As skilled AS he is at knocking down football players, Bengal offensive tackle Anthony Munoz is just as well known in Cincinnati for helping people get on their feet. Since coming to the NFL in 1980, Munoz has begrudged every inch of ground he has given up to the league's best pass rushers, yet he has given tirelessly of himself to God, family and community.
A 6'6", 285-pound man-mountain, he is considered the best in the business at an either-he-goes-on-his-backside-or-I-go-on-mine job. He is held in equally high regard for his compassion in working with handicapped and underprivileged children and speaking to teenagers on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. This all comes in one package.
"I don't see any contrast between what he does and the way he is," says DeDe Munoz, his wife of 12 years. "Ever watch him? It's an artistic way of playing the offensive line. He makes it look easy."
To appreciate an artist is to admire his work, so Bengal offensive line coach Jim McNally played a game tape recently to illustrate why Munoz, 32, is considered the premier tackle of the last decade. "When Anthony came here," says McNally, who also joined the team in 1980, "most of the defensive ends were 250 pounds. Anthony would get 15 to 20 of what we call 'pancakes' in a game. That's when you drive the guy off his feet, and he winds up on his butt. Now, most of the ends are going 280. So Anthony might get only five or six pancakes a game. But I don't see where he's lost anything.
"Watch, here he's pushing the guy right past the quarterback. Now, watch. See the change of direction The rusher changes and Anthony doesn't fall down. That's tremendous balance.
"Our offense is a run-to-daylight philosophy. The offensive lineman doesn't really blast off; he takes a step and makes a read and then finishes the guy off. See, here they're stunting, and he reads it. He stops the inside guy and still gets a piece of the guy coming from the outside. In this one it looks as if he's beat, and he still kind of cuts the guy at the last second. Anthony always makes the right adjustment."
When Munoz is protecting quarterback Boomer Esiason, it looks as if the right defensive end, often the opposition's best pass rusher, is being pushed into the parking lot. The pass rusher is being killed with the kindness of Munoz, who uses his strength, athleticism (he has caught four touchdown passes on tackle-eligible plays), quick mind and desire to succeed. That's a tough combination to beat.
"He has the best feet of any tackle I've gone against," says Houston Oiler defensive end William Fuller. "Because he has such good hand-foot coordination, you never catch him out of position."
Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith was beating long odds when he blew by Munoz twice in the first six Bengal passing attempts in the 1988 AFC Championship Game. However, what promised to be a magnificent show of man-to-man combat petered out when Smith suffered a leg injury and played at reduced effectiveness for the remainder of the game, which Cincinnati won 21-10.
"I think if that hadn't happened," says Smith of the leg injury, "I would have probably had the best game of my life, and it probably would have been his worst. I felt like nobody could stop me. There are no comparisons between him and other tackles. He's proven it year after year that he's the best."
It might be argued that Munoz is the best ever to play his position. His fellow players have voted him to the Pro Bowl for nine straight seasons, a record for an offensive lineman. Weeb Ewbank, who coached the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets to league championships, calls Munoz "a sure Hall of Famer," but he has to side with one of his own—6'3", 275-pound Jim Parker, who played for Baltimore in 1957-67—as the best to play Munoz's position. "Parker did it with his shoulder," says Ewbank, who lives in the Cincinnati area. "Now [because of rules changes] blockers can put their long arms out and encircle the man they're blocking. It's legalized holding."
Then again, Parker didn't face 280-pounders almost every week. "You don't get the status Anthony Munoz has gotten just by having the muscle build or physique," says Smith. "I've watched more film on him in one week than I've watched TV in a year, and what's amazing is that he does everything right. It seems like [his physical skills] would go away at this stage of his career, but they haven't yet."
Some NFL talent evaluators will allow that Munoz, who has had shoulder surgery twice in the last three off-seasons, has slipped, if only slightly. That may mean that Munoz's blocks are less visually stimulating, but just as effective. "What really matters," Munoz says, "is that the block is successful and the play works."
Even those who believe his skills have begun to erode concede that the most mentioned heirs apparent to Munoz's throne are not yet in his class. "Some people think [Atlanta Falcon] Chris Hinton [compares], but I don't know that Chris is anywhere near as consistent as Anthony is," says Tom Donahoe, the Pittsburgh Steeler director of pro personnel. "[Washington Redskin] Jim Lachey could be, but I don't think he's there yet."
Esiason may be biased, but he unabashedly stands up for the guy who keeps him standing. "If I were as good at my position as Anthony is at his," Esiason says, "then I'd be 10 times better than Joe Montana."
The flood of praise does not swell Munoz's head. He pursues excellence, not status. "I'm not always as confident as people believe me to be," Munoz says. "So this is all pretty amazing, especially since I had no desire to play pro football until late in my college career [at Southern Cal]. Here's a guy who plays one full game his senior year and still goes [third] in the draft, and then has an outstanding career, according to all these different people. Why would an offensive lineman get all this attention? I don't know why, but I'm fortunate. I use it as a motivator."
He runs two to three miles a day during the off-season, but he lifts weights only three times a week. "Anthony's commitment is to be the best at his position, not a bench-press goon," says Kim Wood, the Bengals' strength coach. "A lot of kids have had exposure to steroids in college and come to pro football believing you have to take them to be able to compete. But Anthony Munoz has been the best offensive lineman in football for a decade without ever taking a steroid."
Dropping down into a three-point stance opposite Munoz can be an inspirational lesson in humility. Smith can remember hearing Munoz say only two words in the heat of battle. "I think it was after he stuck his hand in my face mask," Smith says. "He said, 'I'm sorry.' "
Teammates, who watch their language in Munoz's company but never feel uncomfortable around him, say that when things get dirty in the pits, Munoz doesn't get angry. He gets better. "There is the drive to be great," says Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche, "and then there is a desire like Anthony's to be superlative. You won't know if you can get there, but you want to see how close you can come."
