Hey, Tony Cherico, you good-time Arkansas noseguard extraordinaire, nice fall day, huh?
"I like this weather! Pretty positive day! Pretty positive! Sun shining. Practice in a few minutes. But I'd rather be out watching girls. All those aluminum bleachers there, all the way around the stadium, see those? Girls lie out on them and sunbathe in the spring, right while we're practicing. Day-um! Just like roasting chicken. This is the chicken capital of the world, you know. There are chickens everywhere. Take some back roads around Fayetteville and tell me you don't smell chickens. Tyson's and George's are the big brands. Hey, they make McNuggets from Tyson's!
"One summer I was working at a Cornish hen plant, the most exhilarating job I've ever had. Boxes came by on a belt, stuffed with processed hens. My machine turned the box and glued the flaps down. For six hours every night I was supposed to keep the machine from getting clogged up and keep it full of glue. This lady I was working with was reading Harlequin Romances, you know, those things with damsels on the covers. So I started reading them, and pretty soon I was hooked. One a night. They just tease you though, they never go for the kill, know what I mean?
"At another chicken place they had me and three other guys painting a fence. They said, 'Here's a hundred gallons of paint, go to it.' The fence took off over pastures and down roads and into the distance, on and on and on. We could never see the end of it, and, man, you think some football practices will never end? Day-um! We were painting the Never-Ending-Fence.
"I've always been full of energy. I like to talk. The writers in the Southwest Conference voted me their Interview of the Year last year, which was nice. And David Casstevens of The Dallas Morning News even said I was his favorite player in the conference. Those guys know I'll answer all their boring questions, I'll answer the same question over and over again, I'll be a ham. I'm not in it for awards or pro ball or any of that stuff. If they need something different, me and J.R. will provide it. My roommate, J.R. Brown, is a zoology major and a running back on the team. You'll have to meet him. He's the guy who brought in Agnes and all these other animals—huh? Oh, Agnes was our six-foot boa constrictor, I'll get to her.... Anyway, J.R. and I, we'll provide a fresh approach to a lot of things. I mean, if this game isn't fun, then why do it?
"We got killed by Miami, 51-7, a few weeks ago, and I saw double teams, triple teams, misdirection, all this unorthodox stuff teams are doing to keep me out. People wonder why my stats are down after I was named Defensive Newcomer of the Year in the conference in 1984 and The Sporting News picked me this preseason as the best noseguard in the country. [In fact, Cherico has been named to the all-Southwest Conference team each of the last two seasons and was a second-team All-America in 1986.] But, man, other teams are game-planning me. They're letting me fly out and take myself out of the plays now. They're position-blocking me. I'm getting chop blocks. I'm getting picked up by backside linemen, by running backs. I got chopped by a quarterback once on a counter. Day-um!
"I know what they say about nose-guards. The guy with the Browns, Bob Golic, said, 'Being a noseguard is like being a fire hydrant at a dog show.' But I'd get out if it ever became just a job. It's got to stay fun, or why take the steady beating? I'd like to play pro ball, but if I don't I'm not going to get suicidal.
"As a kid I was kind of hyperactive. They wanted to put me on medication in kindergarten, but my dad said, 'No, let him become a drug addict on his own.' I just couldn't sit still, I had to be busy. But I wasn't a bully. In fact, I remember in first grade, I lipped off to some third-graders, and they beat me up. So I was always terrified of third-graders. But the worst time in my life was sixth grade at the Madeleine School in Portland, Oregon. I was getting in trouble—rubber band fights, spit wads, toilet paper fights—and I'd get punished and have to stay in at recess. Three recesses a day. God, how I missed those! I needed recess. I got to high school, and it was total culture shock. What, it's 10 o'clock and no recess? You mean, there's no recess?
"In grammar school there was this nun who looked at me funny and said, 'I'm going to break you.' I'd have to write 'I will not talk' 500 times, so I'd write pages of that stuff before I got in trouble and then hand it in when needed. So then she'd make me copy a dictionary page, and you couldn't prepare for that. But the worst was copying the entire Book of John. Day-um! That was prison. I had hand cramps. Day after day, I'd look out on the playground and almost cry. She broke me. She had me under control. Sort of.
"Then we moved to Kansas City, and I went to Shawnee Mission Northwest High School. My dad's life of crime had a lot to do with our moving around so much. Seriously, he works for the Southern Pacific railroad as a supervisor, and I grew up in five different cities. I have two younger brothers and a younger sister, but none of them are really like me. At this point I was doing pretty good in football, but then another problem popped up. I started noticing girls. Uh-oh. But I was also big into baseball, which was probably the biggest disappointment to my dad. He was a real good basketball player in high school, and he thought I'd be good in basketball, too, the second coming of Larry Bird. It took me two years to learn a layup.
