Burt Grossman is lying in bed with large wads of toilet paper sticking out of his ears, but the din in the room is so loud that he is awakened over and over again—his head shooting straight off the pillow—only to find the room silent and dark. "It's a good thing for her my girlfriend doesn't snore," Grossman says. "I can't sleep if there's any noise whatsoever. If somebody breathes heavy, I have to put toilet paper in my ears."
But wait. It is Grossman who is waking Grossman! He is talking in his sleep, and not only that, talking so loud that the noise has startled him. Wakened him. The only way to stop these nocturnal outbursts would be to stuff the toilet paper in Grossman's mouth. Which might not be a bad idea. The prospect of a world with Burt Grossman always out there talking, night and day, day and night, is an extremely sobering one to those who know him.
"The thing about Burt," says nosetackle Joe Phillips, who, until he sustained head injuries in a Sept. 25 assault, played next to Grossman on the San Diego Charger defensive line, "is he talks so much that most of the time he doesn't know whether he's lying or telling the truth."
Truth was often stranger than fiction in The World According to Bun, a not-entirely-of-this-planet Sunday column that appeared in The San Diego Union during training camp. People are rarely who they seem to be in the world of Burt, who holds a funhouse mirror up to the planet and sees a population of poseurs and evil twins, a sort of Satyricon meets Semi-Tough. In Burt's column, a 6'6", 270-pound defensive end strode godlike through the NFL, engaging T.J. Simers, the former Union reporter who turned Grossman's rambling dialogue into prose, in the sort of exchanges that Socrates might have had with other philosophers—if Socrates had been the type of person who smeared wintergreen in the other philosophers' jockstraps.
October 14, 1990
Burt on his training camp roommate, All-Pro defensive end Lee Williams: "An amazing player. Old, but amazing. Led the AFC in sacks last year, but who knows it? If Lee had my personality, he'd be big time. He'll do newspaper stuff, but won't do TV interviews—and with that face I expect you know why."
Burt on a disturbance in the middle of the night caused by defensive tackle George Hinkle: "There's screaming and fumbling around in the next room, and it's Hinkle. George is lying spread-eagle on the floor, and then he jumps up and starts dancing, and he's high-living the air and yelling, 'Sack-a-roo, sack-a-roo.' Well, you knew right away he had to be dreaming; it's the only way he could get a sack."
Burt on 320-pound tight end coach Ed White: "The other day Big Ed's in his tight end meeting, and he's all excited and writing plays on the blackboard. He starts from the bottom, and he's going up the board, and he gets to the top, steps back to show his guys what he's done, and the whole bottom has been erased by his gut.... I'd say the guy's no heavier than the Valdez tanker."
Burt on All-Pro linebacker Leslie O'Neal: "He brings a Louis Vuitton briefcase with him to the locker room. Looks good, but there's nothing in it...except maybe his own football cards."
When Burt mentioned in his column that he had named his rottweiler Homer, after Bart Simpson's father, Simers asked why he hadn't named the dog Henning or Gunther, after one of his coaches: "It wasn't a mutt," Burt replied evenly. "It was a purebred."
"It's Burt against the world, and the world against Burt," says Charger coach Dan Henning. "Nobody is safe because he doesn't care how many adversaries he has, and he never really takes a full-time ally. It isn't as if Burt's going to gather a group around himself and become powerful. He wants to stand alone."
The 23-year-old Grossman is not so determined to stand alone against the armies of conformity that he hasn't made room in his life for Homer and girlfriend DèPrise Brescia. Homer is six months old and still adorable, but soon, of course, he will begin to resemble Satan, which is evidently the first thing Grossman looks for in a pet. Burt's last dog was a pit bull that he named Bernie, in honor of New York City subway gunman Bernhard Goetz. DèPrise (who was obviously named in honor of what every Cracker Jack box has one of) models for magazines and lives with Burt. She has adapted to most of his eccentricities, with one notable exception. "I have a hard time with pets that you have to feed other live animals to," she says.