Munoz has come close—both on and off the field. The rules of pro football may have changed, but the standards by which Munoz lives his life are unaltered. "If pro sports could point to one guy who would be the ideal to look up to, Anthony would be it," says Wyche. "All of us try to set examples until something goes wrong, and then we reveal our true selves. Anthony's real self is the one the rest of us try to be."
"Anthony's only negative," says McNally, "is that he has no negatives."
Munoz's mother, Esther, has two artificial knees, but she gets around well in the house her son bought her with the money from his first pro contract. She is in pain from rheumatoid arthritis, from a fusion recently performed on her ankle and from memories of her family's past. "Anthony was very young when his father left," Esther says. Her face clouds over and she shakes her head, preferring not to go into details.
Munoz's father continued to live not far from the yellow stucco house on D Street in Ontario, Calif., where Esther kept her three sons and two daughters fed, clothed and motivated. Munoz says that his father attempted to contact him only twice, when Anthony was five and 12. They never got together, and Munoz's mother says Anthony's father has since died.
"I probably have thought about him more in the last few years since I had children of my own," says Munoz. "See, I never had a father, so I never knew what I was missing. As I look back, I don't even know if I was poor. We were provided for, but we didn't have any extras. We didn't have a car, but we had relatives who drove. I got everywhere I wanted to go. I had an aunt and uncle who took me under their wing. They'd take me out to dinner."
"Anthony downplays it," says DeDe, "but there was a lot of pain there, a lot of hard times. I really admire Anthony's mother. Somehow she made it all work."
Esther worked packing eggs into cartons at a nearby farm. On weekends, when a new batch of chicks had to be vaccinated, Anthony and one of his brothers, Tom, could find work shooing them from coop to coop. Otherwise, Esther never begrudged Anthony any of the mornings, afternoons or evenings he spent on baseball fields all over town.
By the time he was five, Anthony looked nine, so he never had any trouble getting into a game. "He was on so many teams that when they had to play each other, they would fight over him," says Jim Semon, the director of the summer recreation program in Ontario and later Munoz's surrogate father and baseball coach at Chaffey High.
For years, baseball remained Munoz's first love, even after it was pointed out to him that he was too big not to play football. "The transition to having a [physical-contact] mentality was difficult," he says. Munoz signed with Southern Cal with an agreement that he could skip spring football practice to play for the Trojans' baseball team, but the need to rehabilitate knee injuries that he incurred playing football kept him from playing baseball except in his sophomore year.
When the helmet of a Texas Tech player struck Munoz's left knee in the opening game of his senior season, he required major reconstructive surgery. His coaches and teammates thought that if he didn't petition the Pac-10 for another year of eligibility, his college career was over. "I'm going to play again this year," Munoz announced one day within earshot of John Robinson, USC's coach at the time. Robinson laughed and said, "Sure, we'll use you at wide receiver."
Robinson didn't mean to be cruel, but Munoz went home and cried. "You don't ever tell Anthony he can't do something," says DeDe. Desperate to fulfill every Trojan's dream—participating in at least one Rose Bowl—Munoz made it back for the game. He threw the key block that sprung tailback Charles White for the winning touchdown against Ohio State.
At the game were Paul Brown, founder and general manager of the Bengals, and his sons, Mike, the assistant general manager, and Pete, the player personnel director, who were facing a difficult decision: Whatever Munoz's potential, could they risk using a first-round draft pick on a player with a questionable knee? Munoz spent the day blowing away Buckeyes and the Brown family's fears. "The three of us sat there and laughed out loud," says Mike. "The guy was so big and so good it was a joke."
Munoz, who has missed only one start as a pro—because of a contract holdout in '87—has not had a serious knee injury since. Like the Brown family, Cincinnati fans were at first skeptical of Munoz. When the Bengals failed to meet the contract demands of Mike Trope, Munoz's first agent, a local newspaper columnist suggested that Trope and the "Big Burrito" he represented could stay home.
Ten years later, Munoz and his family are very much at home in Cincinnati. Anthony, DeDe and their children, Michael, 9, and Michelle, 7, live in a Tudor-style house on a one-acre lot in suburban Ellen-wood. Munoz gives 30 to 40 talks a year on drug and alcohol abuse as a representative of Teen Challenge and Athletes in Action. He also makes appearances on behalf of the United Appeal, organizes and speaks at events that benefit Cystic Fibrosis, and fulfills other civic and charitable requests. Anthony and DeDe, who first laid eyes on each other back in Ontario in 1974 when Anthony robbed her of several base hits in a pickup softball game, decided in 1982 to settle year-round in Cincinnati because they felt the city had a sense of community that was missing in Southern California. Anthony and DeDe were part of a group who founded the Hope Evangelical Free Church in Mason, Ohio.
DeDe struggled for years with agoraphobia, suffering panic attacks from a fear of places and situations in which she might feel trapped. Anthony took the position that while he could not understand his wife's affliction, he could support her. "He was just so accepting of it that he helped me accept myself again," says DeDe. With treatment, she has largely overcome agoraphobia, although she still won't go downtown alone. "God's sense of humor is making me get on an airplane every year to go to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl," she says.
God figures to have a few more laughs coming. Munoz recently signed a new three-year contract believed to be worth about $1 million annually. His shoulders feel better than they have in years, and he retains the healthy fear of slipping a notch that drives superior men to superior deeds. When you come so far in life, it must be hard to stop. "I don't think Anthony thinks of himself as Superman," says Wyche.
Only everybody else does.