"So I started wrestling, and I loved it. It taught me discipline and helped me with leverage, for football. I only weighed 220, but I was 33-2, I think, as a senior. And then in the state tournament I wrestled a guy who weighed 340. Day-um! His sister was bigger than me. This guy came into the gym in overalls. Then his sister came in in overalls. Then his mom came in, wearing polyester, and that was the first time I saw polyester stretched to the limit. There's a picture of me from that match, and all you can see are my two hands sticking out from underneath the guy, all this blubber spread out on top of me.
"I'm only six feet tall now and maybe 240 pounds, so I have to explode in football and use leverage. The toughest center I ever played was a guy about 5'11", Stan Fields from Tulsa. He took three steps before I even moved. With one hand he broke my face mask and chin strap. Just smashed 'em. I like playing against big, strong slobs. I hate those little quick guys, they're like little dogs yapping at your heels. That's ironic, because that's what they say about me.
"It reminds me of a game as a freshman, against Texas and center Gene Chilton. I'd been sick and was down to about 228. He was 304, and everybody is saying, 'Gene, Gene, the Coke machine!' And all I said was, 'Day'-um!' He put his hands on the ball and I couldn't see it, and I looked past him and I couldn't see the quarterback. Chilton looked like he had four legs. About that time you start asking yourself questions like, 'Why am I here?' But I'm just a big kid. And I make it fun. Like last year against Texas, I'm running down Bret Stafford, the quarterback, and I can see the headlines: 'Nose Gets QB, Glory.' But Billy Ray Todd, their tackle who goes about 280—really nice kid, Billy Ray—he was coming full-tilt from somewhere and he waylaid me. And my jaw was about up to here where my ears are, and I could hear the crowd going, 'Ooooooh,' but somehow I still got up and didn't even come out. Hey, that's just the way it is. There are big guys in this game.
"Like Freddie Childress, our guard. He weighs 350, at least. During spring practice, he tackled one of our corner-backs, John Bland, after an interception. John was faking and juking and jitterbugging and giving the head-and-shoulder business, and old Freddie just went straight ahead. My God, I thought we'd have to peel Johnny off the turf. When I had my moment of glory last year against SMU, when I actually intercepted a ball, I had 80 open yards to the goal line—I could have walked there—but some stupid offensive lineman tripped me after I'd gone about three inches. They have to be stupid. Why else would they play offensive line?
"But they're big and mean, and if you stand up and look around, they'll bowl you over. It's funny, because at nose-guard your first instinct is to stand up and see what the hell is happening. But you can't do that. Just stay low. That's why we practice in the Cage. See that thing down there that looks like a jungle gym with chicken wire on top? You'll beat your head to death on the bars. You can't print what I call the Cage.
"See all the stuff in that corner of the field, that torture chamber—five-man sled, two-man sled, dummies, a 700-pound punching bag? We call that area Wally World, from the movie Vacation, but also because our defensive line coach is Wally Ake. He sent us a photo of himself and the cheerleaders and pom-pom girls standing in front of all the machines, smiling, with the inscription 'Come And Play In Wally World.' It was an invitation to preseason two-a-days. Kind of ruined my summer."
At this point Cherico runs off with the rest of the Arkansas defensive line to Wally World. He reappears later at the training table, still talking, wearing a T-shirt, gym shorts, dress black socks and white bucks. Brown sits down across from Cherico. Small, quiet and sleepy-eyed, Brown methodically pours more and more pepper and then salt into Cherico's gravy bowl. Cherico ignores him.
"We're trendsetters here. We're happening. Hey, sorry about the food. During preseason, Childress and some of the other big guys have to eat at the Too Big A Hog table. Boy, that's no fun. I haven't had that problem. Coach Ake says to me, 'Why can't you get a big neck like a defensive lineman ought to have?' He wants me to be just a head, a walking muscle. I tell him, 'Coach, if I do that, I'll be a bigger target, that's all.' Hey, if you want to find me, the last place to look is in the weight room. They didn't used to lift weights. And that's how I like it now. I mean, I'm lucky even to be playing. If Lou Holtz hadn't left and Ken Hatfield hadn't come in as head coach and moved me from offensive guard to defense, and then a whole bunch of guys in front of me hadn't quit—well, I'd be a too-small, too-slow offensive lineman on the bench.