Grossman had actually predicted that his life in California would be filled with dogs and women, he just didn't know they would stay so long. "I'll probably get a dog in San Diego," he said before leaving for the West Coast last summer. "Either a dog or get married. There's less aggravation with a dog. To get rid of a dog, you take it to the ASPCA and it doesn't get half your money."
If breeding counts for anything, Grossman was born to play football and born to shoot off his mouth. He is a cousin of former Pittsburgh Steeler tight end Randy Grossman, and his half sister is noted baseball aficionada Margo Adams. "For my bloodlines, I'm very conservative," he says. He has never spoken to Adams, which stands to reason because Grossman has never actually seen in person the national pastime—baseball, not extramarital sex—and practically the only people in all the world Grossman doesn't talk to are members of his family. "I've never been close to anybody in my family," Grossman says. He never met his grandparents, all of whom are now deceased, and he has not spoken to his mother in 10 years.
Grossman's parents separated when he was in the third grade, while the family lived in Bala Cynwyd, on suburban Philadelphia's fashionable Main Line. "We had no idea my parents were getting a divorce," he recalls. "My sister and I came home from school one day and there were four moving trucks outside the house." His mother, Cathy, had decided to leave his father, Burt Sr., a construction superintendent, and she told her two children they were coming with her. "She took all the money out of the bank, all the furniture out of the house, and then we just disappeared," Burt says. "She never told us we were leaving, or why. Never told our teachers, never told my father. He didn't know where we were for the first year."
Cathy Grossman moved them about 50 miles outside Philadelphia, to Bucks County, got herself a job as a waitress working nights, and for the next few years she saw to it that the trail behind them stayed cold. "It turned into a thing where we were moving every year," Burt says. "She was strange." He says he rarely saw his mother, and that he and his sister, Carole, never had baby-sitters. "When your mom works you have a lot of time to do what you want," he says. "I had a little too much time. I was a troublemaker, always getting into fights, and I had bad grades—straight F's, as a matter of fact.
"When I was in the sixth grade my mother kicked me out of the house. She said, 'You're going to live with your father. I don't want you here.' He came and picked me up one day, and that was the last time I ever saw her."
After moving back to his father's house in Bala Cynwyd, Burt attended public schools until the 10th grade, when he transferred to Archbishop Carroll. "I had my usual all F's, and then it was time for Catholic guidance," he says. "If I hadn't gone to Catholic school, I'd probably be wrestling Ric Flair for the NWA title instead of playing pro football." As a senior in 1984, he was one of the top high school shot-putters in the country, even though he rarely trained for the event, and he was a highly recruited defensive lineman. "By my senior year I had more power than the school principal," he says modestly of his schoolyard stature.
In a typical snap decision, Grossman chose to attend Pitt, where the Panthers were coming off a 3-7-1 season. "I don't want to say the place was corrupt, but they made you a lot of promises when you went there for a visit, and when you got there the place wasn't as great as they said it was," he says. "It's in the middle of a slum, and in the daytime you can tell it's a slum because it's dirty and there are bums around. But at night everything looks a little better, it lights up, all the bars are open, and everybody's partying. So they keep all the kids they're recruiting at the nicest hotel downtown, and they never bring them to campus during the daytime. When nighttime rolls around, that's the only time they get to see Pitt."
While Grossman was at Pitt, he drove a Pontiac Trans Am, a black Camaro IROC, a red IROC and a Porsche. "That was another big mystery when I was in college—why I had a new car every year," says Grossman, who is much more candid when he's talking about other people than about himself. In this case he refuses to explain how he got the cars. His first IROC was blown up, but he insists it was nothing personal. "They have a system in Pittsburgh," he says. "They steal your car, and after they strip off what they want, they blow it up. The thieves get what they want, and you get the full insurance."
Grossman had several addresses at Pitt, and he developed a love of animals that seemed to grow with each stop. "If you live on campus, everything's cockroach-infested and there are rats everywhere," says Grossman, who lived in a dorm as an underclassman. "Pitiful places, you can't even imagine." In any case, Grossman's affection for rodents grew enormously when he moved off campus and bought two baby alligators to go with a pet boa constrictor. "They eat mice, that's the big thrill," he says. "The alligators weren't that big, but one of them got loose one day, so I had to get rid of them." To fill the terrible void in his heart, Grossman brought home a tankful of piranhas. To cheer himself up, he would drop live goldfish into the tank and dream about quarterbacks.
