have now...and I kind of caught his eye and signaled him over. He'd been talking to the white QB and the white tight end and one of the white D-linemen and I could feel the tension building up in the room.

"Interview some of the black players," I told him, under my breath. "The brothers are watching you." So he did. And you could feel things lighten up. And afterwards he thanked me.

As I mentioned, I'd been on a bad team my first two years, and the black-white thing was getting a little heavy. The team's relationship with the city wasn't good, and it showed itself by the way the cops in town were always ready to pull one of us over for something or other, stuff where a guy would catch a break somewhere else. I wasn't making much money, and when my agent told the GM, "Look, he's clearly out-performed his contract. It's time to re-do it," he got the old stoneface treatment. We expect our players to honor their contracts, blah blah blah.

You've got to remember, this was seven years ago. The media's hipper to our situation now, but in those days, when the club fed this stuff to their favorite newspaper guys, all I read about was how greedy I was. It was tearing me up. My agent said, "Don't report to camp. If you're strong enough, if you can take all the crap you'll be getting, you'll come out of this in good shape."

He was right. I got traded to the team I'm with now. It's not perfect, but it's a big improvement. I just had to spend years reading about my "attitude problem," or all the "baggage I carried."

So I go out there and try to do my job. I've got a pretty high boiling point, but I'll go off, too. Yeah, I got a big fine once. This guy was Hollywooding me. He got a sack off me, then he forced an interception, and he was doing all that chest pounding and muscle flexing and pointing at me and then at his belly...see what a fat slob I'm playing against, that kind of stuff. And I was getting pretty upset, and there was this one play where the guard next to me had him jacked up and his side was to me and I just came down hard on the back of his knee.

"You bastard!" he screamed at me, but he was through for the day. The thing was shown on the highlights that night and it cost me 20 G's, courtesy of the league office.

It's amazing how far removed they are from the heart of the game. It's as if some of those guys never played it at all. You'll be in the heat of the action and some official will yell at you, "Get those socks up!" The uniform code. Gotta look nice on TV. How the league reacts to what you say is kind of weird, too. That guy on the Steelers calls the Browns' tight end a fag and it costs him $10,000. But remember a few years ago when that guy on the Giants called a head coach a homo? I don't remember a fine for that one. Maybe the league office didn't know what it meant. Funny, huh?

My agent is always setting me straight about stuff like that. "Look," he said, "if you know that certain things bug the league, you just don't do them, OK?" he said. "You're making seven figures a year. Your wife and kids don't mind that, right? It's like being back in school and you've this teacher with wacky ideas, but she can flunk you and really mess you up. So you just do what she says and have fun about it when you're talking with the other kids, OK?"

Yeah, OK. I understand. But it sure can be a strange world sometimes, can't it?

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