"Hatfield knew about me because he recruited me when he was the coach at Air Force. [Within minutes after meeting Cherico, who was then a senior in high school, Hatfield turned to an assistant coach and said, "He's a live wire. That boy's not coming to Air Force. "] Anyway, I'm about done here. This gravy is awful. Let's go to our room."
Much has been written in the Arkansas press about Cherico and Brown's old dorm suite. It was where Agnes lived and where so many empty beer cans were found two years ago that Hatfield suspended both players for a week. Of his inspection of the apartment at that time, Hatfield says, "It was not a pigsty. I'm not sure a pig would have lived there."
"What are you laughing at? Huh? Those wires, that's the thermostat. They don't want it off, but with the right tools, you can get it off. Those beer kegs hold up the speakers. The light got broken by something. Boy, Hatfield threw a fit when he came in that time. It wasn't so bad, was it, J.R.? Now we've got a Nerf basketball court. This is the hoop, and those stains on the wall, that's blood, where guys have taken some hard fouls.
"Over there, though, I think that's just a banana that somebody threw. Of course, here's my pride and joy. [Cherico reaches into a pile of trash and pulls out a partially inflated, life-size doll.] This is Tiffany. A girl on the Softball team I coached this summer told me she had a date for me. She said, 'Her name's Tiffany, she's a partier, and she loves guys!' I said, 'O.K.!'
"You know, before I came here I thought there would be nothing but hillbillies in Arkansas. Outhouses and stuff, people talking slow, like straight out of Deliverance. But there are a lot of nice people here. [A grasshopper jumps across the rug. Cherico arranges a bundle of dirty clothes into a pillow and lies down on the floor. Brown appears to be dozing underneath a mound of clothes on Cherico's bed.] That's my pet grasshopper. J.R.'s always bringing home things. Had an Easter bunny once. A tree frog. It had suction cups on its feet and could stick to anything. Rats. Dogs. One day I was in the shower, and J.R. opens the door, hands me a dog and says, 'Wash it.' Who knows where he finds them.
"I remember I had some jerky for one of the dogs. Some of the players wanted some, they thought it was beef jerky from a bar or something. They insisted, so I gave it to them. They ate it. 'Jeez,' they said, 'that wasn't so good.' I think it must have been horsemeat.
"I'm always pulling tricks on my teammates. They did get me back last year, though. They taped me to the goal post, brutally, right over my hair and everything. Then they took pictures of themselves with me.
"Joking around makes the time go by. Agnes was our good friend and pet. When it was cold she'd crawl into one of our beds. You got used to it. J.R. had some rats, and they kind of disappeared. No big deal. Then one night we heard this scratch, scratch, scratch at the water bottle J.R. had taped to the leg of his bed. He turned on the light and there was the mama rat, but it got away. So we went back to sleep, and then there was that scratching again. The rat ran under the dresser, and J.R. stuck his hand in there, and the thing got mad and bit him. So J.R. put on a ski glove and pulled the rat out, and then we moved the dresser and there was a nest made out of all the things that had disappeared from our room—underwear and socks and hats. J.R. was so mad he fed all the rats to Agnes one after the other.
"Hatfield told us we had to get rid of 'that big worm,' or we were out of school, so we sent it back to Kansas City. But really, the only thing we ever did really wrong was the Beer Can Run-In two years ago. And the brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon did that. They put the cans in our room. That's our story, and we're sticking by it.
"I have grown, though. I've mellowed. I was crazy when I first got here. Fireworks. I mean, just the smell of them gets me excited. We had this tiny bathroom in our dorm suite and it was all cement, and one day I was sitting on the John and a firecracker rolls under the door. There's nothing you can do—it goes off and you're deaf. I'd lock J.R. in there and toss in firecrackers. Then bottle rockets. Those were something. But now these new rooms have smoke alarms so you can't do those things.
"I'm getting older and wiser. Last summer I worked at the Charter Vista Hospital, a drug, alcohol and psychiatric care facility, and I learned so much there. I enjoyed helping people. But it was scary seeing these young kids hooked on drugs. I don't believe in steroids, and I've never tried cocaine. The honest reason for that is my biggest fear is that I'd enjoy it, and if I enjoyed it, that'd be all she wrote.
"I just think that in a lot of ways we need to get back to the good old days. When big business comes into college football, that's where it goes down the tube. We need to get back to when it was a game, when it was fun. When I leave I want people to say, he played well because it was fun. Not for TV. Not for money. Not for the Lombardi Award, or any of that junk.
"I've learned a lot from football. Mostly, that you get out of it what you put in. Listen to me. I sound just like a coach. Now isn't that funny?"