What with football, animal husbandry, and shopping for cars worthy of being blown up, there was hardly time for anything else—including classes. Grossman says he had a 3.85 grade point average in his economics major, "But everything else was C's and D's," he says. "I didn't pay school much mind. We would go play pool or shoot people with BB guns, whatever people at Pitt do. I did just enough to stay eligible. My junior year we went to the Bluebonnet Bowl and I didn't show up for one class during the season. If you look at my transcript, I would get a 0.0 one term, and a 3.5 the next."
At least Grossman was grading out well when he was on the football field. He was a three-year starter at defensive end, collecting 22½ sacks. "He played hurt most of his senior season, but he still was a dominant player," former Pitt coach Mike Gottfried says. "He is such an intelligent football player that he only has to see something once and he's got it."
If Grossman's undergraduate career was something less than an audition for Pitt alumni poster boy, he was never convicted of a felony and came down with only one major communicable disease, mononucleosis. (There was the small matter of a trial on seven counts of aggravated assault—knocked down from 11 charges when he was arrested—following a street rumble near campus his junior year, but he was acquitted of all but one of the charges, and that misdemeanor conviction is currently under appeal.) Grossman lost 25 pounds after contracting mono as a freshman, and he says that it was while he was trying to regain weight that he took steroids for a month. "I was undersized from being sick," he says, "and I read somewhere that taking steroids was just a job hazard of playing football, like a coal miner getting black lung disease. Everybody used steroids then."
Grossman denies taking steroids at any other time, even when he tested positive for steroids at the NFL combine workouts in early February 1989. "I have no idea how I could have tested positive," he says. But in the three months between the combine and the draft there were rumors that he had lost a dramatic amount of weight, a symptom tied to the end of steroid use. Grossman admits to having dropped a few pounds but not to the extent that it had been rumored.
"There was some question about him because of his physical stature," Henning says. "He doesn't look the part of a defensive end with those thin spindly legs." The Chargers flew Grossman to San Diego before the '89 draft, weighed him, and were sufficiently impressed to make him the eighth player drafted. "The day he came for his interview, there were eight or nine people from the front office and coaching staff sitting around," recalls defensive line coach Gunther Cunningham, "and Burt held court. It was one one-liner after another. After he had handled them, we watched film for four or five hours, and the things [knowledge of his position] he was talking about I haven't heard from most coaches' mouths."
Most of what Grossman has said since that day has been unlike anything heard from practically anyone's mouth in the normally buttoned-down NFL. He held the Steelers in such low regard that he threatened to hold out cryogenically if they chose him in the draft. "If the Steelers drafted me I would have gotten myself frozen for 20 years," Grossman says, "and had myself revived at a later time to reenter the draft."
Grossman, who has hired and fired four agents in the past year, held out for almost all of his rookie training camp. Then at his first press conference after signing a four-year contract worth an average of more than $600,000 a year, he said, "I have to check with my accountant to see if it's as much as I made at Pitt. If it is, I'll be happy." He reported to the Charger camp the day of the rookie show, when the draftees are expected to perform for the veterans. Grossman's "talent" was a stripper. "You get 10 rookies singing their alma maters and reciting poems," he says, "and after being in training camp for six weeks, you don't want to hear that crud. One of the guys on the team gave me her number, but I can't tell you which one because he's married. Now everybody brings a stripper in—I think there've been three this year—but I was the first, the original."
Grossman clearly enjoys being an original, pro football's rebel yell, bodaciously going on and on where no man has gone on and on before. "All he does all game long is think of what he's going to say after it's over," says linebacker Gary Plummer. And yet Grossman's teammates are fiercely protective of his lip, and when necessary, his other body parts. "He's like your little brother," Plummer says. "You can beat him up, but you don't want anybody else doing it."
Not that the idea hasn't crossed a few minds. Before the Chargers' game in Pittsburgh last season, Grossman spent the week ridiculing the Steelers, and the newspaper accounts of his blistering remarks were posted on the Steelers' bulletin board. He called Pittsburgh rookie running back Tim Worley, who was picked just ahead of Grossman in the draft, "stupid" and "a loser" for not holding out for a better contract, and for threatening to go to insurance school if the Steelers didn't meet his demands.
"Do you know how long it would take to sell enough policies to get $4 million?" Grossman asked the media. "Insurance school—what a fallback. I'm sure that really put the crunch on the Steelers." For good measure, Grossman said that offensive tackle Tom Ricketts, a former teammate at Pitt, was such a disappointment, the Steelers "may shoot him."
Coaches tend to take a dim view of their players taking verbal shots like that, so it may be taken as a measure of Grossman's value to the Chargers that Henning has never tried to muzzle him, and didn't then. "Burt knew some guys there personally," Henning says, "and he made some statements about them that were tongue-in-cheap. There was a big furor about it, so I got Burt up in front of the whole squad the night before the [Steelers] game and challenged him about it."
Henning said, "Listen Burt, you have opened your mouth and stirred up the opposition and maybe they're going to play a little bit harder because of that." Then it was Grossman's turn, and the rookie faced his teammates. "What the hell did we come here for?" he said. "Aren't we going to go out and take them on no matter what they've got? I'm willing to go out there and back it all up." Grossman said he didn't see anything wrong with adding a little excitement to the game. "You guys are all dead anyway," he said. "Well, now you'd better be ready."
The Chargers lost the game 20-17, but Grossman rushed Steeler quarterback Bubby Brister with a ferocity that was inspiriting to his linemates. "Lee Williams came off the field amazed," says Cunningham. "Lee told me, 'He doesn't just talk stuff in the papers. He's telling them right there on the field what he's going to do, and he's doing it.' " Grossman, who sacked Brister once, had not aroused the opposition so much as himself. "Most of the pressure I get I put on myself," he says, "which works for me because I tend to be lazy and get bored with football." After the game, his friend Ricketts was still furious with him for what he had told reporters during the week, but Grossman never took back a single word of what he had said. "I never apologize," he says, "it's a sign of weakness."
That attitude, of course, will earn Grossman few trips to the Pro Bowl, an honor that is voted by the players. One of the reasons football players wear all that padding is because their skin is so thin. "Everybody realizes there's a little bit of truth in whatever Burt says," Henning maintains. "He gilds it, but a lot of the time Burt hits the nail on the head."
A lot of the time, too, Grossman hits the quarterback on the head. A starter since the opening game of the '89 season, he hit his stride by Week 5 and finished with 10 sacks. "Burt's a very difficult guy to pass protect against," Henning says. "He's one of the quickest guys I've ever seen off the ball."
He also helped strengthen what has become one of the best young defenses in the NFL. San Diego finished sixth in the league in total defense in '89, after having been ranked last as recently as '85. The Chargers allowed only one team to score more than 20 points during their final 14 games, and led the AFC with 48 sacks. Although San Diego lost three of its first four games this season, the Charger defense held the opposition to fewer than 20 points three times, and San Diego's 14 sacks—3½ by Grossman—ranked second in the NFL to the L.A. Raiders' 17. Many of the Chargers feel Grossman's finest moment as a pro came last year when he threw up on himself while chasing Philadelphia's scrambling quarterback, Randall Cunningham, in the Eagle backfield.
The soft center of Grossman's marshmallow macho is apparent when he is around kids the same age he was when his parents split up. When the young daughter of one of the Charger assistant coaches had back surgery last year, Grossman sent her flowers and balloons every day for a week and a half. When he went to a school to speak to a group of third-fourth- and fifth-grade students, he told the little girls he would come back and walk them home from school any time they wanted. Then he told them they could call him at home. "They asked for my phone number; what was I going to do, lie to them?" Burt says. "There were a lot of messages on my answering machine the first two days. Mostly the little girls would call and say things like, 'Don't tell your girlfriend I called,' stupid stuff like that."
Now when they call, Burt just stuffs more toilet paper in his ears, then goes right on talking. Soon, the only sound he can hear is his own voice.